More Than a Handshake: How to Really Connect with Educators at Conferences

January kicks off another conference season for educators. School and district leaders, teachers, and other educators are all busy making travel plans and preparing presentations. At the same time, education vendors are gearing up for prime selling season.

Exhibiting at a conference or trade show can be an effective strategy for obtaining new leads. So much so, that companies often spend a small fortune on eye-catching booth displays, booth “freebies” and giveaways, travel costs, and handouts and other materials. And considerable time and resources are devoted to purchasing attendee lists and setting up systems to follow up and nurture conference leads.

But with all the planning and resources that go into conference marketing, companies too often miss the mark on the main goal of attending conferences: effectively engaging with customers to get them interested and excited about a product or service. 

Communicating with customers face-to-face in an exhibition setting is an art. More than just rattling off a sales pitch, it requires strategic planning, staff training, and proper preparation. Your reps need to be trained on how to think fast, talk smart, and attract potential customers by positioning the product in a way that meets each individual’s unique needs.

Let’s take a look at how to make the most of conferences and trade shows by providing your reps with proper guidance and coaching so they can engage and pitch to customers in a highly personalized and successful way.

The Problem with the Status Quo

We’ve all visited vendor exhibits at a conference. Sales reps often stand behind booths looking bored or engrossed with something on their phones. On the flip side, reps can be over-anxious to make contact and launch immediately into a sales pitch without even a “hello” to an educator. Instead of getting to who they’re speaking with and what his or her situation is, reps rattle off a generic product description listing features that may or may not be relevant to the customer’s needs. This whole interplay almost encourages educators to zone out and stay at the booth just long enough to be polite and get the booth “freebie.”

The good news is that there is a better way to engage educators. With proper training and guidance, educators can learn techniques to improve customer interactions and increase sales.

Body Language

It’s hard to overstate the importance of body language when selling products at an exhibition booth. Customers are more likely to pass on by if your reps look bored, or worse ─ are too busy talking to one another or on their phones to even look up and engage with educators. 

Give customers a welcoming first impression by reflecting positive and friendly body language. Stand tall, make welcoming eye-contact, reduce nervous gestures, and smile. And for heaven’s sake, put down your phone. Checking email can wait – devoting your full attention to customers is a much more valuable use of your company’s time and resources.


Limit your sales pitch to 20 seconds, and then work on getting more information about the customer. Ask an open-ended question, or share an inspiring story about how your product helped students in a real-life situation. If they are from a state or district you are familiar with (see the Know Your Audience section), talk about their specific demographics and how your product can support their needs. Be careful to read the customer’s body language ─ don’t push them to stay if they want to move on.

Listen More Than You Talk

Are your reps doing more talking than the customer? If so, they likely aren’t listening to the customer’s needs, which can cause educators to disengage pretty quickly. Instead of rambling on about your product, take an active listening approach. Only when you have a clear understanding of their needs, can you begin to see how your product can provide a real solution.  

Know Your Audience

Doing proper research on attendee demographics can make all the difference in connecting with customers. Be sure to know which states and districts are represented at the conference, and take the time to learn about their needs and pain points. Look at the districts’ strategic plan, and come up with talking points on how your products support one or more objective. Use this information to pitch your product in a way that aligns to solving their problems. Also be sure to cater talking points to your audience ─ your approach will likely be different for district leaders than with classroom teachers or technology coordinators.

Know Your Competition

Knowing your competitors is sales 101. Make sure you know which of your competitors will also be exhibiting at the show and do an analysis of them to determine the strengths and weaknesses of similar products. Stress the ways your product is better, e.g. perhaps your solution offers additional features, comes with gold-standard product support, or does something just different enough than your competitors’ options. Highlight these competitive advantages on your booth display, in the literature you have available, and in the product pitch you prepare for your sales reps staffing the show. Also prompt sales reps to ask the educators they speak with if they’ve visited a competitor’s booth. Have them ask what their perceptions were and provide them with information about how your product compares, and is of course superior.

Real-time Product Positioning 

Ok, so you’ve drawn customers in and have an interested audience. Now comes the hardest part – your reps need to listen to what the customer’s problem is, and in real time be able to position the product as a solution specifically for them. 

One of the hardest aspects of effective conference selling is on-the-spot product positioning. One way to train your reps how to do this is by brainstorming ways your product can be used in real-life situations. Take an inventory of your current customers and document both common and unique ways your product is being used. You can also figure out common problems districts are facing, and align your product to how it can support those needs. To be most effective, it’s critical that reps know the product inside and out so in their real-time conversations they can communicate how the product can support any given customer need. 

Provide Funding Suggestions 

One of the biggest hurdles to closing a sale is lack of sufficient funding. If your company is offering any discounts or pilot programs, be sure to mention this to the customer. Also know how your product is typically funded (e.g. Title I, II, III, IV grants, and/or local and state dollars reserved for a specific initiative, such as School Improvement Grants). If your company offers support in applying for federal, state, or private grants, be sure to let the customer know this help is available. 

This conference season, maximize your investment and generate more leads through adequate preparation and training on customer interaction, engagement, and ways to draw customers in. This goes way beyond a standard elevator pitch and requires strategic planning, research, and practice. Reps need to know how to get educators talking about their needs and perform on-the-spot critical thinking and product positioning to help them see why your solution will help solve their problem. Taking the time to properly train your sales reps on engaging with customers in a personal way will pay off and increase your effectiveness at conferences and trade shows.

Now hit the road and have fun at all those upcoming tradeshows and conferences!


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About the Author

Courtney Pederson is Director of Strategic Accounts at Agile Education Marketing and has more than 15 years of experience in strategic sales and business development. She applies her extensive knowledge of education marketing, specifically in the edtech arena, to help companies develop integrated marketing solutions that sell effectively to educators in K-12 and higher education. Reach Courtney at

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