What trade show exhibitors can learn from craftsmen

I’ve just returned from St Louis, MO and the ICF conference, that’s the giant gathering of professional coaches from around the world. It’s a time for some serious meet and greet and education. It was my first time there so, I was heavier on the meet than the greet, but still it was an experience. I was struck most (well, as I think about in now) by the exhibit hall. OK, the hall didn’t actually hit me and no one IN the hall hit me. But it was a sort of aha! moment

I spent 20 years of my life making money out of a 10×10 booth. At the time, I mistakenly believed that those craft shows weren’t really the same as trade shows. Even the big wholesale craft markets in which I participated late in my career seemed less-than the (grunt, grunt) Iron and Steel Engineers’ gatherings.

But I’ve changed my mind. The midsized exhibit-hall companies that are trying to sell to small businesses could learn a lot from a craft show.

I noticed some serious mistakes but I’ll start with this one because it was so prevalent:

Company X spent a lot of money on a professional sign that blasts the name of their company across the back of the display. Great! That way people walking down the aisle can find you if the place is packed. But usually … it isn’t. (Well, at CRAFT shows, it might be. But not in other exhibit halls.) That kind of display presumes that I already know what you do and can’t wait to buy some.

I don’t really want to make anyone in particular mad, so I’m going to make this up: Suppose the sign said GENERAL ELECTRIC COMPANY in giant letters across the back of the booth. Under that was the tag line that says: “We bring good things to life.”

But think for a minute, if GE didn’t already have such a recognizable brand, would you have any idea what they’d be selling or why you might need it? Actually even if it WERE GE, would you expect to buy financial services? (Right there on their website it says they sell financial services. Who knew?)

So I look at those big signs across the back of the booth and because I don’t even know what they are selling, I walk on by. Ooops, I might really need financial services. But they don’t get a chance to tell me about it because their display didn’t tell me anything I needed to know.

Here’s the message: In the ICF hall there were sales offered to end users — like books or training. But other sales were offered to coaches, but would ultimately be used by the client. Way too many exhibitors didn’t make that clear. They assumed that whoever walked down the aisle was a potential customer but they were unclear about the reasons that any one customer would use the product.

Look, if you want to sell me something, you have less than 10 seconds to grab my attention and start your story. TEN SECONDS … OK, that’s not figured out by any scientific research, but from 20 years of noticing people who pass by a 10×10 display booth. I’m not saying exhibitors should be accosting visitors in the aisle. But they should figure out how to connect simply. (By they way, standing behind a table makes that nearly impossible.)

So: Exhibitors need a short sentence that explains exactly what they’re selling and why the customer needs it. Back in my craft days, I sold painted papercuttings. At the time, they were not very common, so I had to explain what the customers were looking at and how they were made. It was an educational process. People don’t often buy what they don’t understand. But if the story is a good one, they can be convinced. Or they really will “come back later.”

So here are the tips for people who sell stuff from booths:

  • Go to a craft show, the bigger the better. Find a booth that seems like the stuff is just flying off the shelves. Stand close enough so you can hear what the craftsman is saying. I guarantee, those items are not really selling themselves!
  • Then figure out who should buy your product. What can they can do with it and under what circumstances?
  • Be able to explain that in about 3 sentences. At the ICF conference I liked this line from CoachTrack Practice Management software (although it was buried in the presentation): “You can keep track of your customers with this software. If you’ve been managing alright up til now, what would happen to your system if you suddenly had twice as many clients?” Hmm.. now THAT gives me pause.
  • WRITE DOWN your sentences so you can be sure you like them. Make them normal language, not marketing speak. People don’t ever want to talk to marketers. Then repeat those lines over and over, to yourself, until they roll off your tongue without even thinking. Yep, it’s spiel. YES, this will be boring to you. But NOT to your customer who will only hear it once.

Bonus tip:

Invent an opening sentence. If it is a question the visitor should be most inclined to answer “yes.” For example: Exhibitor says, “Can I help you?” Customer replies, “No.” Bad choice. Once the customer says no it’s hard to engage them in further conversation and you are lost. So how about at least “Are you enjoying the show?” “Yes.” Much better choice.
Now find a yes question you can ask your customers.