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Taking the Lead
Follow these 10 tips to turn your list of leads into revenue-boosting sales. By Candy Adams
It's often said that the main reason exhibitors participate in trade shows is to gather leads that can be converted into future sales. This makes one think that managing the lead-gathering and follow-up process should be top-of-mind for every exhibit manager from the minute they start planning a show. Sounds reasonable, but with all the other details and deadlines exhibitors face, strategic lead management often takes a back seat to exhibit design, staff logistics, and brand messaging.

In a perfect world, your company would write goals and measurable objectives for lead gathering, develop strong tactical plans for promotional activities to draw your target market to your exhibit, train staff to efficiently qualify visitors and leave them wanting further contact, establish a process for adding leads to the corporate database and distributing them to the sales team, and circulate regular reports on the status of those leads. But since many of us live in an imperfect world, here are 10 tips to make sure your hard-earned leads don't end up in the proverbial dustbin.

1. Define what a lead is. Before you can determine how to properly quantify, qualify, and measure leads, you and your trade show stakeholders, particularly members of the sales and marketing teams, need to agree on exactly what should be considered a lead. In the simplest terms, most companies define a lead as a potential sales contact, that is an attendee who expresses an interest in your company's products or services. In that case, the only thing required to set up a lead-gathering program is to figure out how to pump attendees' contact info into your sales department's pipeline. But some companies consider the initial request for information at a trade show as an "inquiry" and don't believe it becomes a lead until it has been qualified as a valid opportunity for the company. So to ensure you're all on the same page with your exhibit-marketing expectations, proactively establish criteria to make sure that the information you collect is considered a legitimate lead by your internal teams of stakeholders.

2. Set realistic goals. How should you establish lead goals that balance lofty objectives with hard reality? Two things to consider are the size of your target audience at the show (based on information you can glean from show management about registered attendees' job functions, buying influence and timeline, product interest, and company size) and how many prospects you can realistically engage with during the show given the size of your booth space and exhibit staff. As I like to point out to my more zealous clients, you can only stack visitors four high in a booth before they'll topple over.

Let's say there are 1,000 attendees at a show that fit your target market, the show floor is open a total of 18 hours, you have four dedicated sales reps in your booth at all times, and the average conversation with an attendee lasts seven minutes. How many conversations can you possibly have? By my calculations the highest possible number of attendees you could engage with is 617, unless your staffers are able to qualify more than one visitor at a time or bend the space-time continuum. But who in their right mind expects to have a constant queue of targeted attendees waiting for perfectly timed conversations with booth staffers? Being pragmatic in the early planning stages can save you from post-show disappointment when you fail to achieve goals that were unreachable in the first place.

3. Choose a lead-gathering system that aligns with your objectives. There are myriad ways to capture lead information, including renting handheld badge scanners from a show-approved vendor, setting up iPads to let attendees enter their own contact info, investing in a proprietary lead-gathering system, and using old-fashioned paper forms on a clipboard. The system you pick should be determined by your objectives. If your primary concern is collecting scores of names as quickly as possible, then simply scanning badges is your best option. But if you want to thoroughly qualify your leads on the show floor, then you'll need to allocate a larger portion of your budget to a more elaborate system.

Another point to consider is how the lead information will be added to your company's sales database. For example, will the lead-retrieval data be provided in an uploadable format ndash; e.g., by comma-separated value (CSV) ndash; to avoid brain-numbing manual input? If not, be sure to appropriate either the time for staffers to input the data or the funds to have this tedious work outsourced.

4. Don't shortchange customized qualifying questions. A pothole I frequently see exhibit managers step into when working with rented badge scanners is assuming the system will collect information beyond the basics (e.g., the prospect's needs, level of decision-making influence, and time frame to buy). These details give you a rough outline of your lead, not the whole picture. To help the person tasked with following up after the show turn a tepid call into a warm one, consider paying to add customized questions to your badge scanner's capabilities. Information such as the manner in which attendees engaged (attended a theater presentation or participated in a custom demo, for example), what products or services they're most interested in, and the names of their current vendors will facilitate uniquely tailored follow-ups.

If you're considering adding customized questions to the show's official badge readers, make sure to inquire about any limitations, such as the number of questions that can be added, available formats (e.g., yes/no, multiple choice, decision trees, etc.), and the maximum number of characters per field.

5. Recognize that all trade show leads are not created equal. Case in point: If an attendee does what I call a "drive-by scanning" by waving their badge at the person at the information counter in exchange for a pen or tin of breath mints, that scan isn't as valuable as a person whose badge was scanned after taking part in a one-on-one custom demo. Keeping track of where a lead was taken ndash; and the context of the engagement ndash; can give you valuable insight into visitors' activities in your booth and serve as a barometer for the type of follow-up they receive (e.g., a generic post-show email thanking them for visiting your exhibit versus a phone call from a sales rep or even a thank-you gift).

6. Consider actually asking attendees if they want any follow-up. I once worked for a company that was renowned for giving high-value gifts to attendees who sat through our theater presentations. We often attracted throngs of visitors, a majority of whom had little to no interest in our products. So to help alleviate the problem of trying to qualify the dozens of attendees following each presentation, I added a final yes/no item to the bottom of our paper lead forms: "I'm only here for the giveaway; no follow-up required."

When our theater visitors' eyes landed on that, the expression on their faces was a cross between "Hey, this is a cool company!" and "Whew! One less piece of spam in my inbox." Almost two-thirds indicated they wanted no follow-up, so these were not passed on to the sales team.

My sales reps were amazed at the improved quality of the leads that were distributed to them from that show, which allowed them to focus on the bona fide prospects.

7. Allow your company's in-booth sales team to go with their gut. While this isn't exactly scientific, I often have my sales team rank leads as they take them based not only on responses to qualifying questions, but also on the personal interaction they had with the attendee. I believe there's nothing like that gut feeling my trained exhibit staffers have to help decide the ultimate value of a lead. Say for instance a prospect gives a positive answer to only two of your five qualifying questions. By the numbers, this person would fall near the bottom of your lead rankings. But if a staffer is able to factor in this individual's enthusiasm for your product and service, that may nudge him or her higher on the list of quality leads where, in many respects, he or she truly belongs.

8. Determine who the leads will be distributed to and when. Every company has a different process for following up on leads, which is frequently determined by the complexity of the organization and whether the lead information is available on a daily basis or only once the event has ended. I have one client whose vice presidents of sales and marketing meet to review the leads at show close and coordinate the physical distribution to their respective teams. Another client wants leads sent to its customer relationship management system's database administrator for input as soon as they're available. Others have me sort top leads by territory and send them to their regional sales managers for daily distribution, but wait to send the lower-ranking leads until the end of the show.

Whichever procedure you choose, include the leadership of the sales department during the planning stages and secure their buy-in. Having these lead-management decisions in place and the follow-up staff on high alert will greatly increase the efficiency of your post-show processes.

9. Take note of duplicate leads. One of the most important lessons I've learned and continually pass on to those who manage leads is if you find the same person's information multiple times in your spreadsheet of leads, don't automatically take out the duplicates. Think about it: This attendee came back to visit your exhibit multiple times. If the data shows the same badge was scanned for attending your theater presentation, having a one-on-one demo, and talking multiple times to the same salesperson, you've got someone who's really interested in your product. So make sure those returning visitors are noted and flagged for priority follow-up, or you risk letting your hottest leads get lumped in with all the others.

10. Make sure your exhibiting program is getting the credit it's due. If no sales are being reported as closed from show-related leads, whose fault is it? The sales department may argue the leads are inherently bad due to the poor quality of show attendees, but are you sure the source of each sale is being properly attributed? After all, there may not be a mechanism in place within your lead-management system to provide feedback on which sales were made from the leads lovingly gathered at a show to determine if you've met your return-on-investment objectives.

If your trade show program isn't getting credit for any sales from show-generated leads, you may want to look into whether your CRM system even tracks a lead's origin. I've run into the problem of my leads being permanently assigned to a sales rep in the CRM system, so no matter how many times their names come up on a show's lead list, any future sales will be attributed to the rep who made the initial contact, not the show (or multiple shows) that helped push them along the sales cycle.

When it comes to lead management, we can often "lead" our horse to water, but we can't make it drink. Having said that, we should be more aware of the elements we can control, which will make lead gathering and management more effective ndash; and let us measure our show results. E

Candy Adams
"The Booth Mom," is an independent exhibit project manager, trainer, speaker, consultant, and an Exhibitor Conference faculty member. CandyAdams@BoothMom.com

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