By Susan A. Friedmann, CSP

Sounds easy, right? But where do you meet these mysterious people? Where can you find the folks who have names to share and referrals to give? Successful networkers have a little secret: They go to trade shows.

Why? Because they know that at a trade show, they’ll find hundreds of business colleagues, all eager to talk about themselves, all in one convenient location. Exhibiting at or attending a show puts you in direct contact with the very people you want to network with.

Unfortunately, trade shows only last for a short time. You have a few days at most to introduce yourself to your colleagues and get to know them.

How do you network effectively at a trade show?

Begin by sending the right staff members. The most crucial aspect of any trade show exhibit is its people. Your image does not start—or stop—with an elaborate booth, fancy advertising or impressive literature. Of course these things help, but it is your staff that sells your company. If you want to form relationships in the business world, you first have to present the type of image your colleagues will want to associate themselves with. It’s your people who make or break future relationships.

Use the PEOPLE formula to select your best staffers
Send employees who are:

P: People-Oriented
E: Enthusiastic
O: Observant
P: Have Excellent Product Knowledge
L: Great Listeners
E: Empathetic

Appearance counts. First impressions are formed in a blink of an eye—surveys tell us you’ve got from 10-30 seconds to create a positive impression. Employees need to be well groomed, smiling and dressed in some type of uniform. Casual golf or polo shirts with embroidered logos are the most popular option, as they are an easy, affordable way to present a unified, professional image.

Networking from inside the booth
Once you’ve picked your team, you’ll want to set up a pre-show meeting. Use this meeting to be sure everyone understands the goals and objectives you’ve set for the show.

Your staff members need to know:

  1. Why your company is exhibiting. Explain the purpose for your involvement in the show and what you expect to achieve. Set goals and objectives that are clear, precise and quantifiable. Don’t send your staffers out just to talk to a lot of people. Instead, instruct them to find 50 quality leads, or to begin 10 networking relationships.
  2. What you are exhibiting. Brief your team on the specific products or services you plan to exhibit. Make no assumptions about who knows what—you don’t want any surprises when you arrive at the show.
  3. What you expect from them. Your staff understands your overall show goals, but do they know what you want from them as individuals? Encourage them to set their own goals. Let them know what you want them to do on a daily basis: How many people do you want them to interact with? What kind of information do you want them to gather?
  4. How to do what you expect from them. Chances are your staff members seldom, if ever, present to a hundred individuals at a time. They probably don’t sell for 10 to 12 hours at a time during a normal workday. Prepare your representatives for the realities of the show floor and they’ll be much more effective. Show them how to demonstrate the products displayed and explain how to qualify prospects.

To keep everyone on track, meet with your team regularly. Do this at the beginning and end of each day. Assess the day’s performance, answer questions, compare daily results to daily goals and keep the team motivated. The end of the day is prime time to debrief and look for ways to improve performances tomorrow.

Networking from outside the booth
If you are attending a show primarily to network, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of people to talk to. Relax! You don’t have to meet with each individual person at the show. Don’t waste time running around trying to collect every possible business card. You’ll wind up with a stack of paper when what you really want are relationships.

Take a walk around the show to pinpoint any booths or exhibits that catch your eye. Be sure to delegate a staff member to follow up at those booths, to gather information and begin new relationships. Attending alone? After reconnoitering, start visiting booths that your walk-through found promising.

Effective networking is a long-term process. You’re not looking for immediate gains—it’s doubtful that you’ll land a multi-million dollar contract during casual chit-chat at a trade show. What you want to do is open the door to a long-term, productive, high value relationship—a relationship that will, over time, steer those big jobs your way. To accomplish this, spend most of your time and effort with people who can help you—and who you can help!

Ask powerful questions
One easy way to determine who these people are is to ask qualifying questions. The answers you receive will let you judge quickly if you want to pursue a relationship with this person, or if you’re ready to move on to the next visitor.

Find out immediately who the visitor is and where he/she is from. You don’t want to spend unnecessary time with someone completely outside your business sphere. Once you’ve obtained this essential information, you can move on to opening questions.

Opening questions ask a visitor for their objectives in attending the show. Perhaps they are looking for an item they don’t have, or they’re not satisfied with a current product supplier. This is the time to start building a rapport.

After you’ve ascertained their purpose, it’s time to move on to more probing, business-specific questions. Your goal is to find out as much as possible about your visitor in as short a time as possible. You want to investigate their needs, using open ended who, what, where, when, why and how questions. While you’re feeling out their needs, you should also ask some investigative questions about what kinds of services or products their firm provides. Remember, networking is a two way street. You want to be able to help the visitor—but you want them to be able to help you, too.

Demonstration questions center around the product or service you’re exhibiting. Be sure to ask the visitor’s opinion and if the product would meet their current needs.

You might think you’re done after the demonstration, but there’s one last, vital step to go. Closing questions help end the interaction, but also provide appropriate follow-up action. Follow-up is the name of the game, especially when you’re interested in building new relationships.

After the trade show, the real networking begins. You’ve only just begun to build rapport at the show. Follow up as soon as possible. There is nothing worse than being told, “You’ll hear from us right away” and then not hearing a peep for months. How receptive would you be toward someone who did this to you?

Instead, take a few moments to make a great impression. Send a nice customized card, make a friendly phone call, maybe even set up a lunch. These simple things let the visitor know that you are sincerely interested in developing a relationship. It is vital to spend this time focusing on your visitor, listening carefully to their needs. You might have a chance to offer your products and services—or you may get a referral to offer those products and services to one of their colleagues, acquaintances or friends.

About the author
Susan A. Friedmann, CSP (Certified Speaking Professional), The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, is the author of “Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies.” She works with event planners to improve their meeting success through coaching, consulting and training. For a free copy of ExhibitSmart Tips of the Week, e-mail her at susan@thetradeshowcoach.com or visit her website: www.thetradeshowcoach.com.

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