Grab Hold of Potential Opportunity at Trade Shows

For company sales representatives, being on a trade show floor can be uncomfortable: You're surrounded on all sides by competitors and judged by browsing shoppers.

But it's also a prime sales and marketing tool for those who know how to grab hold of every potential opportunity. After all, the average trade show features 573 exhibiting companies where more than 14,000 professional attendees drop in to chat, according to industry statistics. There's no way you could cram that many appointments into a normal two- or three-day period.

Getting Ready

Before you arrive at a show, contact the host city's convention and visitor's bureau. These offices commonly offer concierge services, spouse tours and press release announcements services — all gems when it comes to schmoozing with potential customers. Find out which perks you can take advantage of to spread your presence to the max.

Next, seek private get togethers with good contacts. It costs nothing to add to the bottom of your business correspondence: "P.S. I'm attending the XYZ Association Conference on March 26 through 28. Can I count on you to stop by booth #1234 and check out our latest products?" Write this message on a stack of Post-It notes and attach them to invoices you mail. Record it as part of your voicemail message.

Arrive ready to do business. Bring purchase order agreements, credit card processing machines — whatever it takes.

Collect Information in Exchange for Freebies

Trade shows often boil down to polite trick-or-treating parties for adults. Be sure that customers receive any rewards deep into a presentation. Handing out goodies upfront without asking for sales information earns you nothing. It can also be unproductive to ask people to fill out questionnaires before they receive free merchandise. Attendees often fake their answers and leave you with a mailing list of bogus names and a bill for 40,000 stuffed bears wearing your company logo on their t-shirts. Instead, ask for business cards at the end of conversations. In exchange, hand the potential customer your own card and the incentive gift.

Making the Pitch

Sometimes, salespeople unconsciously hand booth visitors the perfect reason to say "No" and walk on. Qualified leads escape, thanks to ice-breaker mistakes like "May I show you our product?" or "Do you use copy machines at the hospital?"

Instead, approach visitors as if you were sending him a piece of direct mail. Grab them with an intriguing thought about your product, like "Do you know why everybody is talking about this copy machine?"

Other effective openers: "What are your main objectives for attending this show?" and "Describe your immediate needs."

Follow-up questions should probe deeper into the potential customer's requirements: Are you happy with your current supplier? What are your criteria for purchasing? What would you change about your current products or service?

When demonstrating your product, ask open-ended questions: What do you think of our product's performance? How can it help meet your needs? Make prospects pay attention to your advantages rather than drift through a canned speech.

Ask who else at the company participates in the decision-making process. Inquire about the time frame for purchase and give the customer a chance to divulge any additional information about his situation.

Finally, don't be afraid to admit there might not be a match if you suspect the prospect is a dud or a spy for the competition. The sea of visitors passing your booth surely holds other qualified prospects. Spend your time fishing wisely.

You're wasting precious time and money if you merely stand behind a table of literature, grinning at the crowd. Creative presentation is critical. If you aren't impressed with your booth, consult with a graphic designer, interior designer or local craft store owner for advice.

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