Those fishbowl leads Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

I’m attending several trade shows this summer and fall and was wondering if you could advise me on how to maximize the benefit from these shows?

Whenever I walk by booths at trade shows, one of two things invariably happens. Either the attendant walks up to me and silently hands me an expensive brochure, or a loud, “Can I help you” sales person asks if I would at least like to sign up for the free gift they are offering.

Let’s not concentrate for now on the silent person who hands out expensive literature to unqualified suspects. Instead, I want to focus on sales people who get business cards by way of entry into a contest and think they’re doing well at the show.

There are two problems with this. A fishbowl filled with business cards contains no more information — in fact less information — than what you can get from a business directory. The business card was received for the wrong reason, with no qualification to back it up, making the name on the card no more than a cold call — an unqualified suspect.

The second problem crops up after the show, when it comes time to follow up on all the suspects in the fish bowl.

At one trade show, I dropped my card into every fishbowl I could find and gave my card to at least one person in each booth. More than 90 percent of the companies never followed up. The companies that did follow up called to tell me I didn’t win their prize.

They wanted to know if I would be interested in receiving some literature or making an appointment to see them. Others didn’t call, but they sent me a photocopy of a form letter that thanked me for stopping by their booths and requesting the enclosed literature. Their premise and approach were weak, and they certainly didn’t stimulate my interest in their products or services.

The key to working a trade show effectively is to work hard at narrowing the field of suspects to a handful of qualified prospects and then follow up diligently. Here are my four habits for working a trade show:

Adjust your selling style. You want appointments, not necessarily sales. Ad libbing and working your way through the detail of a typical sale doesn’t work in a trade show environment. A trade show is usually a place to get leads and appointments, not make sales. The difference between the trade show style and the outside selling strategy is similar to the difference between an airplane taking off from an aircraft carrier instead of an airport runway.

Don’t talk about yourself or your products and services. Ask qualifying questions. Too many people make presumptions and then provide solutions prematurely. Here are some sample questions:

  • Have you heard of us?

  • What made you stop at our booth?

  • Have you used our product in the past?

  • What was your experience?

  • Do you really need it?

  • Why do you need it?

  • Who are you doing business with now?

  • Why would you switch?

  • Who, in addition to yourself, has a hand in making those kinds of decisions?

  • Does it make sense for us to talk after the show?

  • What is the best way for us to set that up?

Think of yourself as a casting agent, not a beggar or a teacher. Your job is not to educate the prospects who drop by. Your job is to qualify them on whether they fit the client role you are looking to fill and to separate the suspects from prospects.

On the back of the business cards of individuals who are truly prospects, write down four things: (a) What they’re interested in; (b) best time to call; (c) name of secretary or other gatekeeper; and (d) their ratings as prospects (cold, warm or hot).

Follow up immediately. A trade show lead has a shelf life of 24 to 72 hours. Set aside time immediately after the show to call these individuals; don’t write to them. If you can’t reach them by telephone, send a thank you note for dropping by your booth and keep following up. I’d rather have 10 good leads to follow up on than a stack of 100 with no qualification.

Larry Lewis is president of Total Development Inc., a Pittsburgh-based sales training and consulting firm. He is host of “Today’s Selling Solution,” heard daily in Pittsburgh at 12:43 p.m. on 1410 KQV AM radio. Fax him your comments and questions at (724) 933-9224 or e-mail him at He can be reached by phone at (724)933-9110.