With NRF in New York City just around the corner, I thought I’d vent some of my frustrations on the paradigms found at these types of events—and in this particular case, I’m approaching it from the visitor’s point of view.
Over the past few years, we’ve been a staple at almost too many trade shows to count, ranging from the small to the gigantic. And one thing that always remains constant no matter what the size is the visitor/vendor dynamic. As visitors, we roam the aisles endlessly trick-or-treating in hopes of getting at least some nugget of information that will help us with a certain business goal, direction, or perhaps even just food for thought.
And, on the other side of the dynamic is the vendor: booths upon booths that line the aisles with vendors all touting the latest in trendy catchphrases and topics. Case in point, to this day I’m still trying to figure out what laser printers have to do with “omnichannel”… but hey, they do it whatever “it” is.
It begs the question, with so much time, effort and expense placed on traveling to trade shows, why is it worth talking to a vendor at an event, and how does one even pick the right vendor to talk to? First, let’s tackle the challenge of who to avoid: usually they are painfully easy to spot. The booths to avoid are almost always the ones lined with team members peering down the aisles—endlessly scoping out badges from as far away as they can. I swear, they’d have binoculars if it didn’t seem creepily obvious.
And why the scoping of the aisles? They are trying to identify you and your title to determine whether or not you are worth their time. They don’t care about you, they just care about a potential lead or sale. And they are most likely going to tell you that they are experts in everything and anything. In short, avoid those folks at all costs.
Now that we have the creepers taken care of, the next question is how do I choose a vendor who is worth talking to? There is no secret sauce to this one—more so, it’s about talking to people and assessing their demeanor, knowledge, and willingness to engage on a more personal level. And though a few pushy sales people may end up in the mix, the right vendors will begin to shine through.
Furthermore, once you start a conversation, assess how that person is engaging with you and your company’s business needs. As stated before, no one is an expert in everything, meaning that conversations should be fairly pointed. If the vendor has knowledge of the subject matter, then it will be approached from a logical place and not from a trying to sell you the world place.
In the best cases, true experts will diligently try to understand your challenges and, like you, will also be there to learn. A good way to test vendors during this type of conversation is to engage them on their process:
- How do you assess customer needs in a quantifiable way?
- How do you plan a project?
- How do you onboard a customer?
- How do you create needed phases and gated stages to ensure the right outcomes?
And though this may seem like a lot to cover at a trade show booth, it’s actually not. Vendors will either give you a confident and succinct answer: high-level details that still give enough information to pass your test. Or, they will give some bulls%^&# answer where they tell you that you’ll drive the project by telling them what you need. If this happens, just run. These are the people who are making it up as they go along and are anything but the professionals in the room.
Finally, ask what they are willing to do to engage with you. In the sales business, there is an adage that no company should ever give away free consulting. To me, this is nonsense. If the company is serious, and really knows what it’s doing, early and free consultation is merely a way to assess whether or not the two companies are the right fit, what can be done versus customer expectations, and so on.
Again, if the company is legit—and has strong business ethics—it will want to assess you as much as you want to assess it. And if I sound like a broken record so be it, but not everyone is an expert in everything. Sometimes companies will turn down business if they know their expertise is not right for the engagement. That’s actually a really good thing.
In all, any business engagement should be a partnership—two companies coming together to achieve one common goal. And as for trick-or-treating at the trade shows this year, talk to people and get to know them first… don’t take candy from strangers. 😉