Do your sales efforts have a smell or an aroma?

Sales is tough work. One of the things that makes it challenging is starting a conversation with someone you don’t know. This can be particularly difficult when they know you are primarily interested in selling them something. As Gitomer says, “People don’t like to be sold, but they love to buy.” Nowhere is that more evident than at a trade show, where people will avoid eye contact with anyone wearing a “sales hat”.

Even so, trade shows offer ideal opportunities to talk to (usually) vetted prospects, assuming you’re at the right show. These face to face opportunities provide an often-unparalleled chance to learn about your prospect. Body language & facial expressions help you determine if the questions you ask and the responses you provide are resonating with your prospect’s needs and wants. These physical cues are not evident during a phone call or email exchange.

Avoid the hat

In order to benefit from these valuable face to face conversations, you have to start them. Getting these conversations started requires you to engage with someone. This requires that the attendee accepts the engagement rather than ignoring you, looking away, staring at their feet or simply saying “Nope”. Trade show exhibitors try all sorts of tactics to provoke an interaction, including attractive women, giveaways (tchotchkes), and refreshments.

Giveaways are most common. Some lame, some extravagant, some in context with their business. There’s an opportunity here for much thought than you typically see. Common rubber footballs, pens, pads of paper, and so on – much of it never makes it home, much less back to the hotel or office. These giveaways are rarely thought through well enough that they are designed to make a connection to the product or service being sold. We’ll come back to that.

I don’t see too many so-called “booth babes” these days, but they do exist, particularly in the automotive industry. In 30+ years of trade show time, I have seen one coherent use of them – when costumed in a way that connected their presence perfectly into context with the product being sold. Interestingly, this involved costuming intended to appear as if it came from the movie “Edward Scissorhands”.

Refreshments are the other area (besides giveaways) where you see a broad latitude of items. Whether it’s numerous forms of candy, airline-esque bags of peanuts/pretzels, to more imaginative setups like serving locally-brewed root beer in boot-shaped shot glasses from a cowboy-themed booth at a trade show in Texas.

And then there are the booths that recognize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – specifically giving away things that are all but irresistible. These are things, per Maslow, that tie back to the lower tiers of the hierarchy, delivering a feeling of safety / comfort and home. These are the booths with freshly cooked bacon (not kidding) or fresh from the oven chocolate chip cookies. The latter is what I’ve seen perform the best.

The aroma of warm chocolate chip cookies is incredibly disarming to most people. Even the folks who don’t want a cookie seem obligated to explain why – which starts the conversation. Stop long enough to have someone hand you a warm cookie and most will pause to take a bite or two, and feel enough obligation to answer a qualifying question or two. Before long, the conversation is started.

Remember the point of your “gimmick”

Lots of money gets spent on these things. Much of it is spent without much thought or planning, at least from my perspective. Never forget the primary reason why you’re exhibiting at a trade show and spending that money: To start the process of making a sale, or at least, to gather leads. A gimmick to get people to stop at your booth is solely to make it easier to start a conversation. Your booth and pre-show marketing ties into all of this and should contribute to the process of creating / provoking these conversations.

Years ago, I had a fishbowl in the booth. The fishbowl contained a number of our competitor’s hardware dongles. Providing the dongle to us was a requirement for new clients to get a cross-product discount by abandoning the competitor’s product for ours. A bowl full of dongles sent a powerful message and it prompts people to stop. It’s a curiosity. It creates a conversation.

What are you doing to create these conversations?

Planning for a strategic trade show

Last week, we discussed why you shouldn’t skip a trade show. During that conversation, I mentioned that you need to work trade shows strategically and with a plan.

This week, I’d like to elaborate on what that means. In order to do that, let’s break down what happens at a trade show.

Who attends a trade show?

First, let’s consider who goes to a trade show, as that’s a critical piece in planning what you do.

Attendees break down into two or three groups. You’ll have up and comers and newbies to the business of all ages. You’ll also have industry veterans – people “everyone” knows. They may have worked for several vendors and/or market leaders in the industry.

The industry veterans may have created groundbreaking new products, processes or services in your industry. Some of them will be so knowledgeable and so well-networked that they are not only the go to person for anyone who needs an answer, but they’re also right person to offer the backstory on that answer and can give you a list of the subject matter experts who know even more about that particular topic than they do.

These attendees will work at your clients, competitors, partners and prospects. Your trade show strategy needs to consider how your pre-show and post-show marketing communicates with each of these attendee subgroups. Your products and services are often targeted at different expertise levels, sophistication levels, experience and/or business sizes. Your booth’s message and the overall presence you have at the show needs to be crystal clear about communicating in a way that provokes attendees to think to themselves, “Those are exactly the people I need to work with.

Smart attendees come to the show with a plan. They want to meet certain vendors, find certain products, investigate certain services and renew their relationships with existing vendors. Think about how you can help an attendee get the most out of the show. How you do that may differ for clients vs. prospects.

Partners and competitors

Shows give you a unique opportunity to meet partners, improve your network, discuss plans and check up on competitors. Don’t be shy about introducing yourself to the people in your competition’s booth and be pleasant about it. You never know what a conversation will lead to. Even the largest industries boil down to a network of influencers who set the tone and make things happen. You want to know who those people are and you want them to know of you, particularly if you intend to be one of them.

Their booth and overall presence at the show will say a lot of how they’re doing, what they intend to get out of the show and how important the show’s audience is to their business. Study what they’re doing – and what they’re not doing. You might get ideas (or not), but knowing what they’re doing will help you understand what this show means to them.

Email and the phone are great when you have no choice, but face to face discussions with potential and existing partners can be far more productive means of communicating, while building and strengthening the relationships that great partnerships require. Take advantage of the brief face time you have with them.

Run up and follow up

One of the biggest differences between companies that leverage their appearance at a trade show and those who don’t is what they do before and after the show.

Today’s shows either seem to be growing or shrinking. How will they find you? How will they recognize your booth from the other end of the aisle? Why should they make the effort to attend a shrinking, but still-important show? What important client-only events should they attend?

Your communications prior to the show should help them not only be a better attendee, but also help them learn and plan how to make the most of the resources your business will be offering at the show.

Will your experts be there? Trying to get some private time in a busy booth to discuss a client’s not-so-public projects doesn’t work too well. Give them time to set appointments in advance in non show floor time where possible.

We’ve only scraped the surface of what you need to think about when planning a strategic trade show appearance, but this is where you start.