I plead guilty to enjoying a cold beer or two, and I’ve watched with amazement as the decade-long bull market in the craft beer industry shows no signs of abating.
As sales teams across industries grapple with controlling expenses, they often are scaling back on—and sometimes eliminating—large, in-person sales meetings. But all is not lost, and a missed meeting should not be viewed as a missed opportunity to communicate. In fact, by making their sales meetings "virtual," companies are realizing tangible success that goes beyond contributing to the bottom line.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In addition to significant hard cost savings, the benefits of these virtual meetings include gaining back selling time, with your reps in the field longer and not losing time to travel. Other advantages include greater learning with better retention of product knowledge, as well as the creation of a repository of continually referenced materials for just-in-time refreshers. It's easy to see why the "new" virtual way quickly can become a standard and inextricable part of your organizational fabric. With careful planning and attention to detail, it's easy to conduct some or all of your sales meetings virtually.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Firsthand Experience</b><br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In an effort to reallocate costs while still delivering valuable and time-sensitive product and market information, Cengage Learning moved portions of its Academic & Professional Group winter sales meeting to the virtual realm last year—yielding creative and informative content, rave feedback, and significant cost savings. We employed a "blended" approach, combining asynchronous learning activities for on-demand information delivery, followed up by synchronous Webinar-based activities. Then it all culminated in short local and regional (no plane travel involved) meetings for the more interactive and collaborative components.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Since Cengage Learning offers hundreds of print and digital products across multiple educational channels, it was critical that we deliver timely product information to our reps in this new format so they would be well-informed in the field. Thus, for the asynchronous component, we turned to the subject matter experts (SMEs) within our product and market groups who knew the product material best and who would be probable presenters at a given in-person meeting. We worked with more than 100 of them, leveraging a solution available from Brainshark, to easily create short, on-demand, multimedia presentations that included audio, video, attachments, survey/quiz questions, and more. More than 1,100 users accessed our central portal, viewing relevant presentations online at their convenience over a period of five weeks, with the ability to revisit the content at any point in the future.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> For our synchronous learning activities, we sought to foster live dialog around the presentations. For example, after viewing a presentation on a college physics textbook, reps could converge in small groups to participate in a WebEx Q&A with the textbook author or other subject matter expert.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> With that under their belts, reps then attended local meetings, discussing how all of the content they consumed was related to their territorial plans and reinforcing the materials yet again. We found this multi-tiered process maximized knowledge retention.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Tips for Going Virtual</b><br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> Our modified format was uniformly regarded as a success—saving travel time, enabling maximum productivity, and significantly reducing costs associated with our product training. We're now getting ready to deliver our next sales meeting in a similar format, using the on-demand strategy to set up a more interactive and shorter "live" sales meeting. Along the way we picked up some tips and tricks:<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Define meeting goals and content types—ask yourself: What's in a sales meeting?</b> Before embarking on this project, take some time to look at the goals of your sales meeting, and discuss how content was presented at previous in-person-only events. By mapping out the information that needs to be conveyed, you easily can determine what portions might best be moved to online, on-demand delivery (for example, relaying product details, competitive information, market knowledge, new messaging, etc.), and which are better suited for Web conferencing (Q&A sessions, for example) or local, live events (true interactive activities, such as role playing or collaborative team exercises).<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Define a timeline —and stick to it</b> Scope out the elements that need to be accomplished—from appointing management, including a point person and additional coordinators, to determining presenters, administering technology training, finalizing content approval—and set and abide by completion dates. Distribute a calendar to all parties involved, and don't be shy about sending out reminders in advance of deadlines.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Address the culture shift</b>As with any new process, you can expect some initial hesitation from folks who have grown accustomed and attached to the "traditional" way. Be transparent about changes and why you're making them, and encourage questions and feedback.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> In particular, be prepared to emphasize the change in how deadlines will be approached. That is, no more caffeine-fueled presentation creation at midnight during the nights leading up to an in-person event. To prepare for your virtual sales meeting (which, in fact, may take place over several weeks), it's important to have regular and reasonable deadlines in place to ensure everyone is up to speed, and all portions are aligned.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Offer training</b>When selecting vendors, take into account the training capabilities they'll provide. For example, Brainshark provided several hour-long "live" best practice recommendation sessions, as well as ongoing access to its authoring tutorials. As our SMEs became more entrenched in creating their own presentations, they used the tutorials and our customer consultant to ask questions that were relevant to their particular presentations.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Encourage creativity</b> When working with SMEs—especially if you're employing a large number—don't be afraid to encourage them to think outside the box as they create viewing materials. Put yourself in the audience's position—wouldn't it be soporific to view near-identical presentations time after time? We found that by allowing individual content authors to get creative with elements including video, music, animation, polls, and more, content was increasingly captivating. In addition, we paid close attention to the advice of our Brainshark support people and kept our average presentation length to a little more than 10 minutes so they were lively, imaginative, and full of content —but still short and easily digestible.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Assess comprehension</b>Especially for the on-demand learning component, we found it was helpful to have comprehension questions scattered throughout our presentations. This fostered continual viewer engagement and allowed us to see how effective our materials were at conveying information. A word of caution: We'd advise against labeling these as "test questions" so as not to induce unnecessary stress (unless the purpose is truly to administer a test). Dubbing them "learning checks" or something similar would be preferable, emphasizing their role as learning reinforcement. Also, rather than include a "correct" or "incorrect" display, instead provide feedback in the form of rejoinders that offer clarity on why a response was right or wrong.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Track completion</b>Since you won't be doing a physical headcount, it's important to make sure all parties are viewing and consuming the virtual sales meeting information. Set completion requirements, and implement technologies that can generate usage reports. For example, if using on-demand presentations, select a technology that enables you to see who has viewed material, for how long, how questions were answered, etc. Sales managers will want to know how their direct reports are progressing toward the required learning objectives, so set expectations on what type of reports managers will be receiving and how often.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> • <b>Collect feedback</b>Your most valuable resources for feedback within your organization are the people who participated along the way—from content creators to coaches to participants. Survey them immediately following the events—while details are fresh in their minds—for positive and constructive feedback. From there, you can share your own list of tips with others, continually refining the process for an even more seamless and beneficial experience.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <b>Do More With Less</b> For the strategic sales organization, employing virtual meetings —either in whole or in part through a blended approach—is becoming an essential reality for training sales teams cost-effectively and keeping them well-informed. Going through the process of rethinking how your meetings are structured, how information is shared, and how you deliver value to your audience can have a lasting impact on how you look at all the meetings you do today.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> By defining your meeting goals, following the tips above, and making your own tips along the way, today's often-repeated maxim—and sometimes elusive goal—to "do more with less" becomes well within reach, and your virtual sales meetings can become lasting initiatives.<br clear="none" /> <br clear="none" /> <i>Lynn Richardson is the executive director of Talent, Training ,and Development at Cengage Learning <a href="http://www.cengage.com" target="_blank">(www.cengage.com)</a>,a company that delivers highly customized learning solutions for universities, instructors, students, libraries, government agencies, corporations, and professionals worldwide.</i>