Make the Most of Your Annual Sales Meeting

By Henry Canaday

Whatever you do at your next annual sales meeting, don’t waste a second of it. This may mean recognizing the top performers, the middle performers, or everyone at some level. The point is, according to experts, the annual sales meeting is the perfect venue to reinforce, recognize, and reward.

Does that mean you should only invite top reps to these meetings? Or should everyone attend, with only top reps receiving VIP treatment? That depends in part on the purpose of the annual meeting: If it is necessary to train and share information, all reps need to be there. If the meeting is a high-strategy session, maybe only senior managers and top reps need to go. If the entire sales force goes to the annual meeting, however, you have two choices: 1) build recognition into the general meeting, or 2) treat your top reps to a separate trip in a special location. Top performers can even receive an extended vacation after the annual meeting.

Extend the Choices

“I have seen that done successfully,” says Todd Hanson, president of Catalyst Performance. “When the rest say good-bye, the winners stay, maybe for just three days. And you can bring the spouses in for just the extension.”

Tours or other activities can be built into the extension. Many salespeople like these two- or three-day getaways better than a week in Europe, because such trips do not interrupt their schedules as much. “When winners and nonwinners are together,” however, “treat them alike, so those who weren’t recognized will not feel like second-class citizens,” Hanson advises.

Annual sales meetings where team members will be recognized should be in pleasant surroundings, but these do not have to be beach resorts. They can be major cities, such as New York City or Chicago. “Lots of companies are reducing costs by going to nontraditional places, such as Quebec in May or San Francisco for a cooking school,” Hanson says.

At annual meetings, try to give out awards to as many people as can be justified. “You don’t want to give to just the top 10 percent if most of the people sitting there did not have a chance,” Hanson says. “Increase the categories. For example, [reward for] the biggest percent increase or dollar increase so you can motivate the middle 60 percent. Have nontraditional categories so you have more people competing.”

Hanson recommends giving out awards at a gala award ceremony at the beginning of the meeting. “It’s very powerful recognition. Let [winners] bask in it for several days.”

The Cream Also Rises

Presentations should always be made by the top people – the CEO accompanied by the VP of sales or regional managers. “And capture images, a photo at least,” Hanson urges. “Even better, have a live feed to an image-magnification screen overhead, like the Grammy awards.”

Don’t forget to ship bulky awards home for the winners. “Don’t give them forty-pound crystal awards in boxes they can’t fit in their suitcases,” says Hanson. Shipping the actual awards directly to recipients also allows you to use the same trophy at the podium for all the winners.

Another key award-ceremony booster is ensuring confidentiality before the prizes are given. “Don’t leak the results,” Hanson advises. “I have been to award presentations where the winner and presenter acted like it was a surprise, and it was not. That is just too phony; you want to see someone really excited.”

Also, decide if you are going to allow acceptance speeches. If not, present the award away from the podium or mic. “Otherwise, some winners will grab the mic, and others will feel cheated,” Hanson notes. If you do allow acceptance speeches, put a time limit on them. Simply start playing the walk-off music when the time is up.

“You must keep these award evenings short,” Hanson stresses. “Try to wrap it up by 10:30 p.m. If they go on to midnight, they become a demotivator. People have to get up in the morning, and they will start to hate the awards ceremony.”

Upgrades and Perks

Consider recognizing top performers at annual meetings by booking them into better suites and rooms, suggests Erich Sachse, director of global consulting services at Synygy. Indeed, there are all sorts of special ways to treat high performers at an annual meeting.

“They can come early, stay late, or attend special events just for winners,” explains Kurt Paben, senior vice president of Carlson Marketing. “If you have 200 people at an event, it is difficult for them to meet top execs. But with only 20 people they can.” Top performers can be given better accommodations, recognized during meeting events, or given recognition dinners. Or they can be treated like everyone else during the meeting but flown away at its end for a special incentive trip.

Apart from recognizing past performance, the annual meeting is also a good opportunity to roll out the cash-comp plan for next year. “Make sure [employees] understand it, show how it ties to strategy, and show them how they can make money by specific behaviors,” Sachse says. And you may want to explain and promote the noncash incentive plan for the following year, as well.