In my previous career I was a university recruiter for a small public institution. I travelled extensively – from every corner of my home province to lapping the globe more than once. Pretty glamorous, eh?
The reality is that the vast majority of that time (other than the many hours at airports - uggghh) was spent at education fairs, which is the post-secondary equivalent of a trade show. In local areas I would do 2-3 events a day with the time between events spent driving to the next one; internationally I would do the same but sometimes it would be only one event that lasted the whole day long - and I was always working by myself. It’s similar to an entrepreneur or small business at a trade show. There simply aren’t the funds or staff power to use for an elaborate display or giant team of delegates so I figured out ways to make the most of the opportunity with the limited resources that I had.
The average shelf life of a recruiter in my region doing the “travelling road show” is about two years. I was in this job, or variations of it at the same institution, for eight years. I did the math for you and that works out to just over 1000 hours at trade shows.
Clearly, I’m mad.
Luckily I did pick up a few trade show tips along that way that I’m happy to share. Following these suggestions is sure to make your experience as an entrepreneur or small business at an event like this that much more productive and pleasant.
1. Tell, Don't Sell
No really, throw every little sales technique you’ve been practicing out the window and forget about selling. Instead, start the interaction with a sincere open-ended question that takes an interest in the attendee. BE GENUINE. Remember the 80/20 rule – let them talk 80% of the time; you talk 20% of the time. You’ll get valuable information from what they tell you and it will create a more useful interaction for both of you.
If they finish the small talk and move on, fine – you had a nice chat and maybe they’ll tell their friend who is interested in your service about you (trust me, even if they ask you nothing business related, they have noted what you do and are deciding if they need further information). If they do ask about your business, take that opportunity to share your company’s story genuinely (yes, that’s the second time I’ve said that word – I mean it). If you’re spieling off a practiced story it just turns into a sales pitch and you’ll turn them off. Know your main points and then tell the story in your own voice and make it a personalized, interactive conversation (not a monologue) with the attendee.
You are two humans with a common interest in whatever the particular trade show is for. You have something to share with them and, more often than not, your story will stick in their head longer than a sales pitch. Even if they walk away without laying money on the table or making a commitment, your story about how you’ve been making jewelry since you were an eight year old at Camp Yippy-Ki-Yay and turned it into your own business as an adult; or your heartwarming tale of childhood camping being what prompted you to join the RV industry will be what they think of when they are ready to make that purchase. Make sure they leave with a brochure or business card and, if you can, write a quick note on it such as “Great to meet you – loved swapping fishing tales! Call me when you’re ready to get that boat we talked about! Chris”.
2. Show Some Flair
Find out if the venue has any rules around set-up, identify your target client, and then use that knowledge to create something unique. One of the most memorable booths I saw was from a recruiter who actually folded his table legs up and placed his “booth” on the floor and sat down cross-legged on the top of the table with his display positioned around him. His target audience was high school students who marched to the beat of their own drummer and were looking for a school that embraced their quirkiness. The moment the doors opened he had a crowd around him full of curious onlookers and he didn’t stop talking the whole time. He stood out amongst our generic set-ups and he attracted the students who were a good fit for his school. Mission accomplished.
You don’t need to go that far but think about physical objects that are pieces of your story and design your display and product around them – if you’re in communications you could use an old fashioned typewriter that your Grandma taught you how to write on; If you’re a mechanic bring that display of model cars you’ve been working on and show it off. These are great conversation starters and will attract your ideal client to you and give you a chance to share your story with them (remember Tip #1??).
Above all else though – make sure your business name and service or product is CLEARLY identified. Don’t be vague hoping people will be lured in to ask more. At a trade show there is a lot of competition for attention and attendees’ time is limited - if you don’t make it easy for people to find you and know what it is you do, they’re likely to cruise right on by.
Stand, don’t sit, when you’re on duty. Get behind the booth; if you stand in front, you’ll be blocking that lovely display you’ve worked so hard on and it can be annoying for attendees to have to try to look around you to see what you're all about.
3. Be Prepared
Many people show up to a trade show, set up their booth and then kick back and wait for the sales to roll in. They usually leave the event no further ahead than when they started. Decide in advance how you will determine if the event is a success. Set goals, make a plan to execute those goals, and stay focused. Decide what the purpose of attending this event is – do you want to raise brand awareness, network, make X number of sales, generate X number of leads? Figure out how to do that and prepare for it.
Review your product benefits and costs and then practice with a friend and have them quiz you – and make them be tough. After all the years I worked for my organization and all the hours I put in at trade shows, every so often someone was able to stump me. There is no shame in this – it’s better to be honest and tell them you aren’t sure of the answer than make something up and regret it later. This can be turned into a great opportunity to generate a lead and show wonderful customer service. Within 24 hours get them all the details they need – plus some bonus info or contacts – and send a personal note to them. It shows that you care enough to follow-up and reinforces you as a good, honest choice.
If you bring nothing else, bring something for interested parties to fill out to get more information or a follow-up and ensure it complies with CASL, Canada’s anti-spam laws. Either printed information cards and/or a tablet with a form embedded in it will work. Ideally you have paper and online options so that if you get a line for one, they can use the other. Scribbling the information in a notebook or on the back of a brochure is unprofessional and makes the client wonder if you’re really serious. Business cards are essential too - as a general rule, never leave home without them! Related to this - bring LOTS of company pens to your trade show. They walk away from booths a LOT so bring way more than you think you’ll need – plus a pen with a logo is a great advertisement if it ends up in someone’s pocket.
No doubt you've spent time and money to be at this event and every chance you have to speak to someone is an opportunity to make a sale. You're anxious to make the most of your investment and are keen to ensure that the potential for a deal is maximized. The attendees you'll be speaking to have made an investment as well. They've likely spent time traveling to the event, possibly paying a fee to enter, paying for parking, childcare, etc. and want to make the most of their time too. With this in mind approach every interaction with respect for each other's time. If it's not looking like it's a good business match, politely suggest another vendor who might be a better fit for their needs. Yes - you heard that right, when you can't give them what they need, you should refer them to someone else who can. It's all about karma, baby. They'll appreciate that you respected their time and, possibly, return the favour some day.
Wherever you may be (even in your own backyard) find out who the targeted demographic of the particular event is, what the local industries are, and how this may affect how your present your product and story. If you can find out which competitors will be at the event and the services they offer, this will help with your good deed referrals.
As a general rule, always err on the side of reserved manners in your business dealings and please don’t forget your pleases and thank yous. Thank you. (See what I did there?)
Be pleasant and approachable. This seems like common sense but is surprisingly not – and can be really hard to do after hours of standing behind a booth, especially if you’re not that busy. Smile. Smile a lot and smile naturally. A forced, crazy eyed smile will scare people away.
Practice your naturally pleasant look and check to make sure that you don’t have B*tchy Resting Face. If you do, be aware, and correct it when you’re on duty or you'll have people constantly telling you to cheer up or, worse, just avoiding you completely. When you consciously make the effort to smile at people it makes a difference. In fact, I’ve had people about to walk right by my booth that I’ve smiled at who’ve stopped and turned around to say hello and ask how my day has been, and from there a conversation ensued. A smile creates an instant connection and conversation starter and, guaranteed, it is your most cost-effective tactic for generating leads and making sales.
- Tell - Don't Sell
- Show Some Flair
- Be Prepared
And here's a bonus tip just for you!
Please, for the love of your feet, wear comfortable shoes. Leave the high heels or new dress shoes that aren't broken in yet at home, or at least change them when you arrive or you’ll be either a) in agony, or b) in stockinged or bare feet behind the booth. Neither is okay. Trust me, I’ve been there and it’s awkward when you forget and move out front to talk to someone and you’re blistered and shoeless. So awkward. Flats - comfortable, worn-in flats - are where it’s at.
Remembering these tips will set you up for a positive experience if you've done zero or one hundred events like this. Trade shows are excellent events for meeting a lot of people, connecting with new clients, creating future business contacts, and making new friends (awww).