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-morning 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 judgment 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 of 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 sell. When you are working at a booth, you usually can’t avoid doing the hard sell. 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 sell 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.

Five bad habits to break at Trade Shows

I just got back from a large trade show and I notice five bad habits that I think all vendors should break.

don't be late for a trade show1). Tardiness – if the trade show starts at 9:00 a.m., then make sure you get your ass there on time. The last thing you want to do is come to a booth late, and find a note from a potentially good prospect who writes that he may stop by later. We all know from experience that most prospects are not going to “stop by later” because they get busy visiting other booths, attending workshops…or meeting with your competitors!

2). Arrive early to set up your booth or tabletop display. I know. As much as we try to plan ahead, things happen. Your flight is delayed. Your hotel claims they don’t have your reservation. The taxi cab driver doesn’t know where the convention center is located. I get that. But try to get to the exhibit hall area ASAP. You never know what problems you are going to face, e.g., there are no chairs because your department didn’t know they had to rent them before the trade show, or there is no electricity because you didn’t know you had to purchase it for the booth, or the scanner you are renting isn’t working properly, etc. You get the drift.

I actually once worked for a company that required all salespeople to arrive one day in advance to set up the booth. However, I realize that some companies have tight budgets and depending on the location and flight availability, you may have to fly in the same day the trade show begins and quickly set things up a couple of hours before the doors open. I understand. Just do the best you can.

3). Don’t leave your leads out all night – I will sometimes arrive early to an exhibit hall to check out other exhibits and get ideas. This is especially true if I’m the only one managing the booth and I don’t have time during the day to walk around. I’m constantly surprised by the number of vendors who leave their leads out on the table all night long. Sure, we’re professionals. We don’t steal. But how can you be sure that some unscrupulous competitor isn’t going to come along and pinch your leads? This is especially true at large trade shows where there isn’t enough security. Either hide your leads in your booth (some trade shows rent locked cabinets) or take them to your hotel room.

BTW, the same goes for candy. I once left a candy bowl out on the display table and when I returned in the morning, most of my sweets were gone. So hide your candy too!

4). Don’t stand or sit like a statue – engage. It amazes me that companies will spend thousands of dollars sending salespeople to attend trade shows and they don’t engage with attendees. Instead, they sit on their butts working on their laptops (which only signals to prospects that are you too busy to be bothered) or read their own marketing literature that they should be handing out.

You need to engage.

That means if someone gives you eye contact or looks at your booth, you may ask them “does anything catch your eye?” or “have you heard of our company or product?” Hopefully, by asking those or other questions, attendees may approach your booth and you can engage them in a conversation to determine if they are good prospects or not.

engage with attendees at trade showsAlso, don’t trust that your booth display or table top will be enough to draw prospects to you. While your marketing department may do a good job developing interesting visuals, at the end of the day it’s up to you to bring home good leads. That means if someone walks by and starts avoiding eye contact with you, call them out by asking them a direct question. By doing so, they may come over and speak with you. This tactic is especially helpful at large trade shows of 100 plus vendors where attendees are overwhelmed, busy and tired. You have to think of attendees as cattle – you have to drive them home through the open range.

Attendees, like cattle, need direction.

5). Turn your frown upside down. I understand. Trade shows can be long and sometimes boring when walk-thru traffic is slow. You get tired. Your feet ache.

But put yourself in the place of the attendees – they are sometimes spending hours walking from booth to booth, listening to sales pitches, and having sales literature thrust among them.

The last thing an attendee wants to see is a sad or disappointed salesperson at a booth. So smile. Be enthusiastic. Show real interest. Be curious. Who knows, you may land a sale or two that could put you over the top when meeting quota.

There, you have it. Break those five bad habits and you should do well.

Now go sell!

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

How to prepare for a trade show

You paid your dues. You worked hard in the inside sales department. Now it’s your turn to join some of the senior sales reps to your first trade show with the company. Great! But wait – how do you prepare for a trade show?

Besides making a list of what to pack and places to see while attending the show, you need to come up with a game plan. Hopefully, your company has attended enough trade shows that they have a good sales and marketing plan in place. But what about you – the first timer? How are you going to be successful? How are you going to obtain good leads and shine in front of your colleagues? How are you going to look good in front of your prospects and clients?

Here are some tips –

1). Research the show – study the agenda, workshops, and speakers. Get a clear sense of the type of prospects who will be attending the show. Also, review YouTube clips or videos of previous shows. These days, most show organizers post videos of past shows to promote the event, and to encourage more attendance and exhibitors for future shows.

2). Talk to your colleagues – get their advice on how to do well at the show.

3). Notify your clients and prospects that you are attending the show – yes, you expect your employer to announce that your company will exhibit at the show, but you need to take a more “hands-on” approach. You could send out a short email to your clients and prospects announcing that you will be attending the event, and encourage them to stop by. You could casually trade show exhibit boothbring it up in conversations.

4). Schedule important meetings – if you have major clients or prospects that you know will be attending the event, schedule a meeting with them while at the show. Or better yet, invite them out to dinner.

5). Ask your prospects and clients for advice – if you know that some of your prospects and clients will be attending the show, ask them for their advice. What do they hope to get out of the show? Why are they attending the event? And more importantly, is there anything you can do to help them while they are at the show?

6). Find out if your competitors are attending the show – for the record, I really don’t worry about competitors – I worry about making sure I’m doing a good job for my clients. With that said, it doesn’t hurt to know if your competitors are attending or not. This way you can be prepared if someone comes up to you during a show and says “your competitor at the booth two rows down claims your product isn’t any good, what do you have to say about that?” Hopefully, you have been in sales long enough to know how to handle this question.

You also need to be prepared if your competitors come to your booth. Now, hopefully, your competitors will be professional and polite. I’ve attended trade shows will competitors will stop by briefly at our booth, shake hands, and wish us well. In short, we exchange some pleasantries, and then we go about our business. On the other hand, I’ve attended a couple of events where competitors will act like total jerks. In that situation, you need to remain cool, be polite, but assertive enough to ask them to leave. After all, you have a limited time to gather leads, so wasting it with competitors is not good time management nor good business.

I hope my tips are helpful.  Please let me know if you have any tips that you would like to share.
photo credit: MedicalTourismAssociation via photopin cc

Good questions to ask during Trade Shows

What is the best way to find good prospects during a trade show?

It all begins on the exhibit floor. When a prospect arrives at your booth, don’t treat him like a side of beef ready to be cooked.

Instead, treat him like a human being. Your goal is to engage in a conversation with the prospect and determine his needs and interests. Remember, the prospect doesn’t care about your products, he only cares about his problems and how you can help him.

Some good opening questions are –

1). Why are you attending this trade show?

2). What do you hope to gain from attending this show?

3). Is there anything that catches your eye in our booth?

4). Can you tell me a little about what you do and some of the problems are you trying to solve at your company?

5). How is the show?

By asking some open-ended questions like the above, you can determine fairly quickly if you are dealing with a serious prospect, or just a sovereign hunter looking for swag. It also helps you create rapport.

Time is very critical at a show. You have to look at a trade show from the prospect’s point of view. There may be literary hundreds of booths for him to visit. He is spending most of his day walking from booth to booth listening to sales pitches and watching presentations. So you have to determine his needs and problems quickly, gain his interest, and most important of all, try to arrange a phone conference or meeting with him after the show. This is not the time to try to hard sell the prospect. It is extremely rare that a prospect will make a buying decision on the spot. This is especially true if you are selling services or products with a long sales cycle.

As a general rule, the longer you speak to a prospect at a show, the better chance you will have to continue the conversation after the event. And if the prospect is asking you a lot of questions and showing interest, that’s definitely a good sign.

From your point of view, you will only work at your exhibit booth for two or three days max. On top of that, you will be taking some breaks or going to lunch. So you need to use your time wisely and try to engage with as many serious prospects as you can.

Finding good prospects at a trade show isn’t difficult. You just need to be patient, ask good qualifying questions, quickly establish rapport, and arrange an appointment after the show.