My favorite week of the year is always sales kick off, commercial kick off, field kick off — whatever you call it. It’s the week where we get all of our field-facing commercial teams together for a big pep rally to start the year.
The elaboracy of the week can vary from a basic couple days of meetings to a full-blown production with everything from car giveaways, to one-hit-wonder bands who have managed to hang on doing corporate gigs. Depending on your size and scale — and culture — either can be appropriate, and the reality is, the right approach is probably somewhere in between.
So, at this point, I’m sure you’re thinking, ”This lady has no life. I should feel bad for her that a corporate SKO is her favorite week of the year. What must have happened in her childhood?”
While that is true, hear me out.
I think of it more like a big family reunion where I get to see people I work with from all over the world. We laugh, eat, play, give out awards and catch up with one another. But beyond all the fun, as CMO, I believe it’s the most important week of the year to drive Sales and Marketing alignment.
When done correctly, it sends a strong signal to the entire team that leadership is on the same page and ready to roll out this year’s go-to-market strategy, messaging, metrics and key assets that determine success for the whole team. It sets the tone for the upcoming year, and I believe that everyone coming out of SKO should be prepared to successfully execute. It’s that important.
However, to ensure that happens there is a ton of work that must go into creating that experience long before sales kick off… kicks off.
I have found that turning this over to Marketing, and treating just like a customer-facing event – that means budget, energy, effort and attention to detail – is the best way to ensure you have an amazing SKO.
I didn’t always experience SKO this way, and I’ve learned a lot over the past few years – including making a few mistakes along the way. But I believe I’ve discovered a winning formula that creates an amazing experience that can energize the whole revenue team for an entire year. So, with that, here are some of my best practices, lessons learned, and even a few struggles to watch out for that I hope will help you create a great SKO for your team.
The Theme is Critical
You need a living, breathing and memorable way to tie everything together and make things stick. Salespeople are going to be bombarded with lots of new information, and a great theme can really help make things memorable. A great theme starts with a business goal you are trying to accomplish over the course of the year and ties it to something real, something people can attach to in their everyday life.
An example might be that you have a business goal to sell more strategy and digital experience services in the upcoming year. You know leading with strategy will help you sell more cloud implementation services, so you need folks to lead with conversations about your strategy services (not just project-based implementation). Your theme might be: Rise Above the Clouds. And you might print your value proposition or talking points on paper airplanes that can be folded and flown around the room. Seems silly, but people really attach to a simple, everyday object they can hold (and even play with).
Or, perhaps you’ve got an initiative to really focus on Customer Experience this year. Tie your theme to something like, Winning the CX Games, and create fun and challenging competitions and imagery that steals a page from the X-Games.
The point is, the theme can’t just be a Marketing presentation or the slide template everyone uses. You need to get people involved, get them up, get them moving and experiencing the theme. This is how people learn and remember – through experience.
One year, I had a theme that was based on “soaring above,” and we had lots of funny airplane videos, presenters dressed like flight attendants, a drink cart that rolled through the aisles during presentations (to cheers), branded itinerary folders that held “tickets” to breakout sessions, pilot wings as awards, and breakout rooms and teams with squadron names.
If you’re the CMO or Marketing leader, make sure you have a mainstage session early in the agenda so you can launch the theme and explain the context and connections that folks should look for over the course of the event, and more importantly how the theme ties to the business objectives throughout the year.
This year, our theme was fun and fresh – and born from a brand new idea about how to position and talk about our solution – so we really sell it to Sales, and the entire company. Prior to our kick off, we had spent weeks trying to distill multiple value propositions and complex feature descriptions down into an easy-to-understand, inspirational “tagline” if you will.
This was a challenge, to say the least, because the 6sense platform is incredibly robust with multiple, high-value use cases, and dozens of indispensable why-to-buys. So, we knew we needed to connect with our people at an emotional level, and really help them embrace a new way of talking about our company and solution.
Our mission at 6sense is to help Marketing and Sales teams KNOW EVERYTHING they can about their prospects and customers, so they can do DO ANYTHING they need to do to compete and win.
So this was our theme: Know Everything. Do Anything.
Of course, we understand its not literal (although it gives us a pretty cool mission and vision), but wearing Nikes doesn’t make you Michael Jordan either. But rather it’s a promise to aspire to in order to help our customers know as much as they can about their customers’ buying journey so they can do the right things to meet those needs and embrace today’s B2B buying habits.
If we were going to have any success in rolling this out to the market, we knew we needed to help our own people understand and attach to the power of this message first. And not just as a tagline, but as a central, driving force behind our product and go-to-market strategy.
I’ll share a couple of examples of how we used the theme to help us gain support for this new message.
New Customer Appreciation Program – The 6sensei
Asking questions about what our customers needed to know and do led us to start asking, “What does a customer who knows everything look like?” “What is it, exactly, that we help them know and do?” “Who out there is really knowing and doing?” We started forming a picture of this super-user who knows everything they need to know and does everything they need to do and the 6sensei program was born.
The idea was to recognize customers who were using our platform in extraordinary ways. The 6sensei knows everything; what accounts are in the market for their product, what their buyer journey looks like, what accounts visited the website, what personas are members of the buying team, etc. And they can do anything, like personalize engagement across every channel, provide sales teams with real insights to get into deals early, and create dynamic campaigns that deliver the right message to the right person at the right time.
These were all real functions of the 6sense platform that salespeople knew were solving customer pain and believed in, so the 6sensei program was an immediate hit because salespeople could imagine one of their customers becoming a 6sensei (with some awesome swag and fanfair), and it made such a strong connection with the knowing and doing message.
It didn’t hurt that we made our head of Customer Success announce the program dressed in a shorty karate robe, dancing to “Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting.”
Personalized Sensei Avatars
Another cool, fun thing we did was create a unique, personalized cartoon 6sensei character for every attendee. Every single person had a customized name card at their seat location, printed with a 6sensei of themselves. It took a few minutes to register when folks first sat at their seats, but the buzz in the room was pretty awesome when everyone started to realize the picture on the card was them!
The idea was to extend the promise of knowing and doing to our own people, so they could extend it to our customers. Our commitment at FKO was that we would help our salespeople know everything they needed to know to do anything they needed to do to be successful. That personal message and commitment went a long way to reinforcing our theme by making it real for our people first.
We also threw a few funny Chris Farley, Beverly Hills Ninja videos at them that didn’t hurt the vibe either. (It’s my favorite movie, don’t judge.)
Come with Surprises & Launch Real Things
The absolute worst thing you can do at your SKO is present a “plan.” Salespeople are skeptical, so if you stand up in front of them and tell them what you are going to do, you may as well not present anything at all. Here, even little things can have a big impact. If you’re announcing some sweet new swag, have some with you. Toss it around. If you’ve got new branding or collateral, bring real pieces, don’t just show digital versions on screen.
If you have new product features, give a demo – even if it’s not ready for prime time. Nothing like showing salespeople what’s to come to light a fire under your product team! It can actually be a fantastic forcing function… and I never like to waste a deadline.
If you’ve got a new product or new release coming out, SKO is the time to rally the entire team around new assets, new messaging, etc. and really stick the landing. Otherwise these things can linger into Q1 or beyond. You need to set the tone that walking out of SKO is the moment when the entire team needs to start executing on the vision for the upcoming year. Literally that moment you need to be ready to go.
Bring the Fun to Keep the Energy High
I have found that it’s the little things people go crazy over. Letting presenters choose a walk-up song as they approach the stage. Funny videos (that match the theme of course!) that break up the slog of constant information flow. I’ve used a nerf box microphone that can be chucked around the room with a fair amount of vigor! The goal is to create a good mix of content, workshops and fun to keep things lively and interesting.
At our kickoff this year we did something I’ve never done before. We did a “Meet the Pros” session where “Pros” with certain, unique skill sets rotated around the room, spending 10 minutes at each table giving others their “pro tips.” These were our own employees with unique talents to share. One person was an expert on keeping calm in tough negotiations, one on setting and meeting personal goals, another on women championing other women in business, and so on.
We also had teams break out and create competitive battle cards, each taking on one of our main competitors. The results were amazing, and without much prompting, it became competitive and fun as teams tried to outwit each other. The end result was far better than anything we could have created on our own had we tried to deliver the standard, front-of-the-room presentation on how to win against the competition.
Karaoke is a 100% Can’t Miss
OK, I will confess, karaoke isn’t really my thing, but I just go with it. I don’t know what it is, but universally, around the world, salespeople love karaoke. From Tokyo to London to San Francisco, I haven’t met a sales team that isn’t down for some off-key antics. So, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Forgo the band or DJ or comedian and let your people entertain themselves.
Don’t Underestimate the Prep Work
This goes not only for you and your team putting on the event, but for the revenue team members attending as well. Pre-work is an important part of ensuring everyone gets real value out of your time together. If you allow your sales reps to show up cold, without doing any pre-work to understand the messaging, positioning, value prop, pitch, etc, that’s a big miss.
You need to set the expectation that it’s a privilege to attend, and folks need to come prepared.
If you’re investing time and effort in certifying your people on the new pitch, learning it once they arrive isn’t an option. You need to give people time to learn new material and make it their own. Ideally, you want them to do any kind of certification in advance. The best way I’ve found to accomplish that is with micro-learning. This allows you to do things like record all of your pitch training and the allow AE’s to access it in small bites, and then record themselves and submit it to peers or managers for review prior to SKO.
The key here is to keep it simple, fun and creative. If it’s a drag, or complicated, or overly technical, nobody is going to play. We got everything from songs to sonnets as the team got creative with their videos, but they learned the pitch! I even did mine from Mexico!
Review Content (Way) Early
Don’t be surprised by what shows up on the screen in front of a room full of salespeople – ever. Make sure you review every presentation deck. Look for – and eliminate – really bad graphics, sliduments (you know, slides with top to bottom 7 point type), rogue graphic artists who insist on using their own template, etc. Have a designer help, if needed. I typically reserve some contractor hours, keeping them on stand-by, to make sure we have the help we need to create high-quality, professional looking presentations.
The other issue you’ll face are the procrastinators. Doing reviews and check-ins early and often will keep you from the stress of those who would prefer to wait until the night before to create their deck. If someone (even a senior leader) says, “Don’t worry, I’ve done this a bunch of times, I’ll crush it,” you can almost guarantee it will be the worst deck of them all – so don’t be fooled. Everyone submits their content for review.
For outside presenters, this goes double. If you’ve got a vendor, partner, etc. coming in, make sure you know exactly what they are presenting and what’s in their deck. I’ve had lots of experience where, say a channel partner is coming in to present, and they think they are a special guest star doing me a favor. Anyone you put in front of your team not only has to have their content vetted, but should be assigned a handler or host while they are onsite. I’m not kidding. Not only is it good form and gracious to take care of your guests, it will keep them from freelancing on you. I’ve seen everything from guest speakers turning their allotted 15 minutes into 45 and destroying the agenda, to actively recruiting reps, so have a plan for outside speakers.
Treat SKO Follow-Up Like You Would Treat Event Follow-Up
You want to make all that effort pay off and have a long life. You put a lot of effort into developing a great theme and lots of great content to support it so keep it going. Use the theme for QBRs and other sales enablement efforts. Build new assets and enablement tools using your SKO theme and keep it going. Gamify it, create leaderboards, contests, teams, etc. And just like a prospect event, expect to continue to reinforce the SKO messages and learnings. You’ll need nurture and enablement campaigns to keep folks engaged and continuing to develop and grow.
One thing I’ve found to be particularly effective is to get your speakers to agree to do a follow up webinar. This really helps reinforce learning, as well as creates an asset that can be accessed over and over.
Things That Come Up Every Year… And are Always a Struggle
Who Gets To Go
I hate this part. I wish I had some perfect way to determine who gets to attend each year. I will say it makes people’s year to get to attend. In fact, I found out recently someone on my team that was not scheduled to attend nearly quit over it. This person was totally devastated. There’s always a budget component, so you’ll need to make some tough calls. Just keep in mind, SKO can also go a long way to motivating people, so think strategically about who should attend.
Roommate or No Roommate
Nobody likes sharing a room, but some people get downright nasty about room sharing. It doesn’t really bother me, so if I think I can get more people to the event in a cost-effective way I’m usually for the room share. Sorry everybody! What I will say is it does create a nice little incentive to have in your back pocket. The most effective sales spiff I’ve ever seen is the-single-room-at-an-event, so use that to your advantage!
Rookie Moves & Lessons Learned
Rolling Out Comp Plans at SKO
Yep, I tried this. We presented comp plans on the last day of our SKO. We had an awesome event with great engagement, high energy and nothing but “let’s go take on the world” vibes, and we killed it, we killed it dead. Nothing like dropping the news that quotas were going up to completely crush the mojo. Save comp plans for individual one-on-one meetings between salespeople and their manager.
Long Bus Trips Suck
Doesn’t matter what cool venue you think everyone will love, after about 20 minutes on a bus, things get grumpy. I’ve experienced everything from breakdowns, to missed flights, to the anger of a busload of salespeople who just want a drink and a good meal at the end of a long day. Stay close to the hotel – the faster you get people to the dinner/fun/event/mixer the better.
Rotate Presenters, Not People
You might be tempted to rotate people from breakout room to breakout room as a way to keep everyone energized, especially late in the afternoon. It seems to make sense if you get people up and moving, they’ll be less susceptible to PowerPoint fatigue. But here’s the thing; no matter how many signs you put up with bright, flashing neon arrows directing salespeople where to go next, inevitably some of them will find a way to get “lost” in transition.
The slip-away-to-make-a-call, or duck-out-to-answer-an-email types are inevitably going to try to convince you that a deal hangs in the balance, or a customer has gone “red,” or some other reason they need to miss the next session.
Not only that, but once this gaggle gets loose in the halls, it’s nearly impossible to herd them back into submission. Avoid all that by rotating presenters to each breakout room, and keep the schedule tight. Yes, folks will be sitting in one room for perhaps an entire half day, but they’ll be getting new and fresh content, along with different speakers to break up the monotony. This is an excellent opportunity to build in interactivity, fun and showcase your theme. Remember the airplane drink cart?
Hold a Final, General Session
Don’t just let your event peter out. The last day is usually for breakout sessions and it’s tempting for folks to just kind of disperse. You kicked off with a great, energetic general session, so end the same way. Get everyone back together, even if it’s just for 30 minutes. Recap what you’ve done. We’ve always put together a video from the week’s event that we show at the end to re-energize folks after a tiring couple of days. Could be just some b-roll of parties and sessions or something more produced, but put an exclamation point on your SKO.
Flu Shots, Not Tequila Shots & Headshots
Last but not least, forgo the tequila shots and headshots, and have everyone get flu shots. This year we had a mini epidemic spread through our ranks. Nobody escaped, and post-FKO (we call it Field Kick Off) half the company was decimated. Seriously, think about the effects of putting lots of folks in close quarters for a few days and how you can help keep your team healthy.
Final Thoughts – Make it Your Time to Shine
Whether you’re a new CMO of five months like myself, or a veteran of a dozen SKOs, treat each one like an opportunity to showcase what Marketing can do for the Sales organization, and beyond. Create an awesome experience, paying attention to all the details, and treat your salespeople just like you would your customers at a field event – because, ultimately they are your customers.
One of the other reasons I get so excited for SKO is I know it’s the perfect time to show the company all of the things my team had been working so hard on behind the scenes. This year, we launched new messaging, a new thought leadership video series, a new customer appreciation program, and lots of new content for the sales team.
We did dozens of things to play off our theme, some fun, some more serious. But the bottom line was, people were totally fired up. Our jokes (even the lame ones) were working, sessions were running on time, and the content was on point – mostly because we were well prepared, but also because we got folks in a state of acceptance and trust by showing them real, tangible programs and deliverables, not plans.
FKO wrapped up and our internal Slack channel was on fire. People wanting the new First Call deck, wanting to know how can they could get their hands on the customer testimonial videos we showed, and on and on. I was on cloud nine. That is, until the aches started… then the fever. In my weakened state I thought I’d dip back into the Slack channel for an inspirational pick-me-up, thinking folks would still be buzzing. Nope. No more gushing over the awards dinner, no more asking where they could get their avatar. Just lots of talk about fever, sweating, hacking, even some oozing I think. Web MD had nothing on us.
One silver lining, however, is that I learned we employ a bunch of mad scientists as Slack was now full of magical remedies ranging from crushed garlic to burnt sage alkaline drips to bizarre rituals involving livestock or something – I lost track after a while.
So, as I said, we lost about 80% of our FKO attendees for the next week or so. Did one of our competitors sabotage us? Did Walgreens stock need a boost? We’ll never know, but from now on its flu shots or you don’t attend, swag will be hand sanitizer, and we’ll have mandatory hydration breaks.
Oh, and I’m rethinking karaoke… Something about pressing our lips to a mic we’re all spitting into and passing around as we wail Bon Jovi tunes seems like it might have been a contributor to the great Napa petri dish episode.