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Missing Any Opportunities?

Every year I take the short trip to Providence for the annual Rhode Island Business Expo.

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: May 27, 2009

Every year I take the short trip to Providence for the annual Rhode Island Business Expo. Like other small businesses, I'm looking for new products and also to follow up with companies we do business with. It's always interesting to see what companies are exhibiting and how they are selling their wares. I was especially interested since our surveys have been indicating that printers are being more aggressive in using local trade events. What follows are some random comments about what I saw.

"Enter our drawing for ____ by leaving your business card" is one of the most common, and useless, ways of generating leads. You might as will paste yellow pages on walls and start throwing darts at them, calling the names that get hit. In past years, I've dropped my business cards in the bowls to see what would happen. Unfortunately, I would be called by some desperate sales person who had no clue why they were calling. If you're going to ask people to give you their name, ask them to give you other information so you can at least focus on good leads. Qualify the lead at the time the information is collected. Why have more costly steps to get to that stage?

I chatted with a health insurance company because we'd like to replace our current provider. It was really disappointing to see numerous brochures sitting on the table and have a sales rep tell us to "go to our website to see the plans we offer." It made us wonder why the company had a booth in the first place. "Can't you help us now?" we asked. We were told to call the office. There was free wifi in the convention center; the sales rep couldn't walk us through the options? Back in my old TrendWatch days, we had our website on our computers and would even give it to customers on CDs. There are all kinds of proposal programs on the market, yet this sales rep had no capability of making a quotation or discussing options. But he could give us a nice brochure with smiling people on the cover. And he smiled, too, as he told us to go to the website.

These shows are great to meet current customers and give them something to thank them for stopping by. It's a great chance to have them meet someone in the company they haven't met. For that reason, you may not want salespeople there. Sales people should be free to work the show floor or be out making sales calls, not be tied to the booth. It's different when there is equipment to explain, but at one of these shows, where there are just tabletops up front and drapes in the back with room for two people to stand in between, an office person would be more effective. Send the sales folks out for following up on warm leads.

It's also a good time to deal with problems. We went to our current health insurance provider and reviewed some of the problems we have had with their service. We were met with "gee, no one else has had that problem" or "you'll have to call the 800 number." Of course, getting through on the 800 number was one of the problems (must have been all those people without problems calling in to pass the day). It would be helpful if we could have at least spoken with a person who would at least have said "give me your number, and here's mine; let's talk first thing tomorrow." What was really disappointing was no one would look directly in your eyes once they realized that you wanted to talk about a problem. But if you wanted a free container of their giveawayband-aids, they were ready to help.

Finally, I have been disappointed most every time I have seen printers printing companies who have samples, but no examples. We're in a recession for gosh sakes, and this would have been a great time to have displays about building business, reaching out to customers and prospects in unique ways, or reducing costs by outsourcing, or by supplying graphics to have more successful events. But no, printers had lists of equipment or their general capabilities.

Isn't there something else to say? It's almost like the typical printing company web site: pictures of buildings or equipment. Not a customer success story in sight. Not a new idea to be found.

The folks who seemed to have the easiest times were the restaurants and catering services. At appointed times during the show, they were allowed to dispense samples of their offerings to attendees from their booths. Every one could taste and see the specialties they offered, even though what was served was quite limited.

Decades ago, printers could do the same. There was great variability between print businesses because it was a craft business. The years of digital technology have minimized those variabilities, and anyone who works in an office can produce acceptable print quality for their internal and immediate needs on their own desktop and standalone equipment. Print has been demystified, but even though people can cook at home, there is still great interest in sampling restaurant food. We all have to eat; we don't all have to use printing.

So the challenge that printers have in attending small and local trade shows is a real one. Most all booths at these shows look the same, whether it's for an accounting service or a printer or a temp agency. How does a printer stand out?

I would suggest that printers be the advisor who explains that the success of exhibiting at a show is a function of what communications actions are taken before the show. Offering training to clients and prospects at the printers offices by a sales expert, college professor, or ad agency executive might be the kind of event the show sponsor or Chamber of Commerce might recommend or promote. Offering pre-planned direct mail campaigns for the show for a group of exhibitors or customized for one company can further raise the opinion of the print business. Providing access to promotional items for distribution at the show plays on another common "ancillary service" printers offer. Make sure exhibitors have signage appropriate for their business and their needs, and that any print materials are properly displayed. Suggest ways that they can collect leads and qualify them quickly on site.

Finally, the worst part of small trade shows is what happens when the show is over: nothing. Most of the exhibitors are small businesses and their ability to follow up on leads is lacking. Print businesses can offer nominal data base services where they take the leads and turn them into a mailing or e-mail list, or hire someone to make phone follow-up calls. Supply the data base in formats for sales management programs like Act!.

As I have found myself advising printers lately, this is not the time to go out looking for business, it is the time to create business. That is a longer process, and it takes planning and insight. From what I have found after attending many of these kinds of small shows, there is great opportunity for any printer who wants to take a proactive role in this environment. If salespeople can't be bothered, it's likely another approach is needed.

One way is to hire a business development person who is not limited by some arbitrary rule of making a certain number of sales calls in a day or encouraged by sales commission programs to only seek low-hanging fruit.

Another choice is to find a freelance designer and Internet guru with whom you can cooperate to offer a range of services that can be of great use in this kind of strategy.

Whatever the case, these are not the kinds of opportunities that can be accessed weeks before. They have to start at least six months earlier. Once you get the hang of it, however, it becomes a good annual business and can be expanded to other conventions and shows at that location. Cross media does not just mean digital. It means signage, promotional items, data base services and systems, and anything else that assists a client to meet an objective at an attractive cost in terms of money and time. Ink on paper alone just can't cut it anymore.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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