“This is our newest flavor, watermelon citrus.”

“We make a variety of Greek cheeses.”

“Try a piece of our falafel.”

I spent a few hours yesterday walking through the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco. This show is the West Coast’s largest specialty food and beverage trade show and is packed with creative food products.  For food manufacturers exhibiting at this show, the Fancy Food Show is a “target rich environment,” as thousands of food retailers roam the floors for three days, looking for new products to add to their offerings.

As I walked by various booths, wearing a badge that made me look like a potential customer, I observed how exhibitors interacted with me and other potential customers. Since I’ve been to lots of trade shows over the years, I was not surprised by what I saw: Most interactions were nothing more than quick explanations of product information, ending with a nod of the customer’s head as they examined or tasted the exhibitor’s product before walking on to the next booth.  Once in a while this explanation led to a conversation, but in nearly every case I witnessed, the conversation was about the product, not about the customer. The show was filled with more sales pitches than sugar molecules.

What I was witnessing were potential customers slipping through the fingers of these exhibitors. No matter how good an exhibitor’s product was, it’s unlikely that a good explanation or a good taste were enough to capture the interest of a promising prospect. Cutting through the clutter of a noisy environment like a trade show (or, for that matter, the noisy environment your customers call “life”) requires more than an explanation or a sales pitch.

Let’s explore some tips for getting a better return on your trade show investments.

Tip 1: Use questions to filter prospects

One of your biggest challenges at a trade show is to determine who you should speak with and who is not worth your valuable time.  Start every interaction with a question, so you can quickly get some information that will help you determine if a person is a good prospect. If you determine she is not a good prospect, end the conversation quickly, so you’ll be ready to talk to the next person.

Tip 2: Create conversations, not explanations

Beyond filtering prospects, the main purpose of an initial question is to start a conversation with a prospect. Recognize that the people visiting your booth have been bombarded all day with pitches and explanations, and the best way for you to cut through the clutter of this noise is to engage the prospect in a meaningful conversation about himself.  People love to talk about themselves, and when they do, you will learn important information about how you can help them.

Tip 3: Weave your product’s story into this conversation

If you fire bullet points of product features and benefits at your customer, it’s unlikely he will remember those features. If you weave elements of your product’s story into a conversation, bringing up relevant features and benefits of your product only as you learn things about your prospect, it’s much more likely that the prospect will remember you and understand how your product can help her.

Tip 4: Personalize your story for each customer

Don’t try to weave the same features into every conversation. Each customer you meet is unique, and you will have the best chance of success if you personalize the way you communicate your story to each customer.

The best way to do this is to ask yourself, as a conversation progresses,“What do I want this customer thinking about me tomorrow?” With this end in mind, you will be able to focus your conversation on points that will be most relevant and motivating to each customer.

If your company exhibits at trade shows, chances are it’s one of your biggest sales and marketing investments each year. Don’t let good customers slip through your fingers. Use these tips to engage prospects. Let your competitors continue to pitch and explain.

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