Don't blow your lines. Train for your role at the trade- show booth.

Source: Steven Alexande

Todd Hirozawa of Hewlett-Packard remembers exactly how the sale at the trade show was clinched. Prospective customers were gathered several ranks deep around a demonstration of a computer system at the HP booth. An IT member of the booth team, who had been trained to talk to people at the back of the crowd to make sure they didn't lose interest and drift away, struck up a conversation with a man behind the cluster of customers.

"It turned out he was the CEO of a major company, and it closed our sale with that company," recalls Hirozawa, a computer science graduate who moved from IT to become a "customer advocate." Hirozawa attends Events and entices customers to speak with HP's engineering and manufacturing people. "That sale was closed because of a technique that we learned in our trade-show training class."

Turning to expert trainers/h3>

Tech employees, not just sales and marketing pros, staff trade-show booths. Some managers use professional trainers to teach their tech talent how to meet, greet, and interact with prospective customers attending these shows.

The reason for training is simple: boosting sales. Although many trade-show managers believe few deals are inked at shows, they do know that the sales cycle can be sped up when prospects have a positive experience with show-booth personnel. At the same time, booth personnel not trained in how to communicate effectively in the often-hectic trade-show environment may inadvertently turn customers away.

The training is important, managers say. But they differ on the question of how often such training is needed. "Social skills training is very important, but you only need that once," says Linda Hull, trade-show manager at Siemens Communication Devices, in Dallas. "Once you've learned it, you've learned it."

Not so, says Kimberley Gishler, one of the trade-show program managers at HP. Gishler believes that the lessons the trainers teach are worth repeating annually.

"The booth training covers basic items that a lot of technical people don't understand," Gishler says. For example, trade-show training teaches IT people to usher prospective customers from one part of HP's booth to another, which requires staff members to go beyond their immediate area of responsibility. "A lot of technical people never think about that," she says.

That's true, says Matt Hill, a trade-show trainer and president of The Hill Group, in San Jose, Calif. In addition to HP, his company has conducted trade-show training for techies at Sun Microsystems, Symantec, and Adobe Systems.

"A lot of technical people never thought their jobs involved anything but answering questions or talking to each other. We get them to look at the strategy of the trade show," Hill says. "The basic strategy of going to a trade show is to get face time with people who might be customers. It's the company's chance to achieve their marketing objectives or to reinforce their position in the marketplace. Orders usually are not written at a trade show unless you've timed it just right. So a company's objectives probably are to introduce a new product at the show or to move a customer along the sales cycle."

Sometimes IT workers will act more professional at a trade show if they are given some work goals, says Susan Friedmann, an IT trade-show trainer at The Tradeshow Coach, in Lake Placid, N.Y. She has trained IT workers from Sun and Siemens Communication Devices.

"People behave differently on a trade-show floor and do things they wouldn't do at work. They eat, drink, sit around looking bored, and talk amongst themselves. They do these things because they don't know what else to do. So I try to train IT people by giving them a personal goal for being at the show. Maybe they want to meet specific people in the industry, or do their own market research," Friedmann says.

Friedmann also instructs techies on body language: "I say, 'Be aware of what you're doing. Don't eat, drink, or chew gum. Don't be seen touching body parts. Be interested and enthused about being a company ambassador. IT people at a booth can make or break business relationships.'"

Part of good body language is being proactive, Friedmann says. "When somebody comes to me, I get up and react, or start talking to that person. IT people tend to be a little more shy and introverted, but they have to overcome that because the trade show is a very people- oriented environment."

Julia O'Connor, a trainer at Trade Show Training, in Richmond, Va., has some sympathy for IT professionals manning trade-show booths. O'Connor says using good body language is difficult."

"You must appear comfortable, as if you were at home greeting guests at your front door or in the corporate lobby," O'Connor says. Easier to remember are some basic no-no's. "Don't sit there and read the paper. Don't jingle the change in your pocket or sit there and look bored. Don't wear loafers you slip off," she says.

Trade-show no-no's

Hill also has a list of trade-show sins often committed by IT booth reps: Talking when they should be listening, talking to each other when they ought to be talking to prospects, and making social mistakes that turn would-be customers away. Another mistake: standing in a circle of booth workers, which communicates to visitors that the group is not to be disturbed.

Part of the problem is that tech workers love the details of technology more than many of the people who attend events, Hill says.

"IT people are comfortable talking about technology, and that's good. But they may get so excited they want to talk for 40 minutes to a person who doesn't understand what's being said. They need to figure out what the visitor wants to know," Hill says. "People will buy something based on one or two features of a product. The IT person just has to figure out what those things are by asking questions such as 'What kind of projects are you working on?' or 'What would make it easier for you to do your job?'

The Tradeshow Coach's Friedmann agrees that IT people often are too fond of talking about technical details. She suggests they ask themselves some hard questions before launching into a product presentation. "

"Find out where the prospect is at. What product has this person been using in the past and what situation is he or she in? You're like a doctor; you've got to find out what the problem is. You don't want to waste time talking to someone about your product if it's not right for the visitor's situation," Friedmann says.

The right audience

What's more, Friedmann says, the IT professional at the trade-show booth must figure out if the visitor is someone he or she ought to be talking to. "He or she might be a competitor or somebody working on behalf of a competitor. Beware of falling into the trap of telling people whatever you know about the product," she says.

It's also wise for techies to think about who might be listening in on a conversation at the booth. "There are some things you don't tell customers, either. You have to remember that a trade show is a public forum and that you don't know who is watching and listening to you," Friedmann says.

Trade-show time is in short supply, The Hill Group's Hill says. IT reps must be careful not to talk so long to one person that others have to wait: They may leave the booth and not return. It's critical to make those people feel welcome by acknowledging their presence and promising to be with them in a few moments or to draw the waiting visitor into the conversation, Hill says.

"At a lot of events, people stand in line like they were at the supermarket, waiting for their turn to talk. But big decision makers only wait 15 seconds and then leave. The longest anybody waits is 2 minutes, unless they're really interested in what's being said," Hill says.

IT professionals working a booth often give in to the temptation of socializing with friends when they ought to be conversing with booth visitors, Hill says.

"When they go to events, they see technical colleagues they haven't seen for quite a while, and they stand around in closed circles talking. Any visitor to the company's trade-show booth is not likely to try to break into that circle and say 'Talk to me.' So the IT people are missing opportunities to talk to prospects," Hill says.

Never can say goodbye

Knowing how to break off a conversation is just as important as knowing how to start a conversation. Be direct but polite, Hill says. If the IT person has only one visitor in sight, he or she should feel free to tell that person that they can talk as long as the visitor wants, but that if other visitors arrive it may be necessary to break off the conversation or invite the newcomers to join in. Or if the IT booth rep is talking to another exhibitor, he or she should say in advance that they'll have to break off the conversation if another visitor arrives.

Don't be too quick to say goodbye, though. "I've worked in trade-show booths with 50 different stations, and one of the mistakes IT people make is to dismiss a visitor after they've been shown one station," Hill says.

"They do it because they are product people who are focused on their own product to the point of being parochial. What they should do is hand off that visitor to other people in the booth so the visitor can see the company's end-to-end solution."

Although much of the trade-show training advice may sound like nothing more than common sense, HP's Hirozawa says IT people need these trade-show lessons.

"For people who haven't done booth duty at a trade show, or who are more the engineering type who look down at the floor when they talk to people, it's really important to have all those trade-show manners explained to you very clearly," says Hirozawa, who has attended several of Hill's training sessions. "I found that because the training taught us to be more open, I and others in our booth talked to a lot more customers who otherwise would have walked by."

Hill says he finds IT people more receptive to trade-show training than their sales counterparts. "Sales people already think they are experts because they do events twice a year. But IT people are open to being taught because the trade show is not their natural element and they know it. They use what you teach them," he says.