Better Business: Making Lasting Connections at Trade Shows

Oct 28, 2010

With the 2010 SEMA Show right around the corner, now is a great time to plan ahead to make the most of your time at the show. Trade shows are a great place to catch up with old clients, as well as meet new ones and network within the industry.

If you’re attending the SEMA Show on Nov. 2-5 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, stop by the Hotrod & Restoration booth (#23180), located in Central Hall’s Hot Rod Alley. Members of the Hotrod & Restoration staff with be on-hand to meet with readers! For Steve Yastrow, author of the books “Brand Harmony” and “We: Building the Ideal Customer Relationship” about connecting with customers, trade shows aren’t about finalizing deals but instead about cultivating the relationships that will lead to making better deals.

“Don’t look at the show as a chance to close every sale,” the Deerfield, Illinois-based author and consultant on creating profitable customer relationships said. “Look at it as a wonderful opportunity to advance your relationships so you’re in a better position after the show than you were at the beginning.”

Trade show attendees can keep that goal in mind whether hoping to build relationships with new suppliers, further develop relationships with current suppliers or strike up relationships with fellow retailers.

“One of the best things you can do is to try to ensure that [for] everybody you meet at the show, your relationship with them is better at the end of the show than it was at the beginning,” Yastrow said. “You have now earned the right to follow up with them and have meaningful dialog after the show.”

There are a variety of tactics trade show attendees can follow to lay the groundwork for successful post-show relationships with prospective suppliers, current suppliers and fellow retailers, including doing research before the show, having smart conversations at the show and following up afterward.

Do Your Homework

Whatever your goals for a trade show, whether hoping to develop new relationships or rekindle old ones, your work should begin before that first meeting.

“One thing I would definitely suggest is that they identify what new suppliers they would like to try to establish a relationship [with] prior to going and to try to lay a lot of preliminary groundwork for that relationship prior to getting to the show,” said Brian Offenberger, president and owner of the AfterMarketer Club, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based consultancy that helps aftermarket businesses improve their Internet marketing results.

“A lot of new people will come to the show hoping that they can get 15 minutes with someone while they’re there and that just doesn’t happen, so if you can establish connections before you get there -¦ I think [that] would be most effective for them to get the most out of their time at the show.”

Offenberger suggested using the SEMA Showwebsite (www.semashow.com) and social networking sites like LinkedIn to identify, research and connect with potential suppliers you would like to meet with at the show. You can also investigate prospective suppliers at the show.

“When I’m working trade show booths, if there’s information I want about somebody, I may ask other booths about that person or about that company, [such as] ‘What do you think about that company in the other aisle?'” said Ivan Misner, founder and chairman of BNI (Business Network International), an Upland, California-based business networking organization, and author of 12 books, including “Networking Like a Pro.”

“[I do this] particularly if they’re in compatible professions, not directly competitive, because it’s good to get feedback about service providers from other service providers that aren’t direct competitors.”

Social networking sites can also be a great resource for establishing relationships with fellow retailers who you would like to meet with at the trade show.

“What I would start to do would be to monitor and get involved in the conversations that are happening within Facebook,” said Offenberger. “There’s already dialog that’s occurring right now with people who are going to the SEMA Show. [You can ask them] ‘Can we connect at the SEMA Show?'”

Because of the number of exhibitors and attendees at a trade show, time is precious, so it’s important to try to set up as many meetings as you can with any suppliers you’d like to connect with.

“Trying to arrange what you want to have happen with that supplier prior to going to the show is important because you are not the only one that wants that supplier’s time,” said Offenberger. “Generally, the earlier you can get in to book that time or to get that connection, the better and, again, I think some of that can happen prior to the show.”

As you make your list of who you’d like to meet and start scheduling appointments, you can also start thinking about what you’d like to discuss with them, but don’t script these meetings.

“I think that it’s OK to plan out who you want to talk to [but] be careful about over-planning what you want to talk about, then you have a tendency to fall into that sales pitch mentality and it won’t feel unique to the people you meet with,” author and consultant Yastrow said. “Try really hard not to [do] too much planning about what you’re going to say. It’s OK to plan who you want to meet with, it’s OK to plan what the main topics you want to focus on are, but leave the sales pitch back at your office. Go to the trade show without a pitch [and] with the intent of having conversations with people that lead to relationship-building encounters.”

Smart Talk

If you aren’t attending the show to make your pitch to current and potential suppliers, what should you be doing?

Setting an appointment with an exhibitor you want to meet will help you to get more one-on-one time with that company’s representatives.

“As an attendee, I can’t tell this exhibitor everything about my company because he’s meeting all these other people this week, and even though I’m his customer, I can’t expect him to remember everything,” Yastrow said. “What I want to do is ensure that when I make my first round of all their booths that morning, I have relationship-building encounters with them so he’s going to say, ‘I would really like to talk to you about doing business with us,’ and he asks me, ‘Can you come by later for another meeting?’ as opposed to me just being one [of] a million people who came to his booth and there’s no reason to bring me back.”

Relationship-building encounters, according to Yastrow, are comprised of three elements-”that both parties be fully present and engaged in the moment, that there’s real dialog between the two parties, and that there’s uniqueness to the discussion.

“It’s really easy to launch into your pitch and give the same story you’ve given to 27 other people,” Yastrow said. “It’s very important that even though you’ve had the same meeting with 27 or 50 people at this trade show and you’ve described your company to 1,000 people in the last year, it is really critical that you make the other person feel like you are describing it in a unique way for this unique person.”

Including specific details about the supplier you’re meeting with in the conversation is one way to make it unique.

“Tailor the story to what you know about this person,” Yastrow said. “If you know this person is the largest in his field, speak of it in that way; if you know he’s one of the scrappier, smaller competitors, speak of it that way. If you learned about him in earlier parts of the conversation, be willing to bring that point back. In other words, do everything you can to make this a conversation that feels personalized to the person.”

You can also follow these tips when striking up conversations with fellow retailers. There are opportunities to talk with other retailers throughout the trade show, such as at seminars and after-show gatherings, or even in the food court.

“When I go to eat and I see someone wearing their ‘buyer’ badge, I’ll say to them, ‘How’s your show? What do you guys do?’ and pick their brains a little bit and let them pick mine, and we talk about our business[es], how things are going,” said Chuck Schwartz, chairman of CONVEXX, a Las Vegas-based show  management company and producer of the SEMA Show. “There aren’t a whole lot of original ideas today and, yet, there are ideas that someone else has had that you don’t know about. There’s nothing wrong with copying or duplicating what someone else has done if it’s been successful.”

Remember Me?

It’s easy to be overwhelmed after returning from a trade show by all the notes and business cards and product information that you’ve picked up, but don’t let all of that prevent you from following up on those important connections you made at the show.

“I always take the attitude this way, it’s a very competitive world so if I have an interest in doing something, the earlier I can get that moving, the better,” said Offenberger. “I don’t feel that most retailers should worry about the noise level that’s created after the show because, candidly, 99 out of 100 aren’t following up at all or aren’t following up in a timely fashion. I think they should be following up within seven to 10 days after the SEMA Show, depending upon the connections, maybe even earlier.”

Though the conversations you had at the show were all about building your relationship, follow-up calls can also be about making deals, in addition to further nurturing the relationship.

“Let’s say we had a good relationship-building encounter at your trade show booth, we were both engaged in the moment, we had great conversation that felt unique to both of us and then [met] at the coffee kiosk at the trade show for a little follow-up meeting and you introduced me to one of your colleagues and then we agreed to have a follow-up phone call next Wednesday at 10 a.m.,” said Yastrow.

“What’s the purpose of our follow-up phone call? Same thing, advance our relationship,” Yastrow continued. “Yes, we may be able to close the deal on that phone call, yes, we may actually come to terms, but it’s OK if we don’t because if we have a relationship-building encounter [during] the phone call next Wednesday at 10 a.m., we’ll be moving our relationship toward the point where we can come to terms. The important thing here is [that] the goal of only some meetings is to close sales, to make the contract happen, but the goal of every conversation is [to have] a relationship-building encounter.”

It’s also important to continue developing the relationships you established with fellow retailers at the show because they could become important partners or advisors.

“It’s always nice to send a hello to someone you met at the show and say, ‘I met you at the show, look forward to seeing you at future shows,’ because over the years you will start recognizing names of certain people who are steadies in the industry, who become respected as experts, and you want to be one of those and you want to be close to those people,” CONVEXX’s Schwartz said. “What you’re doing is calling on people who you know. It happens to me all the time, [if] I need to get something done or I want some information, I say, ‘I know this company does this, I’m going to contact them and see what they do.'”