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by Deanna Ting | December 01, 2012
It’s called “death by PowerPoint” for a reason and, for anyone who has ever attended a sales meeting, it is not an uncommon prognosis. “After being a salesperson for a number of years and having to sit through so many awful PowerPoint presentations, I was determined not to have that at my own sales meetings,” says Doug Landis, vice president of sales productivity for Box, a Los Altos, CA-based online content sharing company.

Landis is not alone in his disdain: “When I worked in the corporate world, we’d have sales meetings that started at 8 a.m. and ended at 8 p.m. for three days straight, and it was just an endless series of presentations that covered the same information,” says Kelley Robertson, president of Ontario, Canada-based Robertson Training Group. “The meetings were long, dry, and boring. In many cases, all of that information was stuff that could have just been emailed beforehand.”

Susan Radojevic, president of Toronto-based The Peregrine Agency, agrees that poorly executed sales and marketing meetings contribute nothing to a company’s success. “Most salespeople take notes during a meeting, but then they go back to the office and they forget about it. They don’t have a better understanding of what their role is, what the purpose of the meeting was, and how it fits into the overall company business strategy,” she says. “That meeting is not really creating any value.”

According to Radojevic, organizations need to stop using traditional tactics because they don’t work. “Sales meetings and business events are ideal ways to help us come up with business solutions because they involve people getting together to interact and exchange ideas, and out of that interactivity, you get new ideas and innovations that companies can build on,” she says.

For many businesses today, the traditional sales meeting with attendees sitting classroom-style, passively watching presentations, is no longer the most effective way to achieve sales goals. What should replace it? Successful Meetings spoke to a number of meeting, marketing, and sales experts to find out how to make sales meetings more engaging, interactive, and valuable.

Let Salespeople Shape the Content
Before the meeting even begins, establishing engagement among the attendees is crucial to the overall success of the event. Collecting data from the attendees before, during, and after 
the meeting, and applying that information appropriately goes a long way toward making a sales meeting more productive.

Ryan Hanson, certified special events professional and creative producer for Minneapolis-based BeEvents, planned a recent Boston Scientific sales meeting where he worked directly with the attendees to shape the content of the meeting. “We had an internal steering committee that acted as the sounding board, and had a buy-in into the events — what people did, saw, ate, and what content was being talked about,” Hanson says. “By engaging a broader swath of people from Boston Scientific’s attendee base instead of just the executives, we had a more collaborative planning process.” 

Hanson says that by working with multiple stakeholders, you begin to understand the reasons for having that meeting in the first place, and can be much more strategic about how you execute your event. For some sales meetings, Hanson even goes so far as to poll attendees on the location, event theme, and signature cocktail of the meeting by using social media. “Think about the invites as more than just invites. Share content, preview what will happen, get people talking and get people to contribute,” he says. 

Fay Beauchine, president of business loyalty in the U.S. for loyalty management firm, Aimia, incorporated a similar approach for her recent sales meeting. In late September, she held the first joint meeting involving the sales teams both from Aimia and recently acquired Excellence in Motivation at The Resort at Pelican Hill in Newport Coast, CA. Tasked with the challenge of bringing both staffs together for the first time and encouraging them to begin working together as a single team, Beauchine’s first steps included reaching out to attendees from the beginning with e-blasts, inquiries, and detailed surveys. 

“We involved many attendees in the construction of the program, asking them for ideas about what they wanted to learn and what was on the top of their minds,” Beauchine says. “We also asked for questions that they had for me as the chief leader of the new group. I really wanted to get the voice-of-the-attendee data in my hand.”

In Beauchine’s case, that data included asking the salespeople what information they need and what they wanted to accomplish. “If you hit on the objectives that matter most to them, you have a better chance of them retaining and using whatever you present to them,” she notes. 

With sales teams, Beauchine says, you have to be able to offer up valuable insights and solutions. “You want a transfer of knowledge and skills to a group of very high-powered people who themselves solve a lot of problems for their clients. To do that, you have to be willing to listen to them and find ways to provide solutions for them in turn.”

Hanson says it’s not enough to focus on gathering data before the event. “Pre-engagement gets people excited because they have a say in what happens,” Hanson notes. “But a good meeting organizer recognizes that engagement needs to be pre-, during, and post-event, too. Events that truly change someone’s behavior, or the way that they do business, start before the meeting ever happens and keep going well after it ends.”

Provide Context for Content
Interpreting the data gathered from attendees and using it to shape the content of a sales meeting is not enough. That content has to be delivered in an appropriate setting and learning environment tailored directly to the needs of the host organization. The most successful sales meetings manage to combine those objectives with the organization’s overall business goals.

“So you have all this data,” explains Radojevic, “but you have to take a closer look at it. You have to say, ‘Let’s see what we can take away from this to help us move the business strategy forward.’”

One way to do that is to find ways to incorporate the company culture and history into a meeting. David Sibbet, president and founder of The Grove Consultants International in San Francisco, recalls a tech company’s sales meeting that engaged its attendees by applying the company’s history to its brainstorming sessions. “We did a living history of the organization, chronicling when people joined the company and what it was like then,” he explains. “People get really pumped by being part of an organization, especially salespeople who often work on the road on their own.” 

The most important aspect of this “living history” is the storytelling, says Sibbet. “Because you hear different stories from different eras, you get the idea that things change — that nothing is ever static — it’s always dynamic.” At some sales meetings, he says, he’s had organizers lay out a 40-foot sheet of paper and the attendees added sticky notes on the spot when they joined the organization, thereby creating a giant, visual timeline of the company’s changing dynamics. “It’s a great interactive add-on,” he says.

At a May sales meeting for footwear brand UGG Australia at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, planners transformed the historic beachfront hotel to reflect the company’s 2013 sales campaign. “The hotel actually became a part of the national sales campaign,” explains Cheryl Ferguson, director of sales for the hotel. “They did a photo shoot of the fall line at the hotel and then, when they brought their whole sales team out here in May, they put it all together.” Meeting spaces were converted into “stores” where attendees could view different products, and the theme for the 2013 sales campaign — the Moroccan desert — inspired the décor for the final night’s dinner party. 

Just as crucial as the meeting atmosphere is the attendee mix. Inviting customers and clients to attend a sales meeting is “very powerful,” says Sibbet. “Some of the most successful sales meetings take place when important customers actually come in and talk directly to the sales force about their perceptions of the company and what they would like to see from them. Boy, do people pay attention to that.” 

Clients were invited to be a part of the annual sales meeting for Pleasanton, CA-based gift card company Blackhawk Network, also held at the Hotel del Coronado. To encourage salespeople to engage with their clients, Blackhawk designed special lounge areas on the lawn and arranged sofas in seating groups to foster interaction, says Ferguson. 

Sibbet suggests having a panel of three customers come in to talk with salespeople, and then augmenting their conversation by graphically recording their comments and later providing notes from their conversation to the entire sales force. “That dialogue is so crucial to improving sales,” he says. 

At its sales kickoff meeting in July, Box invited a number of its customers to share their stories directly with the sales force. “Hearing from them why they chose Box, and what they like about it, and what they want to see going forward was great,” says Landis. “It really gave insight to our salespeople.”

Embrace Gamification
Games are essential to injecting engagement and interaction into a sales meeting, but not just any kind of game. As gamification techniques become increasingly sophisticated, they have created a work environment of 24/7, real-time engagement that extends far beyond a single sales meeting.

“In gamification, we take techniques and mechanics that we’ve been using for years — long before computers even existed — to help drive behavior,” explains Jim Cumella, vice president of worldwide sales for Bunchball, a Silicon Valley-headquartered gamification expert. 

“What we’ve helped companies do is to gamify their sales kick-off or marketing meetings by collecting data acquired from our gamification software even before the meeting begins,” Cumella says. Information such as being able to identify top sellers in particular categories, or top rookies, demonstrates who’s at the top and who’s not by utilizing live, constantly updated leaderboards at the meeting site. Seeing those rankings, says Cumella, feeds into salespeople’s natural affinities for tenacity and competition. “What really drives people’s behavior is wanting to see your name or your team’s name at the top of any given list,” he says. 

Turning information delivery at a sales meeting into a contest can also motivate attendees to engage with the crucial sales content at hand. “Make a contest out of testing people on what was just presented and display the results and show how people rank,” Cumella suggests. “It’s amazing how the behavior pattern changes, even if it’s a nominal amount with regard to prize value.” 

Box used a mobile app from Bunchball at its recent July sales kick-off meeting to encourage engagement and content retention among its salespeople. By using the mobile app, attendees received points for checking into certain sessions and for correctly answering questions related to sessions and general company or industry trivia. “Together with Bunchball, we built a game app that would drive interactivity through content and would also drive networking,” explains Landis. “There was a quiz piece of the app that associated points with correct answers, and we put everyone on teams to encourage collaboration. There was also a networking aspect that had people learning more about different individuals. You had to find people who had a shared ‘fun fact’ and talk to them to get points.”

Landis says that the game app was a huge hit with his attendees, in large part because it fit within Box’s overall company culture and also tapped into his sales team’s competitive nature. “I wanted to apply innovative technology to our meeting that also matches our company’s culture but would also drive that level of engagement,” he adds.

Team challenges before the meeting are equally motivating. Becky Pluth, vice president of training and development for The Bob Pike Group in Eden Prairie, MN, has had a pharmaceutical client use gamification to encourage participation. “All of the pre-event salespeople had iPads so we used their internal apps for the iPad to send out little nuggets of information to them through those apps,” she explains. “We also told them how they’d be working in teams at the meeting using these apps.” The use of the apps built up anticipation among the employees. Attendees and their team members who engaged with the apps, and answered questions correctly, were announced as winners at the general session.  

Visualize Success
At her September sales meeting, Beauchine used a construction game to symbolize a shared vision of what the new Aimia would look like. “We gave everyone company-branded building blocks, and we had them build a concept of what they wanted the two organizations [Aimia and Excellence in Motivation] to look like together,” she explains. The results, she says, were “pretty interesting.” “One team built this crazy, contiguous-eight circle, or infinity symbol, that showed the joining of the two groups all connected. Another built a very beautiful tower of strength, showing how we were now a bigger and better organization in the market.”

Visual representations, whether made of building blocks or simply pen and paper, make powerful learning tools. Sibbet is a firm believer that visual meetings — those that incorporate visual communication tools, interactive media, and idea mapping — have the ability to get groups engaged, and more likely to think “big picture,” and increase group memory and follow through.

One example Sibbet cites is a sales meeting that Volvo held with the objective of training its salespeople to sell a new model. Instead of having presentations about the new car, they created a poster, or “learning map,” that was a picture of the car but looked like a drawing that you would receive in a car model-making kit. “It didn’t look like the car, but you could see every single component of that car, and none of those parts were labeled,” Sibbet explains. Salespeople were split up into teams and challenged to match labels to their corresponding parts. “By the end of this learning process, they knew the car inside and out.”

Visualization also goes a long way in branding a meeting, and cementing the tenets of your sales meeting and the overall company strategy. At Hyatt Hotels and Resorts’ annual sales meeting for 2012, called iLead, held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, the meeting planning staff relied heavily on visuals to play up the meeting’s theme of extreme leadership. “All of the announcements for the meeting were tied together with this theme, and there were real-life examples profiled, like Jackie Robinson, Jim Henson, and even Yoda,” says Steve Enselein, Hyatt’s vice president of catering and convention services. Prior to the meeting, Enselein and his planning team filmed videos that showed employees and executive leadership in extreme situations — from camping out in the middle of Joshua Tree to ice climbing — to visually demonstrate how extreme leadership shows itself in many different ways.

Teach by Doing
Real learning, many experts argue, takes place through practice, not through lectures. “Asking questions of a large group and calling that interaction is sure to fail,” says Pluth. Instead, she adds, successful training models have the participants “doing the work.” 

In a similar manner, Hanson of BeEvents recommends applying a model of learning in which “the homework is the lecture and the classroom time is spent working on the homework together as a group.” He asks, “Why not put the presentations together beforehand and let people talk about the content at the meeting and digest it together?” 

For the January 2013 sales kick-off at Box, Landis is planning to implement this education approach. “We want to constantly be able to test the attendees on the content before, during and after the event,” he says. “We want to see if there’s any change in their understanding and comprehension of that content over time.” 

Robertson of Robertson Training Group believes learning comes from being forced out of one’s comfort zone. “Get people from sales to present information as well. It gives them the opportunity to develop a new skill, and do something they don’t normally do.”

Sibbet cites a meeting example from Hewlett-Packard that took that concept to heart using a “knowledge scavenger hunt.” He explains: “They had sales teams go out and find other companies that demonstrated a series of principles — like having an excellent sales force or great customer service — and had them interview these companies and then report on their interviews at the meeting.” 
This kind of work, he says, can be enlightening. “It provides an envelope for people to change their minds and disrupts old patterns of thinking,” Sibbet says. “People remember experiences like that.” 

At another Hewlett-Packard meeting, Sibbet says, the company “put its new business plan on trial” as part of an overall strategy meeting. Employees were interviewed as part of the trial evidence, some even became members of the jury, and actors were hired to play the parts of lawyers and judges as company executives testified on the strengths of the new plan. “By the end of this mock courtroom exercise,” Sibbet says, “everyone knew the plan inside and out.”

He adds, “people remember most what they say in the meetings. The more you can develop activities that require people to wrestle with the material and engage with it, and with other people, the more they embody what they’re being taught, and the more it will stick.”  

Robin Farrell, director of corporate sales training for Hyatt, endorses the use of competitive simulations for her regional sales training meetings, which follow her “Learn-Do-Master” learning platform. “We want our sales force to be more dependent on themselves,” she says. “We do a lot of competitive simulations on steroids where sales people compete against each other to win pieces of business, and receive feedback from Hyatt experts in the process. By giving them the ability to process and receive immediate feedback, it’s helped our company improve our performance behavior and sales techniques.”

Develop a Post-Meeting Action Plan
Learning does not stop once the meeting ends, which is why having a detailed post-meeting action plan is crucial to making sure a sales meeting is a true success. Even though the meeting itself went off without a hitch, that means nothing if employees don’t retain what they’ve learned, or don’t make an effort to follow through on their action steps. 

For Robertson, that action plan involves having participants reflect on the ways in which they’ll change after a meeting. “I have people create an action plan of what they will do differently based on the information that they got from the program,” he explains. Long after the meeting is over, he also appoints a “champion to keep people on track afterward.”

Similarly, Pluth makes every effort to make sure employees gain from the meeting experience. She has attendees create S.M.A.R.T. (specific and detailed; measureable; attainable; relevant to the success of their roles; time-bound) goals for themselves and have them manage these goals on their work calendars. “You create these milestones and put them into Outlook and they remind you to obtain your goals,” she explains. Like Robertson, she also has fellow attendees keep one another accountable for keeping to their meeting objectives. 

Likewise, just as you collect data from attendees before your meeting, it’s crucial to get their feedback post-event, and to use this information to your advantage in crafting the next meeting, and your company’s next steps for improving sales. 

“To understand the level of engagement of your sales force, you have to ask them how committed they feel to the company, if they feel like they have a mastery of it and what they need to do to succeed or whether they have the resources to do that,” says Beauchine. “Companies have to be brave to ask those questions of their sales teams.”

Communication, says Hanson, is key. “We can drop the ball sometimes, and forget that people have shared something with us,” he explains. “You should have a pretty strong communication plan ready and be able to report on what’s happened and what hasn’t happened with regard to solutions.” 

At Box, Landis holds bimonthly calls with his entire sales force where they discuss content from sales meetings. He also makes sure that all of the training sessions from his sales meetings are recorded and then broken down into smaller videos so salespeople can watch them easily long after the meeting is over.

Above all, says Christine McKee, a registered psychologist and director of BE Institute, a psychology consulting and training organization based in Brisbane, Australia, the key to a successful sales meeting is showing a vested interest in your salespeople, and what they do, will really get the message across. “Show that you’re interested in what they think and how they feel — it truly makes a world of difference.”