Speaking at a recent K-12 education-industry meeting on how to succeed on the trade-show circuit, I felt I came up short with what the audience of education sales and marketing professionals expected to hear. After many years of experience working trade shows and consulting with companies to improve their return on investment, I was well prepared. Yet, as I delivered my message, the expression on the faces in the audience reflected a state of resignation about conference exhibits and the priority of this education-marketing investment.
Most companies that sell to schools exhibit at educational conferences and, at some point, a senior level manager or financial watchdog questions the investment. In the current economic environment, the questions are tougher than ever. Some of you would like to pull the plug on educational conferences altogether. I think my presentation sparked some frustration. The audience was hoping I would deliver a "silver bullet" that would end their dilemma; instead, I presented a set of recommendations for retooling and refocusing.
No "silver bullet" exists to improve the results from your exhibits at K-12 educator conferences. Exhibiting is like taking your multivitamins everyday. You don't realize the benefits quickly, but you know it’s something you should do for your long-term health. The trick is to start doing something proactive at these events instead of just setting up a booth and waiting for something to happen. It all starts with knowing what you want to achieve. Here are a few I hear quite often:
There’s nothing wrong with investing in educator conferences for the reasons listed above. But, for most companies, exhibiting at trade shows needs to be a selling event, not just school market research or a lead-generation program. If your objectives don't include at least three of the goals that follow, then I recommend you reconsider your trade show strategy.
To turn your educator conference exhibits into selling events, the sales and marketing team needs to work together before, during, and after the show. There should be consensus about the sales goals and strategies. Without an integrated strategy, there may be what I call “who’s-on-first” exhibit selling.
Here's an example that might sound familiar. Going undercover as a mystery shopper for an educational conference, I noticed many staffers from the same company on the exhibit floor. They caught my attention because they all wore the same black shirts. I was astonished that the exhibit staff outnumbered visitors to the booth three to one. After questioning a few staffers, I discovered that the national sales manager distributed an email notifying the sales force that they should make sure they had coverage for their respective territory at this event. The entire sales force showed up, to the surprise of the marketing manager who planned the event.
A significant challenge for education-market companies that staff their exhibits with field reps is training these reps on how to greet visitors, how to quickly assess their buying status, and on strategies to manage the visitor's time in the exhibit. After clocking hundreds of hours of mystery shopping at educational conferences, it is clear to me (and to educators we spoke to time and time again) that improving these skills is the biggest opportunity to boost your results.
I have visited exhibits where a huge investment was made for the booth design and layout, signage, promotional giveaways, and the latest in video and presentation technology. In these same professional-looking exhibits, the person I spoke with never asked me about my job or about what my interests were. I have visited dozens of exhibits where the rep spent valuable minutes demonstrating products without asking about my needs. I have walked around festive and colorful exhibits fully staffed and have never been approached. I have walked past exhibits and have been handed cute specialty items without being given or asked to provide any information.
The very first thing I recommend in my exhibit selling course is for the sales and marketing managers to develop open-ended qualifying questions that will differentiate their reps from their competitors’. Here are several "generic" examples you can use to begin the process:
Understanding the Decision-Making Process
The principal mission of a salesperson is to gain commitment from a prospect at every step toward the sale. Selling to schools is often complicated by multiple buying influences and a long sales cycle. This means that your sales process will have multiple milestones with appropriate commitment objectives. After you have qualified the visitor to your exhibit, you must move to the next step of the process by getting a commitment to do one (or more) of the following:
Your goal is to get your prospect involved in the buying decision process by acting at every step. Every time the prospect acts, you advance the sales campaign through your sales cycle — avoiding the infamous "continuous" sales cycle. Statistics show that you can reach prospects who are more qualified by exhibiting at educational conferences than just about any other way — if you do it the right way and find every possible point of advantage. With this type of renewed focus, conference exhibits will deliver the type of results that you should expect and that senior management will support.