You might assume that an exhibition is the most natural playground for salespeople, but I’m afraid you would be wrong.
More often than not, they are desk-based and talking to clients on the phone, with a few client or prospect meetings sprinkled into their schedules. They are - by and large - not regularly in front of large volumes of potential customers simultaneously, where everyone present has their own personal agendas and time is precious. Many are a long way from their comfort zone on an exhibition stand, which does make sense considering this is only likely to be a handful of days in the year. However, it can and does mean they are usually ill-prepared for what lies in store in that hall.
I’ve been there - on both sides of the conversation. Having worked in exhibitions for over 15 years, I know that it can be both challenging and daunting to take your usually office-based sales skills on the road. So I’ve compiled these top tips to prepare your sales staff for selling at exhibitions.
When to approach prospects
I find the biggest mistake companies make at exhibitions is not approaching browsing visitors. They wait for people to come to them. You’ve paid big money for this very temporary piece of real estate, expensive stand architecture only to find yourselves right next to all of your biggest competitors. Now, I’m not suggesting pouncing on everyone who walks by waving a scanner in their face and shoving a brochure into their pockets, but as with all things there is a smart way to do this.
People have come far and wide to attend these seminars and roam the halls, so many are expecting to browse and perhaps talk to people. Therefore, it’s not a far-flung assumption that they are expecting to be approached. So when should you approach someone? Simple - I think whenever a visitor walks past your stand and looks in your direction. And believe me - that is often - so you should not be standing around doing nothing for long at all. Exhibition work is busy work, but that’s why you’re there, isn’t it?
I often walk exhibition halls and only get approached by one or perhaps two companies. When there are over a hundred exhibitors in the room, this demonstrates a) my point and b) an opportunity.
2. How to approach prospects
An essential technique to master is how to approach people.
I’ve been to a lot of exhibitions and something I find particularly interesting is how many people actually approach me. But, more often than not it’s to say “Can I scan your pass?”, “Have you heard of us?” or “How can I help you?”. Too salesy. Maybe they’ve got KPIs for the number of pass scans or introductions, but these interactions a) are not great openers to a meaningful conversation and b) make people feel like they are statistics for your event strategy.
Sure, your sales team should know what to do to open a conversation with a (likely) cold prospect, but think about whether they have been preparing for these conversations in the same way that you have as their manager.
No matter the exhibition, no matter the industry, you’re there to have conversations with people. Simple. So here’s the best way I’ve found to get that conversation going and make it meaningful. Approach people and - naturally - say “Hi, I’m Stef” and if that doesn’t work, use your own name. Stick out your hand - the handshake is something which is naturally pre-programmed into people as something to do when you meet people. You’re more than likely to get an instant, human-to-human reaction. Then you’re in.
3. Be more approachable
So you know when and how to approach prospects, but newsflash: it works both ways.
So many staff on exhibition stands are either sitting right at the back of the stand, behind a desk, on their laptops or talking to each other. Some even commit the most cardinal of sins and are eating. None of this is approachable behaviour.
If you want to be approachable, you need to have the right, open body language and position yourself towards the edges of your stand where many of the visitors are likely to be walking past.
In my opinion, at an exhibition stand, being approachable is also doing most of the approaching.
4. How to ask good questions
You can start a better conversation if you have a range of pre-prepared questions but be sure you don’t rattle them off in order, like a call centre script. Think of questions you can ask people which will naturally lead them to ask more about your product, your stand or your collateral. That way, they’re asking you, rather than you selling and talking at them.
Trainers often say to ask open questions as a rule to start conversations, but they have often not spent much time on an exhibition stand. I don’t find it’s a hard and fast rule, as a couple of closed questions can also help the exchange - both ways - until the visitor is comfortable enough to open up and let you in for those long, open questions.
Let your sales team come up with their own, personalised questions and angles of approach, but make sure you’ve seen them and they tie in with your overall strategic objectives for the exhibition. Generally, I would recommend finding out more about the visitors and their situation and allow them to ask you questions too. Remember, this is a human-to-human chat and not a brand-to-human chat. So, once you have introduced yourself (not your company, its mission vision and values), questions such as:
Not salesly questions that offer an easy exit from a conversation:
Then you can get into asking them about which company they are from, their role, etc. This may or may not qualify them for a more detailed discussion, and if they are ready, this is when you whet their appetite about your product, offer a demo or invite them for a coffee.
5. Know why you're there and what you're selling
OK, this does sound a bit odd - I mean, of course you know what you are selling. I remember walking through a large automotive exhibition a few years back and approaching a salesperson from a large, well-known brand and asking him how the show was going. “Badly” he replied - “I’ve not sold one car yet”. I remember thinking that cars are not what he should have been selling at the exhibition. He should have been selling test drives.
So, know what you are selling at the show. Is it appointments, demos or simply the opportunity to continue a conversation at a specific time (which you would book into the diary at the show). Have a list of priorities for these sales, with first prize going to an appointment in the calendar and getting someone’s details for your mailing list bringing up the rear. Essentially, know your priorities and be specific.
6. Converting and moving on
Once you identify that the visitor to your stand is showing buying signals, this is when you book something into the diary. Then move on. Admittedly, this does sound counter intuitive, but you don’t want to be stuck for half a morning selling a visitor your product, when you could have booked three or four meetings in the same timeframe.
Your exhibition stand is primarily there to generate leads to follow up on and convert into sales later. Have your diary to hand - your visitors will probably have theirs on their phone anyway so there’s no excuse not to get your meetings booked there and then. Have a reason prepared for this. Either you need to show them a relevant case study sometime, or bring in the right person for the next meeting, but this can help you convert a conversation into a meeting booking.
There are some exceptions to not going through the full sales cycle on the exhibition stand. If you are exhibiting in a foregin country in order to convert a couple of big ticket deals and you’ve designed your stand for this, you may have pre-booked meetings in closed meeting rooms, but this is not often the case on a run of the mill stand.
7. Bring in a fun element to your interactions
You can imagine in a hall of hundreds of stands that everyone is very brand and sales-orientated, only interested in talking shop. But, sometimes a bit of fun in your interactions is quite refreshing for the visitor. We often used to play games on stands to involve passersby, but they can’t be too scripted and may need improvising on the day. The room will be full of stiff and serious salespeople, so create a point of difference. You might need to take a bit of a risk and experiment a little, but the impression you make will stand out for the visitor and they’ll remember you and your stand, especially when you follow up with them post-exhibition.
I remember approaching visitors whose names I had clocked on their passes before they approached and saying, for example. “Hi James, how are you - it’s been a while!” with a ‘long time, no speak’ look on my face. This immediately got their attention as they scan their memory for how and when we had met before. I admit that this is a bit mean, and I would always fess up and tell them that it was a means of getting them to engage and we would have a bit of a laugh about it.
The message here is that a stand full of people visibly having fun is far more attractive than a stand with a team of staff standing behind a counter on their laptops. Think about how you can factor in the fun.
So there you have it - my 7 ways to prepare yourself and your sales teams for exhibition season. Got any of your own? Give me a shout and let me know.
Stefan Buss has worked in the exhibition industry for over 15 years before working at Storm12, as well as selling on many exhibition stands, and trained many teams to do the same. See his full profile
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