*** Trigger Warning: May contain traces of sarcasm ***

We’ve all been there: a sea of people, pulled together from across the country or region, locked in a windowless room with artificial light, seated at round tables with mints and water, patiently waiting for the parade of presenters to finish their ‘Death by PowerPoint’ presentations so we can get to the coffee station during the day and then the bar at night to start really engaging with our colleagues. During the day some relief can be found in the smartphones that everyone will be less and less discreetly looking at repeatedly, checking messages and social media for something to actually engage in, as the show drags on.

Every now and then the boredom is punctuated by some lively motivational speaker who tells us ‘You can do anything!’ (insert FIST PUMP), ‘Just believe in yourself’ (insert HIGH FIVE), ‘Be positive and great things will happen for you’ (insert VISUALISATION EXERCISE), ‘Now turn and tell the person next to you why you are so awesome and deserve endless riches’ (insert GROUP ACTIVITY), ‘Think about the challenges you have overcome that made you who you are’ (insert STORYTELLING). And so on.

This interlude is like a sugar hit. Perks people up for a short while, and then fades again.

The sales conference may have a big awards night or extracurricular activities, an entertainment extravaganza filled with lots of fun things to do, lots of food and drink, lots of prize giving, etc. That is fine, that can be appropriate. On top of that, participants simply might enjoy the location, the hotel, meeting colleagues, getting some time out. But is this what the conference should be all about?

So let’s start to rethink why and how we run sales conferences.

Why have a sales conference?

They are expensive to run and time consuming so we had better make it worth our while. Be clear about what you are actually trying to achieve. If the purpose is to get people together, interact, have a good time away from work, fine. But if it is about selling, sharing or generating knowledge, or any other topics relevant for everyday work, you cannot leave achieving such a goal to chance, or PowerPoint.

Purpose & Context

  • There must be an overarching purpose to running a sales conference, a meaningful story and context that people can relate to.
  • Set clear goals. What are you trying to achieve by running the sales conference?
    • Launch a new game changing product or service?
    • Reset the culture and team dynamics?
    • Launch the new sales strategy?
    • Bring the team together to focus on new capabilities, competitive edge, etc.?
  • Have a plan. A good conference follows a logic thread, a storyline, it systematically builds something up and guides people to this result.

Make sure you are very clear about what you are trying to achieve. And any motivational speakers you bring into the mix must serve this purpose and context. Any extracurricular activities can still add flavour to this mix if planned and done well.

How to run a sales conference

There are a number of simple guidelines to follow to get your sales conference right:

  • Actively engage people from the outset. Make it clear that they are not meant to be passive recipients of whatever kind of messages.
  • Set context and purpose, and then create the right environment for active engagement. Make sure your preparation work has identified not only what is important to the organisation, but also what is relevant for the participants.
  • Creating meaningful engagement acts as a catalyst for positive change and momentum. Giving your audience the chance to participate and contribute creates more buy-in than most motivational speakers.
  • Rather than talking at the audience and telling them what we want them to hear and do, why not turn it around and make the audience the content providers, the active participants and the bringers of wisdom? Turn the audience into active contributors.

We have helped many companies turn around their sales conferences into dynamic actively engaged events that ignite opportunity and lead people to the future where they feel a sense of ownership and can-do moving forward beyond the conference.

Designing activities that stimulate communication and tap into the wisdom of the room in more concrete, meaningful ways is key.

Here is an example:

Recently, we started working with a new client who had just taken over the role as head of sales. We helped him prepare the new sales strategy, including their value proposition, sales messaging and a new solution sales approach. He had an upcoming sales conference for 150 people to kick off this new strategy. This was a make or break situation as the previous sales strategies and sales conferences had fallen short of expectations and went nowhere in the long run. Yet his people were desperately wanting direction and purpose; they loved their company and wanted to see it succeed.

Our client wanted the sales conference to deliver the following:

  1. Re-energise and focus the sales teams to a true customer centric sales strategy and get them excited about how they fit into it.
  2. Explain and align them to the company’s purpose and values.
  3. Give them one view across all of the businesses and organisational capability.
  4. Set out a high level sales strategy and plan, and then set some goals for the year, for both managers and their teams.
  5. Help team members have a clear understanding of each of the key customer value propositions across their offerings.
  6. Ensure the team members understand what they will be prioritising in the coming 12 months, and what success looks like if they achieve those priorities.
  7. Get individual teams started to develop their own plans for how they will contribute to the overall plan.
  8. On top of that ensure that everyone will have fun along the way.

Our client wanted to hear people saying:

That was the best and most inspiring sales conference I have ever been to”.

I know where I fit in, and what I’ve got to do, and I’m excited about the future”.

And that is what he got.

We designed a sales conference that was full of enriching activities that all linked back to his goals for the team. Day 1 set the scene and Day 2 became an active ‘market place’, a beehive of purposeful activity, focused on starting the transition from a culture of transactional selling to a solution selling culture.

Case study driven and focused on diversity, teamwork, learning and active communication, the teams were empowered to learn all about what their company offered their clients – products, services, solutions, people and value. Instead of enduring a dozen slideshows about company division, products and services, 150 people worked simultaneously and actively in small teams across the day assessing situations, solving problems, learning about new opportunities and solutions, learning from each other, getting to know each other.

As a ‘side-effect’ they also gathered all the information that otherwise would have been presented to them in the traditional way. But in the context of real life case studies they could immediately contextualise and use this information. It stuck right away. The owners of all this information also were happy, because they had the opportunity not only to present, but to engage and interact with their audience and hence position themselves much more effectively.

At 4pm on Day 2, the conference was still pumping. People were on task actively engaged and supporting each other. The energy was focused and aligned. It never waned from 8.30am on Day 1.

We had many people come to us saying how wonderful this was. How happy they were. This energy has carried over into the workplace. Now active work is happening to bring about the changes needed and everybody is on board and wanting to make it happen.

A sales conference can’t change everything overnight but it can ignite opportunity, purpose and agency. It’s about engaging the very people who attend and making them the active participants and leaders of change.  When sales conferences are designed with the participants in mind they can:

  • Help develop and reinforce a culture and team that is highly engaged and performing in the market place.
  • Create a sense of belonging and understanding of where they fit in, and mutual obligation to each other to deliver for customers.
  • Build confidence that there is a plan in place for teams to follow and be supported to deliver, but also that there will be accountability for outcomes
  • Present a clear direction of what is expected of everyone and where they fit in.
  • Present the opportunity to be supported and challenged by each other
  • Create a sense of ownership and engagement over what everyone is accountable for.

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

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Sue Barrett
Founder and CEO of Barrett, www.salesessentials.com, and the Selling Better Movement, Sue Barrett lives by the philosophy that selling is everybody's business and everybody lives by selling something. Sue has written 600+ sales articles and 21 e-books, got selling its first university qualification via Swinburne University and produces the Annual 12 Sales Trends Report. Architect of the Selling Better Operating System & Philosophy which creates sustainable and successful sales and customer centric teams and cultures. Sue and her team have studied, researched, codified, modeled, promoted and educated more than 30,000 people on a better, ethical, human-centred approach to selling. Sue is Strategist, Writer, Philosopher, Researcher, Change Agent and Activist with over 30 years’ experience in ethical, human centred sales strategies, systems, practices and business transformation. Having worked across nearly every industry, Sue is the perfect commentator and advisor on how organisations and teams can transition to a sustainable future and stay in business for all the right reasons. 1997 Winner of the Telstra & Victorian Government Small Business Award. Inductee in the Business Women's Hall of Fame 2000. Finalist in 1998 and 2001 Telstra Business Woman of the Year Awards.