Episode #87: The Unexpected Benefits of a Virtual Conference Experience

Will we ever fully return to live, in-person conferences when COVID is finally over? Sprinklr just wrapped up our annual sales conference — virtual, of course — and the experience was pretty… amazing. It has me wondering whether we’ll ever go back to an all-in-person event. In today’s episode I review the benefits and challenges of the virtual experience.

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Welcome to CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, chief experience officer and, you know, we like to talk about experiences. We typically talk about them from a customer standpoint. How the customers envision those experiences, how they visualize them? How do we tell stories about those experiences? How do we make them memorable? I want to talk a little bit more about what we call experience selling in the next week or so. But today, I want to talk about the week we’ve just ended.

The week that just ended was the annual sales meeting for Sprinklr. And I can’t get into an awful lot of detail because obviously much of it, if not most of it, is confidential. But I did want to talk a little bit about the experience that we landed, because it was a really, really interesting experience. So, our annual sales kickoff meeting, known as ASKO, occurs this time every year, so end of February. Last year we were in person in Orlando. And you know, the executive leadership team goes on stage. There’s lights, there’s action, there’s fog, there’s lasers. And there’s sharks with lasers (a little Austin Powers joke). And it really is a spectacular event.

People are meeting from around the world and having beers and exchanging ideas and talking to each other. And it was wonderful. And last year we actually did it in Orlando at this time. It was literally the last event I went to before COVID hit two weeks later. So, it was right on the bubble. And we just squeaked it in. This year, obviously, we didn’t do it in person, we did it virtually. And so what I want to talk about is the virtual experience that landed at ASKO, and how that played out, and maybe make a couple of observations if you’re thinking about doing your own virtual sales meeting or virtual webinar, virtual conference or whatever.

So first of all, overall it was pretty awesome. And I would say that pretty awesome isn’t necessarily what I would have guessed a year ago. If you were to tell me a year ago that we won’t be in person next year, we’re going to be doing it virtually, I’d feel disappointed, right? That’s not gonna be great. But actually, overall, it was great. And I think there were three things that jumped out to me, that made it great.

One was, the content was essentially the same. Right? So the content was unsullied by the virtual nature of it. We still did decks, we still had our ELT speeches, we still had amazing customer talks, we still had an amazing customer live panel, we still had all sorts of deep dives across multiple parts of the product. Particularly in the AI area, because Sprinklr is one of the world’s most advanced AI platforms so we spent a bunch of time arming everyone with the latest information, latest news, some really great updates on our customer care product. Then a bunch of UI changes that have made that really exciting. All the stuff we normally do. So all the content was still there. Check on that for fidelity.

Number two is there was actually a lot of interaction, because people are getting pretty good at it. And there’s a lot of back and forth and conversation and chat and talk. And people felt connected and talked to each other and saw each other. I mean, there weren’t beers and there wasn’t as much face to face, obviously. But it was actually still pretty connected in a pretty good way. We we’re using Zoom. We used Freeman, that’s our event coordinating company. They did an excellent, excellent job. So kudos to Freeman.

And then we had a great team on our side. So Sarah Stidwill lead the charge for Luca Lazzaron, our CRO. Sarah did an exceptional job, as always, on the production side. Eric Egerton on videos. Cheyenne Dermody did an amazing job pulling the whole event together. And I will say, my prep… so I did the customer panel and the customer day, and the prep that Cheyenne gave me, the way she pulled together the scripts and the work that she did on that was exceptional, and world class. So, made the job a lot easier.

And we had support from many others. It’s one of those things, when you do something like an event like this, you’ve got to pull in resources from across the company. One person that I should mention for sure, because I hate to single out everyone, but Margaret Mayer is the graphic designer on our team. And she did actually an amazing job of pulling together all the decks, making everything look seamless. Had a really great design and theme for the show this year, which was really awesome. And everything was themed tightly to this theme, which I’m not going to talk about publicly, but it was a really great theme and Margaret did an amazing job. So, great team made the interaction feel really, really strong.

And then the third thing, which I think was the one part of it that was maybe obvious, but maybe surprising, was typically what happens at ASKO is that everyone travels on the weekend, arrives, spends the week and then travels back on the weekend. Sometimes they may stay for a day or two. But typically because of the two weekends and getting ready and going and coming back, we lose about two weeks of sales productivity during the ASKO period of time. At a minimum a week, right? The full week. But it’s kind of more than a week. It’s up to two weeks. And that didn’t happen this year. People were spending time in the events and in the virtual lounges. That all happened. So there was more focus from a sales standpoint in these areas. But I did a number of very serious customer calls this week. And there’s a number of interactions. It wasn’t like we stopped the train and waited for everyone to get on and off, and then picked it back up again. So the momentum coming right out of ASKO is quite amazing.

We actually had two very big customer meetings yesterday, because ASKO was mostly over at the end of the day Thursday. Two big customer meetings yesterday, and just went roaring right into them. Also with a lot of new decks and a lot of new content that we could use to make that really relevant. So, that was a really interesting observation. And was so compelling, that I would almost say, I wonder if we shouldn’t do these virtual all the time. Everyone’s like, oh maybe next year in person. But maybe not next year in person. Maybe the virtual format is the way to go overall. So that was interesting.

A couple of other observations. We had some live entertainment, which was super fun. He was a magician. And he’s from the show “Magic for Humans,” Willman. And what he did was, I thought, quite interesting the way he set up his gear. He had a forward-facing camera that he did the show to. And then he had a right-hand camera that he would do asides to. So he’d do an aside. So he’d be like, “and then I opened the cards, and there’s the king of hearts.” And then there’s an aside…. “and there’s the king of hearts. didn’t think I could do it did ya?” And so it was very interesting. And then he had a laugh track. It wasn’t sitcom level laugh track, it was like, chattering laughing and remarking, like the people were online and were all seeing it and reacting to it. I was very subtle. And most people I mentioned it to did not notice it, which was really interesting. So I think we may be experimenting with that here at the CXM Experience.

But what was really interesting is that the aside, when he would do the aside, I would sort of feel like he was talking to me. And when he did the forward-facing camera, it felt like he was talking to the audience, of which I was a part. But I was like, wow, this such an interesting mind trip I’m having right now. Where basically sometimes it’s the audience, and sometimes it’s me directly. What’s that all about? And why am I making that perception shift in my mind. It was pretty interesting.

One thing he did that I didn’t love, and this is a thing to watch out for, is that he did the segment live. And so he was talking to us as Sprinklr, which was great. But then at some point, he switched to recorded. I think he pulled his son in live — his son’s a two-year-old — but I think he pulled his son in live. That works. And then he “went to the kitchen” and did a bunch of stuff in the kitchen, and then came back out to the studio. And that was pre-recorded. But he didn’t say it was. Then he had a segment of him doing magic with his son where it was recorded, and he did say it was pre-recorded. And you could tell. It was quick cuts and takes where he was doing tricks and his son was wrecking them. Like his son would be showing the magic behind the magic. And it was super fun and super hilarious. And I loved that segment. But the part where he went in the kitchen, which was a great trick, it was a very interesting number trick. It was ruined, I think for me because I felt like he was lying to me by making it seem like it was still live. And you could tell because his stubble was different. It was clearly not the same day. But he did it in a way like, I’m switching cameras, made it seem like he’s still in context.

So, I would say that in this day and age, one of the great things about what we have with Zoom and the type of connections we’re making, is that they can be quite authentic, and they can be very real, and they can be very much in an environment. But I think if you’re gonna tell people that you’re gonna switch to recording, I think you need to do that. Because if people feel like you’re tricking them, it takes their head out of the game, and then they don’t really trust you the same way afterwards. So that’d be one observation I’d make.

I’d also make an observation… we had an amazing customer panel. I can’t talk about who was on it, or what the customers were. But the world’s greatest brands and some incredible people, all of whom we owe a great debt of gratitude to. They told great stories. That was interesting, because it was really easy to get these really great people to all be together at the same time, because they’re all just dialing in from their office or their home. And it was kind of neat to me that we were able to access so much of that talent and so much resource so easily. So, again, that might be something that we sort of preserve for the future.

I would say that last comment was our ELT presentations on the first day, we pre-recorded those. I did mine just sitting at my desk. Other people did them a little bit more formally in living rooms and family rooms and with fireplaces. And there’s all sorts of variety as the ELT used their homes but used different places in their homes. And I would say that, generally, while the presentation content was excellent, and we have these really great… there’s two folks on our team Joe and Tony, who essentially narrated. They’re both entertainers, but also full-time employees at Sprinklr. Doing Sprinklr jobs but have been entertainers or still do some entertainment on the side. And so Joe and Tony have been doing the show for a couple years. I think my first ASKO I pulled them on stage and I love watching them do their thing. They actually do a daily show for the whole company, which has really been amazing for the last almost a year.

But Joe and Tony narrated it, and then they roll the videos. And I think what we lost by prerecording the videos is we lost a little bit of that energy and interaction between the ELT. And so I would say that the prerecorded customer videos, I think worked because it would be hard to get the customers to do that much presentation in order. But I think the ELT would have been better live. So that’d be my coaching, if anyone had any questions about it.

Nonetheless, the nice thing about having all this stuff virtually is that’s all recorded. And so we had a platform that people can go into. And people can see the content, use the content, read this content, reread the content, rewatch it. And so the more persistent type of learning and a more persistent type of experience, which I also think is in some ways, maybe better and certainly more respectful of people’s time zones, than when we would do them all live.

Last thing I’ll comment on is with the live show, I always felt really badly for folks from Europe to a certain extent, but particularly from Asia, because they were time switched by 12 hours. And so we’d be doing the show, running around like crazy on the stage. And these people will be in the middle of their own night. And they’ll be tired and sleepy. And that’s always tough to watch and see. And by doing it this way people can time shift and people can make sure they’re fresh, to get the content they need to do.

So that is our ASKO experience. I had a really good time. loved doing the customer pieces. That’s always one of my favorite things to do. I spent a lot of time talking about where they all landed, built some themes that we’ve been pursuing in the company. I’m not going to share those but was great to be able to clean things up. And that was our ASKO experience for 2021 and we’ll see what we do next year.

And for the CXM Experience, I’m Grad Conn, and I’ll see you next time.