It’s that time of year…Sales kickoff (SKO) season. All over the country, in premier resort cities, companies are sinking mind-boggling quantities of time and expense to gather their sales forces – hoping to wind them up like clockwork toys, ready to explode on their new sales year.

The problem? Most SKO’s suck, and many times they create the polar opposite effect to that which is desired. All too often the sales force, especially the stronger sales people, HATE them. All too often, instead of leaving the SKO highly motivated, serious numbers of sales people leave these meetings deeply cynical and negative about their company and leadership.

The reason I know this is that these are the weeks when my Inbox is literally inundated with cries for help from field sales friends…who by day 2 of the SKO are gnawing their own limbs off to escape these terrible meetings. Interestingly, however viscerally this feedback flows through back channels, this true feedback rarely makes it to the organizers.

What on earth is the problem and how do you solve it? Well, a deep treatment of the subject is more than a blog post can handle, so let me boil it down to three big problems and tell you how to solve them. It’s too late to fix it this year. But please, please, please make a promise to fix them next year. You will thank me for it.

1) Sales people are adults. Stop treating them like children.

Sales people are serious professionals. They work hard and are unique in tying their entire livelihood directly to their performance. Yet for some reason we insist on making SKO’s clownishly unprofessional. I can’t even list what I’ve seen and heard about this year, but silly costumes, TV show parodies, on-stage tug-of-war matches, and blindfold races seem to be the norm… Perhaps it’s just historical precedent that they go this way, but why do we think that sales people want meetings that work like this? Do you think that a conference of finance professionals would have this childishness?

I may be out on a limb here, but I think sales people want SUBSTANCE. If you want to have some fun in a few places, that’s fine. But please don’t turn this meeting into a charade.

2) Just because everyone WANTS their moment on stage doesn’t mean they GET a moment on stage.

Let’s face it: the sales force is a REALLY important crowd. And the prospect of addressing them, and garnering their support for a new initiative is too juicy an opportunity for executives to resist…and the agenda just grows and grows and grows.

Unfortunately, however important these people and topics appear to be, we cannot escape the fact that there are serious limitations on how much ‘cognitive load’ you can put on people before they literally shut down.

One just-concluded SKO of an industrial company in Europe put 45 speakers on stage in a 2-day period. And SKO’s with 300 or 400 or even 500 PowerPoint slides across the 2 days have become commonplace, even though the slightest serious thought would reveal that this is 10x greater than the capacity of any human brain to absorb or retain. It’s bizarre how much we abandon reason here; we need to stop fooling ourselves and start limiting the content to what makes sense.

The real issue here, which I’ve seen over and over again, is that the organizers rarely have the organizational authority to shut this madness down. Next year, have good organizers who understand the limits of human cognitive capacity…and give them the authority to say “NO” when the limits have been reached. By the way, put people on stage whom the sales force respects – preferably people who have been in the trenches and have something real to share.

3) Tell one story.

A direct result of the problem above is that the SKO tries to cover a bewildering array of topics. Everyone is up there with their one story, but it doesn’t fit into any cohesive whole. The result is that NOTHING sticks. Too many speakers, too disparate a set of topics, and you are truly wasting the time and money it took to put these people in that room.

If you solve for problem #2 you’ve begun to solve problem #3 – but it’s more than just numbers. What you really want to do is to create a single intellectual ‘red thread’ that ties it all together. This is the key to human learning and retention. The best SKO’s have a REAL theme – not a tagline, but a real idea like Execution or Productivity. One client of ours recently did a fabulous job with a really powerful theme (“Growth with Discipline”), and skillfully tied all the content to this single theme. Clear, memorable, actionable.

It’s not hard… In summary:

Respectful – Treat people like adults. Keep the fun in perspective, don’t let it take over.

Realistic – Present based on what’s reasonable, not based on who wants their time in the sun.

Realm – Create one ‘realm’: one ‘terrain’ or theme into which all the content logically fits. Retention will spike.

We love helping companies fix this, and have a great process for creating SKO’s that really feel and function like TED conferences. We will one day write a book on this, but for now at least take these three ideas into next year’s planning.

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