How to Sell to Vendors at Trade Shows

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to exhibit at a trade show. There are various reasons for this. Maybe the exhibit booth fee is too high, or only a handful of the attendees are your target audience. Regardless of the reason, you feel that the vendors exhibiting at the show are your real best prospects.

But how do you network and solicit business from vendors without being a pest? After all, put yourself in their place – if you are exhibiting at a trade show, who would rather speak to – a potential customer or another vendor?

You see my point?

selling to vendors at trade showsVendors are spending a lot of money to exhibit at trade shows. For example, not only are they paying for exhibit booth registrations, but they are also forking out money for travel, meals, hotel registrations, and miscellaneous expenses like swag and marketing literature.

In some cases, vendors don’t appreciate other vendors approaching them at trade shows because they feel you are hurting their ability to generate new business. And they may also resent that you are not an exhibitor, and see as an interloper interfering in their business transitions.

So how do you approach a vendor without hurting his sales, and developing a win-win situation for both of you?

Here are 14 tips to help you –

1). Trade Show Traffic – it’s better to approach vendors during slow times of a trade show. This will give you a better opportunity to meet them without hurting their business. Slow times are usually early in the morning, mid mornings and afternoons (when workshops are going on) and late in the day. The busiest times are usually when coffee breaks and lunch is being sponsored in the exhibit hall.  Depending on how long a trade show will last, the first day is generally the busiest time. Why? Because most attendees want to take a quick peek at the vendors before going to workshops or general sessions.

2). Booth Traffic – are vendors busy speaking to customers at their booths? If yes, stand back and wait for traffic to slow down before approaching a vendor. Nothing is going to undermine your ability to get a sale more if you hurt your customer from getting a sale himself. Trade shows can be very stressful for vendors. So don’t take it personally if they quickly reject you, or only half listen to your introduction. Most of the time, they are looking over your shoulder to talk to a “real” customer – not you. Take it in stride and try to return to the booth later when traffic dies down.

3). Target – depending on the size of the trade show, you may only have a limited amount of time to visit vendors. With 300 or more vendors exhibiting at the trade show, are you really going to have time to visit each one? Not really. So the best solution is to target key vendors that you want to speak to, and hopefully generate sales down the road. This requires research. Do your homework. Most organizations will provide lists of vendors prior to a conference. And if you are lucky, most organizations will send you a list of all exhibitors, along with their contact information like phone numbers and email addresses. Use all of that information to your advantage and select which vendors to meet. If you are fortunate enough to meet everyone on your top list, then go to your “B” and then “C” vendors, and so on.

4). Appearance – how to dress when you attend a trade show can sometimes be hard to determine. Unless you attended the same event before, it can sometimes be difficult to know whether you should wear a suit, go business casual, or go completely casual. I usually prefer to take the middle ground and wear a nice sports coat with casual business pants, which the option of wearing a tie. I’ve never worn suits while attending a trade show (either as an attendee or exhibitor). It’s a judgement call. As the old saying goes, it’s better to dress to impress. You will be taken more seriously and you will feel like the true professional.

5). Knapsack – I always bring a knapsack with me when I attend trade shows either an attendee or vendor. It’s easier to carry around all the literature and swag that you know you will pick up. Also, it’s easier to carry around your laptop if you want to give a quick demo of your product or service.

business cards at trade shows6). Business cards – this goes without saying, but always make sure you bring plenty of business cards with you. Also, rather than carry around large stacks of fliers, bring a postcard instead depicting what you are selling. Postcards are easier to carry, hand out and most people will read and keep them.

7). Be Honest – don’t try to pretend that you are a potential customer. Tell trade show vendors upfront that you are a salesperson too. Believe me, they will appreciate your honesty. Just let them know that you stopped by to learn more about their business, and see if you could schedule a call or online tour after the show. Of course, exchange business cards, maybe pick up some of their literature, take a quick look around their booth, and then leave. Don’t be rude and take their swag – that’s for customers. If you really are eager to bring home swag, wait until the end of the trade show. Most vendors would rather have the leftover swag given away to attendees than pack it up and take it back home.

8). Small notebook – Do you have a great memory? If not, bring along a small notebook and pen with you to jot down notes or ideas.

9). Attend workshops – not all your potential customers are going to be exhibiting at the trade show. Some will attend workshops. Review the agenda beforehand and select workshops where you feel you have the greatest chance to meeting good prospects. Or better yet, if you know that a key customer will be speaking at a workshop, as a matter of courtesy (and good business sense), attend his event. After he speaks, go up and shake his hand and congratulate him on a good presentation. Or better yet, if you can swing it, ask if you could speak at a trade show or participate in a panel discussion.

10). Social events – All conferences and trade shows have social events. Again, review the agenda and select ones that will give you the greatest chance to meet clients.

11). Your Mother was wrong. Do talk to strangers –  When you were a child, your mother offered you good advice about not talking to strangers. But as a grownup sales professional, you need to talk to strangers to network and generate new business. See a lunch table with an open seat? Ask if the seat is taken. If not, sit down, introduce yourself, eat, and maybe find a customer. Standing in line waiting to use the restroom? Introduce yourself to the person next to you and strike up a conversation. You rarely are going to find a lot of potential customers in one setting than at a conference or trade show.

12). Scott Ginsberg is right. “Surrender your agenda”Scott Ginsberg, author and speaker, made a very good point in an interview published in an article on How to Network at Conferences and Trade Shows: Mini-Guide by MarketingSherpa.

Rather than attend trade shows with a hard agenda, Mr. Ginsberg recommends that you try to be more approachable and have fun. In the interview, he states that “people can usually tell when you have an agenda, and that’s certainly not being approachable. Surrendering your agenda puts you more at ease to be yourself.”

Unless you spoke to a vendor in advance of a trade show, you rarely are going to get a sale on the spot. Sure, prior to attending the conference, you may want to schedule some meetings while at the event. It’s not unusual for attendees to be sponsors and lease a small makeshift office or table for conversations or demos. But try to set the right expectations for yourself. You should focus on generating relationships with the goal of scheduling more time after a conference for extended conversations, online tours, free trials and eventually getting the order.

BTW, when you have a chance, please read his book Hello, My Name is Scott.

13). Avoid the hard sale. When you are working at a booth, you usually can’t avoid doing the hard sale. Time is money and you want to meet as many attendees and potential customers as you can. But when you are a vendor visiting other vendors, you have to take the soft sale approach. Don’t go in with guns blazing and tell everyone about your company or product. Instead, show some interest in what they are selling. Ask good questions. Take some notes. Remember, your goal isn’t to sell on the spot, but try to get an appointment after the show.

14). Be social. That is, be on social media and follow vendors before you attend the trade show. Follow them on Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites. Let them know that you are showing interest in the company, and hopefully, in return, they will show interest in you.

Please let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Here are some articles that can help you –

“How to Network at a Trade Show” by WikiHow
“How to Work a Trade Show” published in Entrepreneur
“Top Ten Networking Tips at a Trade Show” by Chaz Brooks

Note: If you like this post, please check out my book – Advice for New Salespeople: Tips to Help your Sales Career.