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Guerrilla Marketing at Trade Shows:
Not for the Faint of Heart

If you think cold calling is nerve-racking and difficult, try working a trade show where you go booth to booth prospecting for business. I have seen highly competent salespeople in my business shudder at the idea of placing themselves in harm’s way doing cold prospecting at a convention hall.

What make the task so daunting and intimidating are the signs and warnings waiting for you as you enter the hall: “No soliciting exhibitors. Violators will be expelled.” Although I have never been expelled, I have had my share of harsh rebuffs from exhibitors.

What makes trade show selling (guerrilla marketing) worth the effort is the target-rich environment. Nowhere will you find 500+ companies under one roof, with many top decision makers in attendance and available, where you can glean very valuable information and intelligence.

Because the unofficial line at trade shows is that uninvited salespeople can be seen but not heard, you need to be very subtle, brief and to the point, respectful and humble. Unlike the code of waitresses, where at another restaurant they leave good tips and cheers to their fellow clan, salespeople tend not to extend the professional courtesy to uninvited salespeople in their booths. For many it is payback time. Believe me, I know. I have experienced hundreds of times where I was met by a salesperson manning the booth with anger and dismissal… like, “How dare you walk into our hallowed space?” Rightfully so, since they see you as an inconvenience and an intrusion. They can be a humorless bunch.

The Initial Approach

So as not to set you up for failure and humiliation, the following are some ideas, verbiage and some tactics to take the sting out of potentially putting yourself in harm’s way. The strategy is to be non-intrusive, humble and unpredictably non-traditional.

  • Prospect: “How are you?”
  • Salesperson: “Exhausted. This show is tough on the knees, but it can’t be as tough as standing in place all day like you.”
  • Salesperson: “Do you mind if I ask you a stupid question? Worse yet, I’m not a prospect for you.”
  • Prospect: “There are no stupid questions.”
  • Salesperson: “Who is the VP of sales that I can send some information to? (always infer that you are going to send information. They will feel less threatened when they decide to give you a name.) I’m with Tangent. We are a sales training and development firm.”
  • Salesperson: “I don’t suppose you’d be kind enough to point them out to me. Well thanks. I promise you I won’t tell them you gave me their name.”

Generally if I go into 10 booths, I’ll be able to speak to 3 decision makers. The percentages are similar to telephone cold calling, but they are a little better and of course here you get the benefit of meeting them face-to-face. My first six years in sales training, I went to an average of 40 trade shows a year in Chicago and secured all my business exclusively through trade show selling and marketing. It does work.

Qualify Decision Maker

Once I get in front of the decision maker, my goal is to be brief and be gone; and of course to qualify and disqualify them. I also want to build trust and differentiation with them through the quality of my professional approach.

The following is a simple example of my approach. The approach is very similar to a telephone cold call.

    “One of your salespeople, whom I promised complete anonymity, pointed you out to me. I know you are very busy with the show here. I’m not sure if we could ever be of help to you. Can I very briefly tell you why I stopped by your booth, and you can tell me if we should go any further after that? We work with companies in helping them improve the effectiveness of their salespeople. Generally if someone like yourself would have a reason to talk with us after the show, it will be because you have issues in the following areas:

  • “Your salespeople are doing a good job with existing customers, but aren’t bringing in new customers to grow the business to the next level.
  • “They are closing deals, but are leaving too much money on the table, causing the erosion of your margins.
  • “Your people are wasting a lot of valuable time doing wasteful quoting and proposing, resulting in higher cost of sales and longer selling cycles.

“Are any of these issues coming up enough to justify us having a conversation now or in the future?”

The whole idea is to secure a future follow-up call (face to face or telephone), or if things aren’t too hectic in the booth and they seem to be open, to have a more in-depth conversation right there and then. Usually this will happen anywhere from 10% to 20%.

If I get shut down at this point and I have one last shot at them, I’ll try the following last ditch questions before I do a full retreat:

  • “Has your company made a decision not to look at any new suppliers in this area?”
  • “If there was a better way out there, and I’m not sure if we even have it, I’m guessing from your response you wouldn’t be interested?”
  • “Let me ask you a loaded and unfair question, if I may. Do you believe that what you’ve got is as good as it gets and it doesn’t get any better? I told you it was unfair.”

Rarely do these questions get you any further than a confirmation that you are barking up the wrong tree. Anywhere from 5% to 10% of the time you will be able to get a positive outcome with these questions. The silver lining is, you know for sure the rest aren’t a good prospect.

Alternative Approaches

Going booth to booth at trade shows can be intimidating for the uninitiated. Anything you can do to lighten your load and have fun at it will make it so much less stressful and more productive.

The following examples are ways to break the ice and to lighten things up a bit. It can get boring going to 60 booths in seven hours at a show, so you want to change things up just to keep your sanity and to stay fresh. All these examples are for a hostile person whom you are trying to defuse. The reality is, you’ll run into some real jerks. So at least try to be playful, self-deprecating and unpredictable.

  • “I’m probably the last guy you wanted stopping by your booth today.”
  • “Please go easy on me, I’m terrible at this prospecting business.”
  • “Please don’t gang up on me and take pot shots at the hapless, uninvited salesperson.”
  • “I’m afraid I’m not a prospect for your company. I’m afraid it is even worse – I’m a salesperson. If you allow me, I’ll be brief and be gone.”
  • “The minute I walked in here I knew I was in trouble. Could you give me a brief reprieve here and then I’ll be out of your hair? At least I can tell my boss I tried.”
  • “You are probably wondering why I’m still here.”
  • “You can probably guess this is a cold solicitation. Have you ever had to do them at a trade show? It isn’t my preferred way of introduction. They aren’t easy. Before you tell me your company wouldn’t have any interest, can I ask you how many salespeople your company has?”
  • “I’m visiting a couple of my customers here and I thought I’d stop by your booth to introduce myself. I hope I’m not intruding.”
  • “You are probably hit on by a lot by salespeople stopping by your booth trying to sell you their wares.”
  • “I’m guessing your company doesn’t look very kindly on salespeople stopping by your booth to introduce themselves?”
  • “By giving me their name, are you going to be violating a sacred company trust?”
  • “I sense out of the goodness of your heart, you are protecting me because you are concerned that if I follow up with your company I’ll get rejected.”
  • “Are you the official or unofficial company spokesperson on this issue?”

Tough Qualifying Questions

The following is some verbiage to use on leads from a trade show, from Internet leads and for leads in general. There are subtle differences between lead follow-ups and cold calls. I find it useful to treat all leads as if they were a cold lead so that I don’t assume anything, and so I do my due diligence regarding asking tough qualifying questions.

  • “So I can get a better idea of your business, would it be okay to ask you some specific questions about your company:

      How many salespeople do you have?

      Are they all in Chicago?

      Have you done training before?

      What is the level of experience of your people?

      Do you sell direct?

      How are your people compensated?”

  • “Was there a specific reason you stopped by our booth, or did you just want some general information?”
  • “Did you have an immediate need you wanted to discuss, or did you just want basic information for future needs?”
  • “I’m following up on an inquiry that you made yesterday. What were you hoping we could help you with, or did you have any specific questions?”
  • “I’m following up on an inquiry that you made yesterday on the Internet. We always take a realistic approach that until we know exactly what you want, we aren’t specifically sure if we can help you or whether what we have is right for you. If it is alright with you, I’d like to ask you some questions to learn more about your company and why you initially called, and we can decide if we should go any further than that. First of all, how did you hear about us?”
  • “Before I go into specifics, let me briefly outline where we’ve been a good fit for other companies and where we haven’t been a good fit. We tend to be a good fit with companies who are experiencing issues with:

      Low margins due to salespeople not being able to maintain price integrity.

      Long selling cycles and higher costs of sales due to wasteful quoting and proposing.

      Stunted growth due to poor prospecting skills. ”

  • “We tend not to be a good fit for companies that aren’t… (enumerate all the reasons). Which category closest fits your company’s scenario?”

The key to lead follow-up is to have a very defined sales process so that you aren’t giving out a lot of information before you really get a feel for the prospect. This can be a little challenging because, since the prospect made the initial contact, they’ll want to remain in control and get their needs met for getting information. They may not be accustomed to having a salesperson stepping back for moment and asking a lot of questions before they give information. The guideline I use to have balance is to look at it as an exchange or a give and take. If they aren’t willing to share any information, then that should be a real red flag.

Richard Farrell is President of Tangent Knowledge Systems, a national sales development and training firm based in Chicago. He is the author of the upcoming book Selling has Nothing to do with Selling. He trains and speaks around the world and has authored many articles on his unique non-selling sales posture.

Phone: 773-404-7915
EMail: rfarrell@tangentknowledge.com
Web: http://www.tangentknowledge.com