How to Really Sell at Educator Conferences

Are Conference Exhibits Key to Your Education Marketing Plan?

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.

Trade Show Expenses Are Under the Microscope Now

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.

Improving Your Conference Exhibit Results Begins With the End in Mind

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:

  • Increase brand awareness
  • Check out the competition
  • Find new employees
  • Launch a new product
  • Meet the press
  • Show or demonstrate products
  • Generate leads

Include at Least Three Sales Goals in Your Trade-Show Objectives

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.

  • Qualify prospects
  • Build pipeline of new prospects
  • Leverage your sales time
  • Start new relationships with prospective buyers
  • Advance sales campaigns
  • Meet with decision makers
  • Gain commitments

How to Avoid “Who’s-On-First” Exhibit Selling

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.

Two Essentials for an Integrated Exhibit-Selling Strategy

  1. Coordinate Preshow Promotions. The sales manager should provide the marketing team with a list of prospects to contact. The salespeople call the same prospects before the trade show and invite them to visit the exhibit or to set up appointments.
  2. Define Your Follow-Up Plan. Before the event, sales and marketing should agree on how to capture leads and how to categorize them. Determine before the trade show how to define "hot" leads, how these leads will be worked, and how leads from a territory that does not have a sales rep will be handled.

Successful Selling On the Exhibit Floor Requires Special Skills

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.

Ask Qualifying Questions About Needs and the Decision-Making Process

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 Needs

  • What are your educational challenges that you think technology will resolve?
  • What's changing in your school's educational standards?
  • How will you benefit personally with a successful program?
  • What is your school's mission?
  • How does the use of technology help meet your school's mission?
  • What goals have you set for yourself for this project?

Understanding the Decision-Making Process

  • How will you be involved with the selection and implementation?
  • What will be the process that you will use to learn about products and to make a selection, and a final decision?
  • Who else will be involved?
  • How will you be funding this project?
  • Once the funds for this program are identified, how much will you budget for products and services?

Gaining Commitment Is the Next Step in the Sales 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:

  •  Schedule an appointment to reconnect within one week after the trade show.
  •  Be introduced (during the trade show) to coworkers who are also attending.
  •  Help you set up an appointment with a key decision-maker who is not attending the conference.
  •  Schedule a demonstration of your product or service to those who will influence the buying decision.
  •  Ask for referrals to colleagues who may also be attending the conference.

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.

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About the Author

Cathy Jackson, Sales Expert is principal of Sales Champions with twenty years of sales, sales management and sales training experience in the educational technology markets. Cathy spent many years on the front-lines, selling high-tech products to educators in the college and K-12 markets. She helps sales professionals develop a sales process and a disciplined approach to selling that leads prospects to make positive choices about the products or services being offered. cathy@saleschamps.com.

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