Sales Kickoff 2016Welcome to the season when executives are busy with their global sales kick-off meetings. Certain consultants emphasize the importance of the theme in determining the content, messaging, scheduling and ultimate outcomes of that sales event, as measured by ROI. I’ve come to believe that these “themes” are just the wrapping, not the gift inside.

In over two decades of enterprise selling, sales management, and leadership, I’ve sat in my fair share of these meetings, but I can’t recall the theme of any of them. Worrying too much about the theme is equivalent to agonizing over whether to wrap the gift with a gold ribbon or a red one: you are missing the point. After they open up that gift, the ribbon is forgotten. What is remembered is how you made them feel with what’s inside. Very few are going to look back and say, “Do you remember how fantastic last year’s theme was!” Content deserves your intense focus—not the theme.

What matters most is the real return on objectives for that meeting. We spend a great deal of money putting on a multi-day extravaganza, and then we confuse the sizzle with the steak. It is time to spend more effort and resources on creating return on impact from the content and context of sales meetings.

Light fires that change behavior

Too many sales leaders are in the “Rah-rah” business. Motivate them, inspire them, light a fire under them—that will last all of 20 minutes. Most of the audience won’t be able to tell you what the message was about next week, much less next year. To light a fire WITHIN your team, and really help them think (which I believe is an under-appreciated asset in any company), feel, and most importantly, do things differently, the impact you are after is going to come from a change in their behavior.

What if we spent more time at these sales kick-off meetings listening instead of talking? What if instead of bringing all 3,000 people together at some swanky place, we created smaller opportunities for the corporate leadership to listen to the sales force? And more importantly, put our heads together cross-functionally to work on potential solutions? Your people at the edge of where business happens not only know the real problems, but typically have some ideas on how to most impactfully address them.

Use listening to drive customer-centricity

What if we used these sales kick-off meetings to restructure the organization to become much more customer-centric, more aligned with how they buy and less with how we sell? What if we used the event to shift our lens from our internal structure of accounts, to customer segments identified by their needs from us, at each stage of their buying journey? What if our focus was truly on how to deliver that which they need today, and to become dramatically better at anticipating what they will need tomorrow?

Instead of putting on that stage our talking heads selected by their titles, what if we invited a panel of intelligent and engaging (read: tough and smart!) customers, and listened to them talk about the evolution of their respective organization and where (if any) we may fit? “Here’s what you do well, here’s where you fail miserably. Here’s why we’re going to your biggest competitors.” We could fundamentally improve our customer relationships, if we could simply shift our focus to listening louder. Sales meetings are an ideal venue to drive this kind company-wide culture shift.

The sales meeting is the gift that keeps on giving

We call them “kick-off meetings,” but we rarely give what happens afterward the same attention. You want meeting ROI? Tie the behaviors that you model at the event into the impact the event creates six, nine, twelve months later. Few executives who have the responsibility and accountability for these events see them in the context of ongoing behavior change.

I recommend creating formal or informal mentoring programs at these kick-off meetings. Make listening the key activity. Tell stories that make best practices tangible from every perspective. Encourage your best salespeople to talk about what they did and how they did it. Bring in customers and channel partners to talk about what it is they bought, not what we sold. Bring in product development to talk about the innovation roadmap based on what customers have demonstrated they need. Eavesdrop on a conversation in which a customer gives feedback to the head of engineering.

With all due respect to meeting planners and my many clients who put on meetings, too many are worrying about the temperature in the room and too few about the actionable takeaways by the audience. You must put yourself in the shoes of the consumer of this information, because this conference is really for them.

If you want to plan a sales kick-off meeting that dramatically affects outcomes in 2016, by all means, pick a theme you find meaningful and motivating. But please, make your true focus behavior change—the gift inside, not the wrapping.

Nour Takeaways

  1. To generate return on investment, sales kick-off meetings must create true behavior change, not just temporary motivation.
  1. A theme of listening louder to customers can make your next sales meeting the start of a company-wide cultural transformation.
  1. Create follow-up activities, such as mentoring programs that reinforce listening to customers.
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