by Bob Raus of Océ North America's Digital Document Systems Division Before you arrive at the show, write down three business-oriented issues you have today that limit the success of your company. April 29, 2005 -- Going to a major trade show is a lot like being a kid and going to a big county fair, where there are exciting things to see, lots of noise and veritable "candy store" of gadgets and new technologies with a myriad of claims. Amidst the hype and noise, the challenge is making sure you leave with the information you need and don't simply go with the flow and wander around looking at things that don't match your needs. Go With a Plan This means going to a trade show with your "game face" on and a strategy in mind. Before any show you are probably inundated with flyers, brochures and assorted mail and email promotions. Don't get distracted! Before you arrive at the show, write down three business-oriented issues you have today that limit the success of your company. Notice I didn't say technologies or products, but business issues. Needing to grow revenues 20% by adding an Internet storefront is a business issue; wanting to evaluate two specific products you have read about is a technology review. The key difference is where your focus is. By concentrating on solving the business issue, you are more open to new products, services and "gadgets" you might find at the show which could lead you to a different conclusion than a specific product you "think" might help. A good way to develop these is to complete this sentence: "From a business perspective, [fill in the blank] keeps me awake at night". Another good sentence is this "If I could only do/fix [fill in the blank], I could meet my goals for the year". Formulate specific leading questions about each business issue you are facing and listen closely to how each company approaches your issue. Once you have these business issues written down, visit the show's web site and print out the floor plan. Identify where your top-five "must-visit" booths are, your starting point and the general direction and flow you will take. I suggest you consider starting at the end and work your ways backwards to avoid some congestion and the general flow of the crowd. Finally, since you're probably familiar with the names of the firms that offer hardware or software that have a fit with your business, do some homework before you arrive. Review recent issues of online and printed trade publications to find out the latest news on the industry. Visit web sites for information so you can know more about a company and the new products they have. Make note of any products you've read about that you think may address your three business issues. Formulate specific leading questions about each business issue you are facing and listen closely to how each company approaches your issue. Do they immediately jump to one of their products, or do they ask questions to understand your issue completely first? Drive the Demo Drive the demonstration vendors give you so it addresses your needs. Go into each vendor's booth at a show with an agenda and drive the demonstration they give you so it addresses your needs. Begin by describing one or more of your three business issues. You should be specific, such as, "I can't meet this monthly deadline because [fill in the blank]" or "I have a customer who wants to be able to [fill in the need]." Go to the show looking for solutions to these issues and look at every print engine and software demo with regards to how it provides a solution or helps you meet your objectives. Having this focus is important, because without clear direction the folks giving the demos often have a tendency to show only a high level view of a product. While this is fine as an introduction, you need to ask specific questions to drill into the product so you can determine whether a product or service will help you achieve your business goals. Remember, the people giving the demos often have an engineering background, so they relish the detailed approach--and are usually happy to answer your questions at the level you need. Evaluate What They Say While it's hard to learn much about a company during a 15 minute demo on a noisy show floor, you can still tell a lot by how they help you at the show and how they respond to your questions. Do they understand your issues and show you products that address your challenges? Do they ask you questions, so they can better understand your needs? And are they upfront about what their products can--and cannot--do? And if the person giving the demo doesn't know something, does he/she find someone who does? Ask Questions, Lots of Questions You can still tell a lot about a company by how they can help you at the show and how they respond to your questions. At printing trade shows, hardware has the biggest physical presence, but there is a limit to just how much can be shown on a trade show floor. Software demos have limitations, too, but you can drill into the details more easily and much of what you can see in a demo will give you a good idea of whether a given tool will work for you. For example, workflow software is getting a lot of attention these days, because it is so vital to efficient document production in convergent print environments. Let's assume your print operation is a typical mixed environment with equipment from multiple vendors, and you are wrestling with the common issues of the day: a few different PDLs, multiple file formats (including a couple of proprietary ones), proofing, and remote job submission. You're also having trouble keeping your staff effectively cross-trained so you don't become too reliant on a few experts who could leave tomorrow , and you worry that you won't be able to scale your operation up as one of your most valued customers grows. Key things to ask will include: Will this workflow support printers from different manufacturers I already have? What file formats, datastreams and PDLs will this software handle? Can I build as I grow and buy modules for different applications and future opportunties? Can this software be scaled up as my needs change? For example, how easy is it to add features, or increase its capacity to handle more data or more complex files? Get past the marketing fluff. Is there an actual integrated architecture of products, or merely a vision that might (or might not) materialize someday? How well integrated are different products? Do you have to pay to for custom programming to make products from several vendors work together? How does this software support remote job submission? What types of job ticketing are provided? Listen carefully! Are your questions really being answered or are you just being told the standard "pitch" and what the vendor thinks you want to hear? Listen carefully! Are your questions really being answered or are you just being told the standard "pitch" and what the vendor thinks you want to hear? Get specific answers to these and any other questions so you can make an informed decision. If you think a product is right, ask how you can evaluate the product first hand. A strategy like this pushes the boundaries of how you can use trade shows and extends the usual range of the vendor's representative. It helps you get much more out of your trade show investment and leave better prepared to make decisions about technology that will affect your business. Editor's Note: Be sure to apply these techniques at the AIIM On Demand Conference and Exposition at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, May 17-19. In the Océ booth you'll learn how the Printshop of the 21st Century will have complete print and workflow solutions for mixed environments. You may even run into Bob Raus! Nearby, the Books for Kids program will produce and donate 10,000 books for Philadelphia school children.