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How to plan a Successful Virtual Sales Kickoff

By Mark Gibson on Sep 30, 2020 11:46:49 AM

No SKO in Vegas

It’s Virtual Sales Kickoff Planning Season

I attended my first in-person sales kickoff in Sydney with Prime Computer in Sydney more than 35 years ago. Up until this year, not much has changed in the in-person SKO format. COVID has busted the old model like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and sales kickoffs will never be the same again.

no sko


For thousands of companies with a December fiscal year-end, this year’s sales kickoff planning season is underway and it will be the first virtual sales kickoff they have run.  Fortunately plenty of companies have done this over the past 6 months and advice and lessons-learned are readily available with a Google search.

The purpose of this article is two-fold, to help you to plan an impactful event that salespeople will value as time well spent, and to help your executive team to effectively communicate the key messages to align the whole team on their WHY” and to excite the sales team with the prospect of success in FY2021.

SKO Purpose

Let’s get clear about the purpose of the SKO as there are 5-key constituencies involved with different agendas.

  • The CEO’s purpose is to review prior year performance and align around the company mission and the “WHY” your company deserves and is destined to succeed in 2021.
  • The sales leaders' purpose is to recognize outstanding achievements, review compensation, lock-in quota plans and to reinvigorate the sales team for success.
  • The chief marketing officer wants to convey new market, product positioning and competitive information.
  • The customer-facing team including salespeople in all roles, SE’s, and customer success expect to be recognized for outstanding achievement, entertained, feted, to catch up with colleagues and to unwind for a couple of days, which in-person, may have included fun and games and late nights at the bar. But that’s not all.
    • Salespeople want to hear the stories of other top performers and how they helped their customers succeed,
    • Salespeople love hearing customers talk about their journey from prospect to customer and the challenges they had to overcome and their lightbulb moment that led to them choosing you over competitors.
    • Salespeople want to learn and be inspired by keynote speakers and to know exactly what they need to do in 2021 to achieve success,
    • Salespeople also want to know what new company products and competitors to expect in the market in 2021.
    • Salespeople want to learn and grow and enjoy workshop events that engage and immerse them in learning something new that will improve their skills, even though they may be out of their comfort-zone in the process.
  • The engineering, administrative, support and non-customer-facing teams in the past were often excluded from an SKO event due to venue capacity and cost containment issues.  Not so in a virtual event and organizers should consider this cohort in plans and breakouts.
  • In-person events are expensive, require a great deal of planning and logistics support from an events team to feed, entertain and produce a memorable experience.
  • They are disruptive, requiring participants to fly across country or across the world, offer dubious ROI, where one whole week of selling time for the sales and SE team in the first quarter of the year is lost.
  • The downside of in-person events was a belief that since you had a captive audience for 2-3 days, the agenda had to be packed.  Keynotes from leaders, Product launches/updates, country and region meetings, product breakouts that resemble musical chairs with audiences in constant flux, compensation breakouts, and critical enablement activities.  It adds up to a 2-3 day PowerPoint blitzkrieg, where the audience is shell-shocked and can’t remember anything after the event unless they took careful notes.
  • Ineffective information, content and formats, a never ending stream of boring Powerpoints that run longer than they should and are all about the product.
  • Learning is deployed the wrong way – traditional PowerPoint dump as a check-box classroom learning event vs. performance-supported learning mastery, practice, feedback and certification on content that is continually enhanced and updated based on feedback and collaborative learning and delivered situationally as needed at the salesperson’s point of use.
  • Success stories are chest-pounding exercises - about the great products and the sales and SE heroes who sold them. They are more useful when they focus on the successes of your customers and their struggle to overcome inertia, in-house and external complications, their lightbulb moment when they could see that your solution was the right one, their change in business process and their results.
  • Delivered as documents, on paper or web pages in (many) repositories, or website / portals where the onus is on salespeople who are subject to archaeological digs to find and extract what what they are looking for from document repositories vs. the knowledge and insights salespeople need for effective conversations with buyers are delivered situationally in digital playbooks as needed where salespeople work with access to JIT learning and supporting content.
  • Packed agenda’s with no time for socializing or to process the key elements of a presentation before the next one starts and no reinforcement of key concepts.

Farewell to in-person Sales Kickoff Events.

Let’s be quite clear about the origins of the in-person sales kickoff.

In the pre-Internet era, annual sales kickoffs had to be held in-person. There was no other easy way to communicate the mission, train the sales and SE team and plan for the next year and to recognize and award top achievers. In-person SKO’s were primarily training events interspersed with awards, motivational sessions, dinners and the bar.

The idea of training as an event is a pre-Internet concept that also needs the Humpty Dumpty treatment. Salespeople are not vessels that can be filled up annually with what they need to know. There is simply too much to know.

In-person SKO’s were important for remote salespeople as it may have been the one time in the year to meet executive leaders and to build relationships and share tribal-knowledge with colleagues.

We have simply carried this ritual forward through generations of sales, marketing and company leaders. COVID has smashed this ritual like Humpty Dumpty and it is unlikely the traditional sales kickoff will ever be put back together again in a post-COVID world.

Financially, a fully produced virtual kickoff will cost about one-fifth of the cost to produce vs. an in-person event.

The Causes and Impact of a failed Sales Kickoff

With potentially dozens of presentations, the Ebbinghaus (forgetting) effect, combined with late nights and hangovers will erase 95% of what salespeople were subjected to by time they get back to work.

Examining the causes of failed kickoffs is a useful exercise in planning to succeed in running a SKO virtually. Failure means the sales team learned nothing, they wasted a week of valuable selling tima and they still don’t have what they need for success. What are the underlying root-causes that contribute to failure?

Ultimately the impact of failure in a traditional in-person sales kickoff, while fun for some, is embarrassment for the CEO, CFO, sales and marketing leaders and a waste of time, money and effort.

Planning your 2021 Virtual SKO

Unlike in prior years, booking a venue and all of the logistics in staging a physical event are not required.  The original purpose of our virtual SKO has not changed much, however new technology, formats and platforms are readily available to make a virtual sales kickoff, more memorable, more impactful from a business perspective and more useful to participants than a week out of the office, jetlag and a hangover.

A virtual sales kickoff still needs to be professionally produced, and we need to rethink the why, how, and the what.

  • A working from home audience needs less time for breaks, room-changes and food. Typically these consume 1/3 of the day in a traditional sales kickoff.  Therefore a virtual session should not take more than 4-hours with multiple short bio and food breaks.
  • While Zoom is good for remote meetings and training sessions and general screen sharing, it is not designed as a production platform for hosting conferences or sales kickoffs.
  • In addition, since much of the content delivered will be pre recorded video, production values must be considered.  We want high-quality, high-impact, on-time presentations that are followed with gamification, quizzes and contests to keep participants engaged and the key points remembered.

Rethinking Production

To host an SKO requires a conference platform designed for the purpose and there are already several dozen vendors competing in a hotly contested new market. I’m familiar with just three platforms, Hopin and Inxpo (now Intrado) and NMR Events have been very impressed as an attendee with capabilities that simulate a virtual trade-show conference or sales kickoff event.

Key capabilities are:

  • Reception lobby where participants register and learn which events they are required to attend and decide which breakouts they wish to attend.
  • Main-stage for keynote speakers and all hands presentations
  • Breakout rooms for team meetings, birds-of-a-feather panels, role or country-specific sessions
  • Trade Show areas where you can visit your key partners and or invite sponsors to participate
  • 1:1 random 5-minute networking - this is fun and participants can be prompted with an opening icebreaker topic to meet and develop new relationships in the same way as a regular tradeshow or SKO.
  • Recording, gamification, analytics
  • An honor roll for award winners with photos and key deals/ contributions they were involved in, with links to directly connect in the networking sessions.
  • Production and staging, where trained professionals manage your event, sequence videos, live events, break-outs, orchestrate time-keeping, quizzes, gamification scoring and awards sessions.

How Enableocity can help with your 2021 SKO event

If you haven’t run a SKO before, we have run quite a few, and we have managed dozens of virtual training events and can help structure and plan your SKO to achieve the outcomes you seek. We can:-

  • Coach your marketing team to produce and pre-record high quality presentations with custom quality graphics, scripting, precise length and quality editing.
  • MC the event for you and coach presenters and streamline content being presented live.
  • Create and deliver daily remote skills training, where participants are immersed in role-playing, visual storytelling or simulations and gamified events where salespeople compete globally for recognition and prizes.
  • Help you to plan pre - and post SKO learning workshop activities and performance support which are important for maximum impact, retention and certification.
  • Prepare and coach salespeople in delivering compelling customer success stories in the hero’s journey format, that salespeople will remember and reuse and we can host host roundtable sessions with customers.
  • Manage the event and breakout rooms and handle the technical implementation and deliverables.
  • Keep things moving and on time
  • Orchestrate the delivery of attendee gifts and a meal and maybe some wine/non-alcoholic beverage for all participants around the country or around the world.

Free Kickoff Plan Consultation