First Tip for Trade Show Success: Listen!

It's your elevator pitch - but let them choose the floor.

After a number of years as the expo hall manager (or “concierge”?), when I was working strictly in non-profit fund development, I finally got a chance to stand on the other side of the table. Just a few weeks ago I had the privilege of representing one of my corporate clients at a healthcare conference. Having been the one to recruit and contract the exhibitors and sponsors, to assign the tables and see that each one’s display packages were available for set up, to check on everyone’s access to electricity and satisfaction with the flow of traffic – finally I got to be one of “them.”

The experience was especially fulfilling because – wouldn’t you know it – the little expo area was filled with my old friends, the exhibitors who had attended “my events” over the years. It was super to be one of them for a change and to catch up on the developments in their companies. When the event was over, I felt successful on behalf of my client – and I also realized how much I had learned by working with these dedicated “road warriors” over the years. Thanks to them, I already knew the ropes. Now, perhaps I can reflect back to them and other exhibitors some of the collective wisdom I’ve gained from my professional and personal interaction with them.

So let’s start today with Exhibiting Lesson #1: It’s as much about listening as it is about talking. Successful exhibiting, like all marketing and its cousin, fund development, is about building relationships. True, you feel pressed to get your message out, to get your print collateral in their hands, to deliver your well prepared elevator pitch, but all that can fall on deaf ears and the print material go right to the circular file if you haven’t established a little, tiny bridge. I always advise: Try to get them to talk first! If you’re promoting toothpaste and your success depends on getting people to try your newest version, then starting the conversation with a sincere question makes so much more sense than opening with something lame like, “Can I tell you a little about our latest product?” No! How about an opener like this:

·      What kind of toothpaste do you like?

·      So, how important is flavor to you when you brush your teeth?

·      What do you think about these whitening toothpastes we’re seeing now?

·      Now, what would bring you to a toothpaste display today?

You begin with the question, and then, very importantly, you listen to the answer. I mean really listen. So what if you don’t get your top five remarks made? You have to do only two things for each person who visits your booth: Make them feel connected to you, and give them one simple way they can reconnect in the future, should they want to. All the sales pitches in the world pale in comparison with the one salesperson who listened to the visitor’s story or opinion or hilarious experience. You can’t sell much toothpaste at your booth, but you can go a long way toward building relationships between your company and individuals in a position to purchase.

When your visitor starts to disagree with your sales pitch, that’s not a signal for you to change their thinking or correct their misunderstanding; it’s a chance for you to listen. “Oh, I can’t afford that,” or “There is no way I’d try something that complicated” are opportunities for you to simply invite more conversation: “Tell me more about that… Wow! Did you have a bad experience with it?... I guess getting value for what you pay is really important to you… Sounds like you’ve had some experience with a similar product…” Any of those responses will affirm your visitor and validate their opinion. After all, when they finally walk away, it’s really only their opinion that matters.

At the end of each of my trade shows, when the exhibitors were packing up, I always asked each to complete a written evaluation of the experience. Those who walked away happiest always made comments like this:

·      Had a lot of great conversations

·      Met a lot of new people

·      Heard from many current clients about how they’re doing

Your ultimate success will depend much less on how much you preached the company line than on how well you connected with attendees. And that connection will be developed through listening a lot more than through talking. Won't you try it - and report back to us here at the Speakeasy. Share your own trade show wisdom.