It is the dream of almost every executive purchasing a booth at a trade show. The doors to the exhibition hall open and prospects start streaming in with checkbooks in hand, questions about products bubbling from their lips, and their excitement and desire to make a purchase at the trade show practically visible from two aisles away. For most companies that struggle to source prospects, the idea of having hundreds or even thousands of self-identified prospects under one roof and eager to actively engage with salespeople is a fantasy that can only occur at a trade show. But converting prospects into customers at a trade show is not automatic and far too many companies fail to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them at trade shows.
Ahead of Time
The successes associated with trade show selling begin well before the booth is set up and the products are displayed or signage is hung. Just a partial list of the things that need to be considered:
1. What trade show to attend as an exhibitor. While trade shows attract customers, if the attendees are not the right customers for a company’s products or services; the trade show is not likely to be a fertile ground for future sales. Trade shows are marketed to and appeal to different buyers. Some trade shows are geared towards consumers directly and others are positioned to appeal to business customers. Failure to consider the target attendee of the trade show can lead to frustration and expenses to participate in a non-productive trade show.
2. Prior to a trade show, it is strongly suggested that the exhibiting company contact key prospects attending the show and arrange for meetings, either at the booth or at other meeting places associated with the trade show (suites, restaurants, bars, etc.). Relying on happenstance to “run into each other” at the show often causes disappointment when people’s time, availability, and ability to meet each other does not allow for a meeting to occur.
3. If the booth is to be shared or split between two companies; or if one company’s products are to be displayed in another company’s booth it is essential that the agreement between how the two companies will represent each other’s products be spelled out. In many instances one company’s product may integrate another company’s product within a proposed solution. Or, there may be some cooperative agreement between companies that share an alliance to display each other’s products in each of their booths. It is critical that booth personnel at each booth be knowledgeable on the other company’s products, agree to display, identify, or refer to the other company’s products as specified according to a prior agreement.
4. Determine who will be responsible for being in the booth. Depending on the likely customers and prospects attending the trade show, it may be advisable to staff the booth with marketing personnel to talk about product features, market research, or other marketing issues. In other situations having engineers available to speak to product specifications, and of course, having sales people and senior executives in the booth is always appropriate. In terms of scheduling people in the booth, most trade shows are 8 hours long per day or even longer and therefore it is often appropriate to have at least two shifts of booth personnel so that the level of enthusiasm and excitement can be maintained throughout a shift. Additionally, that also permits company employees not currently assigned to be in the booth to visit other booths and glean insights about competitors, interact with other trade show attendees, and attend meetings, conferences, presentations, etc.
5. Give thought to what the booth will include (graphics, products available, marketing materials, etc.).
6. Choose a booth location wisely. Look to see where entrances and exits are, where competitors will be situated, where food will be served or lavatories are located. Consider traffic flow (middle of the show floor, end of an aisle, in a corner, etc.), where are the companies that are likely to attract large numbers of people congregating and which areas of the show floor will be less heavily trafficked.
7. Lastly and perhaps most importantly is to ensure that there is a strategy to attending the trade show. What is the key message the company wishes to communicate? What is the objective of attending the trade show? How will success be measured?
Of course, planning is extremely important and must be given proper consideration in order to succeed at a trade show. However, what most people will see and what will be most memorable is what happens while at the show.
At The Show
The interaction once at the show is what most attendees will remember about a company if done well, and what they will never even notice if poorly executed.
1. The way the booth is designed has a tremendous influence on how successful a company’s performance will be at the trade show. An ideal booth should be inviting and open. Many smaller booths fail to take advantage of the trade show selling opportunity by placing a table at the edge of the booth closest to where people walk, and then sitting behind products displayed on the table. In essence, they put up a barrier between the seller and the buyer and do what they can to keep the buyer from “penetrating” into the booth. The result is often a buyer that browses quickly, but does not actively engage with the seller.
2. Use graphics advantageously. While some trade shows have restrictions on how high signs can be placed, be sure that the identity of the company in the booth is clearly seen and identified from as far away as possible. Additionally, be certain that graphics enhance the message the company intends to communicate. Simple product photos do not usually help the buyer envision how the product will be used as much as a photo demonstrating the product in action. If the product has multiple uses or can be used in multiple environments, highlight that through different graphics.
3. Graphics must be easily and quickly seen and interpreted. Far too many trade show booths hang a wall graphic on the back of a booth and then sit directly in front of it in a chair that blocks the view or obstructs either the name of the company, a photo, or other important information about the product. Be sure that the “sight lines” of the graphic are not blocked.
4. If a booth is placed on a corner of an aisle, it is best to allow access to the booth from all directions of how traffic will flow. Having walls up from one direction may lead to people approaching from one of the other directions to miss that booth as they quickly scan ahead to see where they wish to visit next.
5. Even in booths that have an open floor plan and allow prospects to approach easily from all directions, it is common to see booth personnel buried deep into the booth and standing near product displays either handling the products or absent-mindedly fiddling with demonstration units. It is far better to have booth personnel talking and initiating conversation on the perimeter of the booth and standing where they can interact with prospects as they approach the booth. By being friendly and taking note of what people are doing or saying as they approach the booth, the chances of having someone step into the booth increase.
6. Once someone enters the booth, it is a sales opportunity. Qualify booth attendees by following a simple approach to identifying needs, scoping out appropriate solutions, determining criteria used to make decisions, and responding to questions to steer the prospect toward the company’s offerings.
7. Having said that, also be aware that a booth is not a place to engage in an extended conversation with someone who is merely information seeking or may not be a true buyer at all. Provide information to engage the person and then appropriately suggest a follow up meeting or call when a more detailed discussion can occur. Confirm that the person is a legitimate lead before getting stuck talking about products or the company and missing a chance to talk to a prospect representing a more qualified business opportunity who passes by the booth because it is too busy (though not productively).
8. Unless it is to ask a quick question or clarify a point, booth personnel should not engage in social conversations with each other or turn their back to the trade show attendees to have a chat between themselves. Booth personnel should focus on engaging with customers and prospects. If the booth is “dead” and there is no one entering the booth as they walk by, then it is especially important for booth personnel to become more actively involved in reaching out to engage trade show attendees in discussions.
9. Many companies will hire celebrities to show up at their booth for autograph signings or photo opportunities in an effort to bring people into the booth area. If this is a strategy, be certain that the celebrity chosen is consistent with the image that the company wishes to portray to attendees. Also, while attendees may flock to see the famous person or interact with the actress, athlete, or musician – that does not always translate into sales or even interest in the products within the booth. Be certain that there is a synergy that makes sense to pursue before spending money to have a celebrity.
10. Above all other hints, the appropriateness of having demonstration units, opportunities for trade show attendees to interact with products (handle them, “try them out,” see how they work under different conditions, etc.) goes much further than simply referring to capabilities or pointing to a brochure and trying to describe how a product works, how durable it is, how simple or intuitive it is, etc.
Of course, there is more to do once the show has ended. Far too often, the potential sale that was initiated at a trade show does not happen because of the lack of follow up post trade show.
Post Trade Show
The follow up after a trade show is equally as important as the work done up to that point. While at the trade show, the following likely occurred:
• Badges were scanned
• Business cards were exchanged
• Notes were taken about a prospect with the intent to follow up.
Now it is incumbent upon the company to do the following:
1. Qualify the leads – determine how likely the prospect is to make a purchase, identify what their interest level in any particular product is, if there is a timing associated with when the purchase will occur.
2. Distribute the leads to the appropriate sales person by either geography, industry verticals, or sales channel
3. Do not allow too much time to pass. Contacting within a month of the trade show should be the standard. Anything longer than that is going to lead to loss of interest or the opportunity for other competitors to secure a deal with the trade show attendees before the company even gets to responding.
4. Sending materials to a prospect (brochure, corporate capabilities presentation, product data sheets, etc.) is not sufficient as follow up. While follow up may include those things, it is greater than that. Follow up must be more tailored and customized and should be an extension of the conversations started in the booth.
Trade shows are excellent opportunities for companies to sell to prospects and can be rather cost-effective. However, if not properly managed, trade show selling opportunities can lead to large expenses with little return. Looking at trade shows as an easy sales conversion activity is possible, but only if approached with care and consideration and as a managed process.