By now, it should be clear that we don't approve of vendors leading with offerings. So you can guess how we feel about the ways in which many vendors—especially technology vendors—display their wares at trade shows. Product, feature; product, feature; product, feature; and so on. Suffice it to say that there's almost always room for improvement. The exception, of course, may arise in the case of an early-market offering, where just putting your product in front of early-market buyers—and letting them figure out how to use it—may be a valid short-term approach to getting help in understanding how your offering can help a buyer achieve a goal, solve a problem, or satisfy a need.
But let's assume that you're not pursuing Innovators and Early Adopters. So first things first: Exactly what are you trying to accomplish by participating in a trade show? Are you trying to generate leads? Many Marketing departments pound their chests in triumph after a trade show generates 500 "bingo cards" requesting information. But the hapless salespeople who follow up on these so-called leads soon discover that 95-plus percent of them are dead ends. They turn out to be consultants just trying to pick their brains, college students interested in the technology or looking for employment opportunities, window shoppers, trinket gatherers, and so on—in other words, people who may be intrigued by your offering, but can't buy.
If you were to take the total cost of participating in the trade show (including all personnel) and divide by the number of bingo cards generated, you might be shocked at how expensive these leads are—especially in light of the fact that many or most are not leads at all. And it gets worse: According to Gartner Group, a face-to-face call by a high-tech salesperson costs over $400, when all costs are taken into account. So if you called on just one in five of those 500 bingo-card contacts, you'd be out another $40,000!
Remember, too, that your initial contact becomes your point of entry into an organization. In the case of an enterprise sale, entering at the user level almost guarantees a long sell cycle. You'll probably spend a lot of time, along the way, with people who can't say yes, but can say no.
We suggest taking a different approach to trade shows. Just as companies can differentiate themselves with a sales process, we believe they can do the same with trade shows. When seeking mainstream-market buyers, consider scaling back your participation in traditional trade shows. Choose shows that business people are more likely to attend.
Get a small booth, and resist the temptation to load it up with equipment. Use prominently displayed quotes, or likely menus of goals or problems, to get Targeted Conversation attendees (who are not necessarily thinking about change) to slow down, enter your booth, and share a business goal. This puts your staff in a position to begin asking intelligent questions that the prospect is able and willing to answer.
If demos are appropriate, we suggest asking interested prospects if they'd like to see the offering. If they agree, fill out a card with (1) their goal and (2) the capabilities they'd like to see. Direct them to a suite away from the floor, where they can have refreshments and make phone calls. When they're ready, they visit the suite and give the card to one of your staff, who can then tailor the demo to the specific capabilities the buyer is interested in seeing.