Make no mistake -- you're in a rough spot.  Exhibiting is a competitive environment.  You're vying for attendee's attention, against companies that are larger, better-funded, with newer exhibits and cooler ideas than you've got.

What this means is that anything you can do to differentiate yourself from the crowd is a "Very Good Thing." Being different gives you an edge over the masses.  On the other hand, being different invariably costs money.

Or maybe not. You can differentiate yourself effectively by embracing the power of questions.' Having a team that can ask the right people, the right questions, at the right time, is the single most cost effective thing you can do to guarantee fantastic show results.

Very few people know how to ask effective, powerful questions, and quite frankly, those who do, tend not to wind up working the show floor. Luckily, asking great questions is a skill that can be taught to those who were not already having it.  If you're like me, and weren't born with that great skill, here are seven strategies your team can start using today to make they better exhibitors:

Strategy #1: Listen

The best questions begin in silence.  Train your people to embrace the 80/20 rule -- they should be listening 80% of the time. Listening is more than not talking.  It's an opportunity to focus on the information the visitor is providing. The data they're sharing is invaluable and helps frame more appropriate questions throughout the conversation. For sales people in particular, listening is a real challenge. Yet, if they conquer and embrace this skill, they could easily boost their performance in flash!

Strategy #2: Determine Identities Quickly

One of the first questions your team should ask is some variation of "Who are you and what do you do?"  Never, ever rely on badges. People can easily swap them. This is probably the most commonly used competitive intelligence gathering strategy.

You want to determine identity quickly for a number of reasons, but the primary one is this: Knowing who you're talking to allows you to deliver information in the most appropriate fashion: a buyer for a powerful chain is a very different attendee than an intern at a friendly competitor!

Strategy #3: Ask Open Ended Questions

The first question you ask a booth visitor should never be one that they can answer with a simple "Yes" or "No."  This is an easy way to give them permission to end the conversation quickly.  Known as "closed questions, "Yes" or "No" answers, don't usually help you to understand your visitor's needs.  The better alternative is to focus on questions that invite attendees to tell you more about themselves, their challenges or their particular situations (their stories).  These include questions such as:

  • What are you doing about X?
  • How do you handle X?
  • When do you need X?

Strategy #4: Follow Up With a Relevant Question

When a visitor spends time telling you their story about a particular situation or challenge, your very next question must relate to what they've just told you. This then demonstrates that you're actually listening, and care about what they have to say. Failing to do this is likely to damage, if not destroy any credibility you may have established throughout the conversation so far.

Since this is such a common mistake exhibitors make, it's well worth having your team practice this skill in pre-show role-playing exercises.  Have them work at this until it's automatic and starts to feels completely natural to them.


Strategy #5: Compliment Them

If you find yourself with a visitor who's somewhat reluctant to talk about their situation, try complimenting them.  It's a subtle yet powerful way to stroke their ego. A simple "I'd really like to know what you think about X," or "What's your opinion on Y" will often get people talking, especially those individuals who love to show off their knowledge. I'm sure you know the type! Remember that everyone likes to be valued and recognized.

Be careful with this. You always want to appear genuine, without seeming to fawn over your visitors.

Strategy #6: Get Off Topic

Exhibiting is not just about making those immediate sales. There's far more that goes on with your booth visitor.  Building long-lasting, profitable relationships is key!  To do this effectively, you may need to take the conversation off-topic.'  Don't be afraid to use questions to do this. Ask questions that allow you to get to know the visitor better. This can be as simple as "Where are you from?" Look to visual cues -- clothing, jewelry, pin, etc. anything that allows you to go further conversationally and further reinforce the relationship.  It's only when you start asking

Strategy #7: Go After Low Lying Fruit

Visitors often indicate, often unconsciously, what they want to talk about.  If they mention a subject repeatedly, or devote considerable time in one particular area, that's a pretty good clue to let you know that this topic is important to them. Yet many times, either exhibitors don't hear what's being said, because they're tuned into their own mind or, they might shy away' from a topic because it's sensitive, or something they just don't know about.  They might avoid the latter not to show their ignorance.

Speaking from experience, that's not a good, solid plan of action.  What's it says to the visitor is that "you're just not interested" in them or their situation. It takes courage to grab the bull by the horns' and frame questions directly around that topic, inviting visitors to elaborate further.

For example, "You seem to have concerns about our widget's durability. Could you tell me what's troubling you?" Addressing these concerns head on is the best way to build a prospect's confidence in your products and services.

Asking questions is only half the battle. The other half of the equation concerns what you do with the answers they give you. If your team asks great questions, listens to the answers, and then responds with the standard boilerplate one-size-fits-all answer, you've accomplished nothing. 

Instead, answers must be customized on the spot responsive, not only, to the client's needs, but also to the tone and timing of the conversation. 

Brief your people on the need to take things further than just the familiar and often, boring, sales pitch.  Keeping the focus on relationship building and the lifetime value of the customer helps make this easier and takes a lot of pressure off of your team.  It's far easier to concentrate on having a meaningful, value-laden exchange if your team knows this isn't their only chance at bat.  With any luck, this is just the beginning.  They'll be asking your customers questions for years to come!

About the Author:

Written by Susan A. Friedmann, CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, internationally recognized expert working with companies to increase their profitability at tradeshows. Author: "Riches in Niches: How to Make it BIG in a small Market" and "Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies."

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