In the next few weeks, I’ll be attending the Legal Marketing Association annual conference, followed by the Association of Legal Administrators annual conference. Given my long tenure as a legal vendor executive, both organizations at various times have invited me to offer advice to sponsors, service providers, and vendors to get the most out of the investment in participating in an industry conference or trade show. Here are 9 helpful tips I’ve found to be helpful. Feel free to add your own advice in the comments.
Don't limit your role to the exhibit hall. There is a large divide between serving as a vendor to the market and being a member of the market. There’s no earthly reason why a vendor can’t become part of the community to which she sells, but it involves sticking around after hours, getting to know your clients and potential clients as people with complicated lives and challenges and not just as “prospects.” You have to really enjoy your market and the people in it to make this work, it can’t be forced. If one of your colleagues suggests a team dinner offsite once the exhibit hall closes for the day, politely decline and find a conference-related event to attend, or beg another vendor for an invite to their event. Save the team dinner for the last night when the clients have gone home.
Embrace the conference as a learning opportunity. There is nothing more powerful than having the ability to speak intelligently to a prospective client about their workday, knowing the challenges they face, the tools they use, the politics they endure. I often counsel lawyers and law firm executives to soak up knowledge from the vendors, because the vendors have insight into hundreds of firms and within the bounds of good taste and confidentiality they can share what works and what doesn’t. Similarly, spend time walking the exhibit hall, meet other vendors, ask what they do, learn what objections they face, understand what tools and applications they interact with, or should interact with. In some cases the knowledge of upstream and downstream apps will be helpful in your role; in other cases, merely being knowledgeable about the other vendors your clients rely on gives the clients more reason to trust in you. When possible, attend the workshops and speeches, regardless of the content. You will always learn something valuable, and you may meet someone valuable.
Know your value proposition. Some organizations develop a simple elevator script, which the salespeople promptly forget. Others devise more lofty mission and vision statements. Whatever you call it, it’s critical to know what you offer, what problem(s) you solve, and for whom. It’s startling to walk into an exhibitor’s booth and ask a simple question, “What do you do?” and receive a blank stare or some fumbling buzzwords in response. You may be the biggest dog on your block, but maybe I've never heard of you. Even if I have heard of you, perhaps I’ve even done business with you, it’s always important to help me understand why what you offer will help me. It’s important to know the different personas involved in buying and using what you offer, so you can tailor your remarks accordingly. Know in advance the common challenges faced by the likely visitors to your booth and prepare to address them right away.
Respect the competition, but don’t let the competition define your offering. A vendor executive, in response to my “What do you do?” query, once responded, “You know MegaVendor Inc., right? Well, we’re like them but smaller and more nimble and we don’t cost as much.” If you think that’s outrageous or lazy, at another conference a vendor rep replied, “We’re like MegaVendor, Inc., except we’re better because we offer more robust functionality and we’re in the cloud.” In both cases, the top two competitors could seemingly define their value proposition only by comparison to the leading supplier. The leading supplier, by the way, does a terrible job selling its product, yet it maintains a dominant market share because, at least in part, the competition continues to helpfully define it to clients as the standard!
Remember that I buy because of the benefits I derive, not the features you sell. Poor salespeople focus on features rather than benefits. Understanding the difference is a fundamental component of every consultative sales training program I've ever given or attended. Conferences and trade shows tend to reinforce this bad behavior because you can't conduct an in-depth needs analysis when the prospect stops by the booth to see a quick product demo and enter the drawing for free swag. Since many conference attendees have a similar profile or persona, it’s easy to take shortcuts and immediately launch into a disorganized demo of your product or service’s many features. Sometimes the demo sparks interest in the prospect, sometimes it's wildly off the mark. The demo concludes, the business card is dropped in the fish bowl. Rinse and repeat. Better to ask a few qualifying questions to help you customize the demo. Good salespeople memorize scripts so they can easily hop around the product showcasing the features that best apply to the prospective client's stated needs. A feature that fills a need is a benefit. A feature I don't need is a waste of my time.
If you don't know the difference between a feature and a benefit, remember that a benefit answers the question, "So what?" In rural Alaska, my vehicle's four-wheel drive capability is a benefit because it helps me traverse rough roads in all weather. In a retirement community in Florida, the four-wheel drive option is most likely an unnecessary feature. It's important to know not just the features of your product, but why having this capability will matter, or not, to the buyer.
If you must discuss price, discuss it as one factor in the total cost of ownership. This concept is elusive despite its simplicity, and both vendors and buyers do it poorly. At its core, understanding the total cost of ownership means factoring in more than the sticker price of a product. It also requires factoring in a time horizon and all adjacent activity needed to implement the product. Buyers don’t simply purchase your product and call it a day. There are internal costs of sunsetting whatever process is in place today, user retraining, connecting to other systems, and so on. There are presumably internal cost savings too, such as lower maintenance, less downtime, improved functionality, elimination of 3rd party apps, freed up FTE capacity, etc. It’s critical to understand the wider context of the purchase to truly understand the total cost of ownership. Too often vendors and buyers focus solely on the rate card price and how this compares to the competition. You might find that presenting your rate card as just one piece of a larger calculation is a compelling way to demonstrate understanding of your client’s needs and helpful education for them to use in their evaluation process.
View the conference as the middle of the process. The conference isn’t the destination. Your outreach efforts should begin long before the conference, and your follow up should persist long after. Few vendors close numerous sales at conferences. Many view the conference as one piece of a puzzle that involves content marketing, social media, local and regional visibility, thought leadership, and year round relationship building. Even smaller vendors who put the bulk of their marketing spend into one major conference should view the actual event as just one stop along the way. Be clear about your objectives, lest you leave disappointed that you didn’t close a sizable deal, while underestimating the potential of meeting 15 new qualified prospects who would welcome a meeting. Some exhibitors view their booth as merely a place to store their bags while they network and attend sessions. Whatever your objective, be clear going in that the conference itself is just one step.
Avoid names on napkins. If you’re going to invest additional funds beyond an exhibit booth, sponsor something meaningful. Try to secure an opportunity to say a few words to the attendees. Participate as a judge in a competition. Contribute to a post-event publication of key takeaways. Sit for an interview with the conference’s roving social media crew. Smart organizations invite vendors to participate in educational programming and thought leadership, which can be the highest value but most elusive opportunity. It’s far better to be invited because of your demonstrated expertise than to buy your way onto a panel, but even this is better than putting your logo on cocktail napkins at the reception and hoping this will generate numerous qualified leads.
Always purchase the extra carpet padding. Trust me on this one. No company ever missed its earning targets because it spent a few more dollars for the cushy carpet. Salespeople and conference attendees alike will appreciate that standing in your booth for even a few moments provides some measure of comfort.
Here is some additional reading on developing responses to your prospective clients’ most common objections and the difference between selling your capabilities and understanding your client’s needs. I wish you great success at your conference!