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Is your sales kickoff plan outdated?

5 min readDecember 12, 2018

It seems like there are a million blog posts and sales gurus promoting their version of the best sales kickoff meeting. The one theme they are lacking? Suggestions that sales managers should have empathy and care for their sales team.

Of course everyone thinks they know what makes a good sales kickoff, because everyone has been to 10 or 20 or 30 and seen all kinds of events. It is natural to prescribe best practices from these experiences. Do these blanket prescriptions work for everyone, every industry, and every area?

The reality is, every sales team and every team culture is different. Each group has its own nuances that make blanket prescriptions less useful than they claim. Modern sales kickoff meetings are taking this into consideration during the planning phase.

If it isn’t obvious yet, it is OK to ignore the gurus on this, because the number one source you should trust is your team.

Think about the goal of the kickoff meeting. You want to motivate the team, help them get a head start on revenue, and feel involved. You want them to come away better at selling than they were when they arrived. It makes sense to build the structure around what motivates the team – this is what the top sales teams are doing now.

The modern sales kickoff is 100% focused on what the team needs. Not what the popular guru has to say, or the trendy startup across the street is doing. What does your team need? You’ll have to ask them directly, but odds are they don’t want more product training or business roadmaps.

They want skill improvement. They want to use this time to get better at their jobs.

Research by Vorsight found that the top two goals salespeople have for a kickoff meeting: sales skills for closing, and sales skills for prospecting. Company vision, learning internal systems, and partying ranked dead last.

Skills improvement is indirectly tied to greater revenue. Another word for skills improvement is sales coaching, and a recent study found that “firms that provide the optimal coaching to salespeople realize rates of annual revenue growth 16.7% greater than firms that do not provide any coaching to their salespeople.”

If you are planning your sales kickoff for next year, it is time to give your team what you need and what they need. Even if your kickoff meeting is already focusing on skill improvement, it never hurts to brush up on a few universal principles.

Good sales kickoff meetings are not boring

Who hasn’t nodded off during a presentation by a VP from a different region, focused on irrelevant customers or a region-specific business plan? Years in review, high level presentations about business initiatives, and other topics are just not relevant to the day-to-day lives of your team, and quickly bore them. These are just distractions from the real value of skill improvement. If these types of content must be part of your schedule, make sure they are no more than 10% of the total time.

A good kickoff is not boring, and does not waste the team’s time. Make sure that the skill improvement happens in the context of training delivered by dynamic speakers, engaging group discussions, and interactive activities like role-plays or customer appreciation workshops.

Strong Kickoff Strategies Have Long-Term Effects

There are several reasons that the value of the average sales event doesn’t last beyond the month they take place. Without a strategy and ongoing coaching to make the lessons learned in a sales kickoff stick year-round, the hype they generate will wane. If the sales kickoff is too long and too information-packed, attendees will quickly reach their limit and the information overload will just be too much to influence any real behavior change.

Easy tips to abide by:

  1. Too many topics will make skill improvement difficult to absorb
  2. No central theme, or “why” makes the lessons harder to remember
  3. No interaction, pure lecture-style meetings are less likely to have meaningful outcomes

If the strategy is lacking in any of these areas and the event is just put together without much real thought, the long-term effects will be minimal.

The Best Event Planning Is Not Distracted By the Superfluous

Planning a sales kickoff is like planning a wedding – it is so easy for the frills of the event to distract from the real reason everyone is there in the first place. Although that’s just my personal opinion about weddings, the truth is that spending more money, time, and focus, on things like the location, the food, or the partying is a distraction from the real reason you are having the meeting.

Richard Harris is very clear about this in several posts – a sales kickoff should have clear, defined goals of what behaviors the team needs to change, and everything should revolve around those. That does not mean to ditch the evening dinner or teambuilder altogether, but it does mean to make sure it is an intentional exercise that fits in your productive theme.

The Most Effective Approaches Consider What Motivates People

I said earlier that sales kickoff meetings need to be engaging, but that doesn’t mean they all need to be fun. The truth is, the path to becoming better at something is hard. It is painful. And the sales kickoff needs to incorporate a level of difficulty to ensure that the team learns from it and is motivated to keep using what they have learned throughout the year.

Daniel H. Pink’s popular book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us describes motivation principles well: “The path to mastery – becoming ever better at something you care about – is not lined with daisies and spanned by a rainbow. If it were, more of us would make the trip. Mastery hurts. Sometimes, many times, it’s not much fun.”

The truth about modern sales kickoffs is that they stretch participants, and focus on team transformation. They minimize new product announcements or marketing reviews or numbers forecasts, and target skills development.

Define the behaviors you want to change, and start the change

If you are a sales manager, you hopefully have a sense of what your team needs to get better at. Are they making their call numbers? Are they losing deals late in the sales process? Are they struggling to generate new opportunities? When you are plan your 2019 sales kickoff, find your most glaring challenge and tackle it head-on. Tackling it doesn’t mean just mentioning it in your event overview, or even scheduling a 1-hour lecture to tell the team about your expectations. Make it the theme of the entire event. Schedule some training on the topic. Set up role plays to internalize the learnings. Take time to think through intentional activities your team can do together to develop their skills. Don’t overwhelm your team, give them the substance they need to be better next year.

It’s not enough to present what needs to be accomplished next year financially. It is key to share with your team what the concrete steps a team will take to get to those financial accomplishments, and involve them in the process.