Sales kickoff: Top 5 SKO themes motivating sellers in 2023

It’s annual sales kickoff (SKO) season again, but this one is distinctly different from any in recent memory.

Many businesses are holding their first in-person SKO gatherings since before the global pandemic was declared in March 2020. Some are just now asking workers to return to physical offices. And most are reluctantly preparing for what could be the first recession in more than 13 years.

Against this backdrop, you’d think it would be tough for companies to host SKOs with the high level of confidence, passion, and spirited optimism that’s needed to inspire salespeople. But celebrating wins, product achievements, and customer successes is vital for morale.

At the same time, it’s especially important when facing an economic downturn to get everyone aligned on priorities so they can have consistent, meaningful exchanges with prospects and customers.

How are companies pumping up their sales teams in 2023? Here are some common SKO themes at this year’s sales kickoffs:

  1. Get into the customer mindset
  2. Prioritize customer retention
  3. Focus
  4. Have the right content
  5. Share best practices

Sales kickoffs in 2023 get real

Companies traditionally hold SKO meetings at the beginning of the year to educate and inform their sales team. After COVID, they became virtual events, but now some businesses are returning to in-person SKOs, at least partially.

A poll by SalesHood, a sales enablement platform, found 20% of its community members are taking a hybrid (in-person plus virtual) approach to SKOs this year, and 9% are going completely virtual.

Instead of funding lavish offsite events – as they have in the past – companies like Nogin, a Southern California-based e-commerce service provider, are acknowledging economic headwinds and holding modest gatherings this month in their own offices.

Thematically, companies know they can’t simply approach sales kickoffs as massive cheerleading sessions where they pump up audiences, name their President’s Award winners, and party into the wee hours of the night.

Most executives know there needs to be a dose of reality involved as well as prescriptive guidance their salespeople can use to frame external conversations throughout the year.

They realize many salespeople are likely to have questions in the backs of their minds, like: Are my sales likely to fall this year? What’s my path to personal profitability? Are layoffs coming?

Priority #1: Customer-focused sales

As a service provider, Nogin’s VP of sales Patrick Feit says his company is underscoring how its offering can help customers right-size their costs and infrastructure to ride out the recession. Sales organizations, he says, need to put themselves in the shoes of their customers and focus on business opportunities and challenges.

Elay Cohen, CEO of SalesHood, agrees. “If companies are solving a real business problem with quantifiable impacts, then they’ll be fine and it’ll be their time to shine,” he says.

“Now’s the time to double down on skills like discovery, curiosity, and value selling. Messaging alignment is key. Many companies are updating their messaging to adapt to the current environment.”

Scott Edinger, a Florida leadership consultant and author, advises companies to avoid the temptation to offer customer discounts to win business. Instead, he says they should urge sales teams to pursue the “right kind of business.”

“Decision criteria like quality, time savings, and productivity enhancers, as well as improving economic performance at the top and bottom line, are important,” he writes in Harvard Business Review. “Add things like integration, simplification, scalability, and reliability, and your sales team will be able to create stronger agreements based on how your company can help a customer achieve their objectives.”

Leaders should focus on creating valuable experiences that help customers think differently – and how the company’s solutions can help, he adds.

“When there is less business to go around and people are more sensitive about spending, the win goes to the sellers who differentiate in the way they sell,” Edinger says.

Sales kickoff: Stop the churn

In strong economies, companies pursue new customers like there’s no tomorrow. But when fortunes turn, executives like Kris Rudeegraap, CEO of Sendoso, an end-to-end gifting platform, say it’s critical to adapt by doubling down on existing business.

You simply can’t afford to lose too many accounts with budgets shrinking and the cost of acquiring new customers running about five times higher than the cost of keeping those you already have.

“In challenging economies, you’ve got to really make sure that you’re keeping a strong eye on customer churn and retention as well as customer growth strategies,” says Rudeegraap, whose company will hold its sales kickoff onsite in early February for its go-to-market teams. “That’s going to be a central part of our talk track.”

Focus on what you can control

In difficult times, it’s easy for salespeople to get sidetracked by understandable concerns about contracts going south, travel and expense freezes, or reductions in force.

But it’s a leader’s job to keep teams focused on the task-at-hand, which is to sell.

“Companies need to stress that if you’re a top-performing rep and you are hitting your numbers, there’s nothing to worry about,” says Rudeegraap. “It’s all about making sure you continue doing a great job.”

We have the beef: Sales enablement 

Smart businesses do their utmost to arm sales teams with current, relevant, and meaty enablement content. Customer priorities and pressures are constantly changing, especially over these last three pandemic-stricken years.

As such, many companies are using their sales kickoffs to point salespeople to materials containing the latest product roadmap storylines, and to sales playbooks with guidance for countering tricky customer objections like “the budget is unclear right now,” or “we need to wait until the dust settles.”

“The key is to create content that enables salespeople to proactively address those concerns,” says Rudeegraap. “We have content collateral, case studies, and training to help our sellers combat those rebuttals. Stellar sales enablement helps win deals.”

Sharing wins and best practices

Salespeople are notorious for keeping information close to their vests because they fear sharing too much detail about their wins will cost them down the road.

However, during sales kickoffs, companies must – especially when faced with a sinking economy – encourage teams to share best practices.

Sales collaboration can help boost sales in a number of ways, especially in B2B. By sharing their wins and experiences, sellers can learn from each other and gain insight that helps them move a deal along. Collaboration also helps keep sellers on the same page so that they provide consistent customer experience.

At the sales kickoff and at regular sales meetings during the year, sales leaders should recognize and reward team collaboration. Having sellers talk about team efforts will help encourage collaboration.

Ready to win

The bottom line for most businesses in down economies is to remind sales teams during SKOs and throughout the year to have a thick skin, always put customer priorities first, and be willing to constantly adapt.

Anything less could lead to disaster – for the business as well as the salesperson’s livelihood.

The following David Rand from 2023 provides their research perspective. HERE

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