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Let's Start With an Icebreaker

Summer sales meetings have become common at many private companies, but they are not all fun and games.
RICHER FOR THE EXPERIENCE: Tea Collection's Amy Mckinstry landed 20 accounts using a software tool introduced at a sales meeting.
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Last July, the seven members of Tea Collection's sales team gathered at a board member's Napa Valley home for the company's fourth annual summer sales meeting. Over the course of three whirlwind days, they discussed all the sales issues facing their children's clothing company, which had $8.8 million in sales in 2007. Designers presented the new line and explained the inspiration behind each look. Reps shared feedback from retailers, learning, for example, that several different customers had asked for a navy pant. The team members brainstormed ways to squeeze as many items as possible into a sales call that might last only 90 minutes. And they learned about new software tools for geographic sales prospecting.

What was the payoff? Amy McKinstry, the company's sales rep in New York City, says she was able to identify and land 20 new accounts after the Napa meeting, using the lead-generation software that was unveiled there. Plus, the confab was good for morale. The team went on a vineyard tour, and the company's co-founders cooked a big group dinner (salmon on the grill). "We don't see each other but twice a year, so the bonding is important," McKinstry says. "We work so hard, but it is so much fun."

Pioneered by large corporations, summer sales meetings have become common at many private companies, particularly those with reps spread over a number of offices or geographic territories. Teams typically review the first half of the year and plan for the second half. Plus, sales tend to slow down in the summer as customers go on vacation, so it's not a big loss to take reps out of the field for a few days.

Sales meetings are not without their detractors and malcontents, of course. Many rank-and-file reps complain that the events are overstructured (or not structured enough), political, overly numbers-focused, or just plain dull. Some salespeople resent being pulled away from clients even for a minute. Others treat sales meetings as an opportunity to carouse, creating all sorts of HR grief. The actual meeting itself can unravel into a rambling series of war stories or an unsettling debate about revising the compensation plan. And speakers brought in to inspire the team can be hopelessly out of touch with its daily challenges (see "The Talk of the Sales Meeting" ).

But despite those flaws, sales managers say that annual meetings are crucial to getting everyone on the same page. They also provide a venue in which companies can coax the very best sales reps into sharing their wisdom and winning strategies with the rest of the team.

That's been the case at Integra Logistics, a freight-shipping business in Alpharetta, Georgia, that had $62 million in revenue in 2007. At last year's sales meeting, co-founder Mitch Bernet asked his two top salespeople to outline for the other 13 reps how they closed deals. The resulting 90-minute presentation was full of practical advice and featured fun clips from movies such as Glengarry Glen Ross.

After the meeting, an inexperienced rep took to heart the lessons he learned from the presentation and began aggressively pursuing new business. "He went from being satisfied with where he was with a big account to doubling our business with this account, and we are now on the verge of opening up a whole new product to them as a result," Bernet says.

Having looked last year at reinforcing his team's basic sales skills, Bernet will focus this year on a different and new issue, one that has to do with the company's overall brand. Integra recently merged with two competitors and will soon change its name to Coyote Logistics. Bernet's team will meet face to face for the first time with 60 new colleagues. They plan to talk about maintaining consistent positioning after the merger and rebranding. Reps will also look for ways to take on price-cutting competitors and discuss new technology cooked up by the company's research and development team. And then there's the giant game of WhirlyBall, an activity that involves bumper cars, plastic scoops, and a Wiffle ball, that Bernet has planned.

In contrast, the sales meetings at Ruppert Nurseries, a landscape-construction company in Laytonsville, Maryland, tend to be buttoned-up affairs. Team members must present detailed plans for their branch offices and take a hard look at their progress toward achieving their one- and five-year revenue goals.

This year, Phil Key, vice president of Ruppert's $25 million landscape-maintenance division, has asked his sales team to think about new ways to talk with customers about the green movement. Key has also arranged for a guest speaker to describe how Ruppert can network with other area companies that share the same customers. The goal, he says, is to develop a clear sense of where the company is vis-à-vis the market. "We want to know, What's the hum of our customers?" Key says.

Even meetings that focus on team building can take a serious turn, according to sales managers. Louise Anderson of Anderson Performance Improvement in Hastings, Minnesota, views her summer sales meeting as a pep rally for her four-person sales staff. Past activities have included a go-cart race, a walk on a tightrope, a trip in a motor home, a hayride, and a coed spa day during which the men on staff experienced their first facials. "We do some fun things in the brainstorming sessions, and people get a little crazy," says Anderson. Her company designs sales-incentive plans and employee-recognition programs for businesses and brings in about $10 million a year in revenue.

But it's not all fun and games. At a sales meeting a few summers ago, Anderson's team started to talk about one salesperson's role. The rep was good at identifying leads and setting up sales calls with key clients, but he was not a great closer. What if he became an inside sales rep instead, amplifying his colleagues' efforts? Anderson was surprised that the light conversation had produced a suggestion to change the rep's job responsibilities, but she was willing to try a new arrangement. And the experiment worked. Today, that rep is happier, earning more, and bringing more revenue into the company.

With the economy faltering, some companies are scaling back their ambitions for summer sales meetings. Tea Collection's McKinstry sees it as a chance to regroup. This year's theme: how to help retailers move inventory as fast as possible. "Everyone is anticipating a tough economic climate," McKinstry says. "Last summer, we didn't anticipate how tough it would be, so this summer, we want to think about ways to advise our customers so that they'll be around for a long time." After a few speeches and a nice dinner, perhaps the group will stumble upon a brilliant strategy.




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