Use conferences to learn, not to sell

If you want to be a bad product manager, use conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting as a time to sell. When prospective customers approach your booth, quickly greet them and go in to your product pitch. Demo all of the features and point out the aspects where you are superior to your competition. Push for a sale, a trial, or a specific follow-up before the person walks away. You’ve paid good money for your booth, after all, so you need to close some sales to make up for it.

If you want to be a good product manager, use conferences and trade shows where you are exhibiting as a time to learn. One of the worst things you can do in a booth is to automatically try and sell to everyone who walks in, using the same standard pitch.

  • Many people may just be casually browsing, and pitching to them is a waste of your time and theirs.
  • Visitors likely have different levels of knowledge from your product, from those who have not heard of it before all the way to those who are about to make a purchase decision. The information you provide needs to be different for each audience.
  • This is an opportunity to learn more about the person and their needs, so that you can answer the questions they have rather than just giving them the “standard pitch.”
  • The prospect may not even be aware of your competition, so mentioning competitors and how you are superior is irrelevant since at best it provides no frame of reference, and at worst informs them about other products that they otherwise may not have investigated.
  • Booths are usually staffed by a few people. There is almost always someone else from sales or marketing and they will likely be much better at “selling” than you as product manager. It is also a good opportunity to observe the sales process, to learn how your product is being sold, how its benefits are being communicated, and how questions about it are being answered.
  • Except for small dollar amounts, very few sales are actually closed at conferences. Most sales representatives use them as opportunities to reconnect with current customers and collect and evaluate new leads.

Conferences and trade shows are great opportunities to learn about customers and potential customers, their needs, what they think of your product and your competition. When someone approaches your booth, do not start in to the standard sales pitch. Instead, greet them, ask if you can help, and listen to what they have to say. Try to listen more than talk. Ask questions to not only understand more about the solution they are looking for but to understand the context of their question.

By just spending a few moments asking some up front questions, your time will be much better spent. You will not waste time pitching to unlikely buyers. You will learn information about the needs of potential customers. (Steve Johnson discusses this in the Pragmatic Marketing post Why Demo at Trade Shows.) You will see how prospects evaluate your product and others. You will get to watch how sales people communicate, respond to questions, and interact with customers.
While it is important to staff your booth, take an opportunity to walk the exhibit floor and learn there as well. Check in on competitors and partners. Gather information to bring back to the office. Evaluate the marketing messages and promotional campaigns of other vendors, and make a list of things that you can do to improve your booth for the next conference. Talk with conference organizers or attendees milling around in common areas.

Trade shows and conferences are valuable opportunities to connect with customers for sales purposes, but they have as much value if not more as opportunities to learn about customers, prospective customers, competition and your overall market. Good product managers use conferences and trade shows as an opportunity to do research and take back information to help improve their product and the message around it.

(Note: This post was updated August 26, 2007 with a link to Why Demo at Trade Shows, as part of the Pragmatic Marketing BlogFest.)

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5 thoughts on “Use conferences to learn, not to sell

  1. Jeff,

    Excellent article. I love the sentence – “Try to listen more than you talk”. Easier said than done, isn’t it? I have been preaching – don’t talk to customers, listen to them – because customers are really craving for someone to listen to them since everyone is busy talking to them.

    The key as you said is using trade shows and conferences more as networking sessions and not as sales sessions. Try to find out more about the customer and his needs first before the customer gets to know about your company and product offering. I think highly of vendors who even tell me that their product is not what I should use after they listen to my needs. Honesty goes a long way.

  2. On selling, what you really want to do is capture contact info, rather than sell on a trade show floor. Start the B2B enactment chain. It will take quite a few informational transactions, five at a minimum, before a B2B decision maker is ready to buy.

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