The WORST things you can do at sales events (and the best)

This post is in response to a cry for help from a friend who hated the sales events and conferences he had to go to as part of his business development role.

He was told to attend by his MD… ‘in order to network, meet people and drum up some new business’.

Here’s what he had to say about sales events:

You wander around with a fixed smile on your face. You go up to different stands to say a friendly hello only to be stuck with the sales guy determined to sell you their CRM software despite the fact you’re a competitor (they never ask what you do).

You sit down for the keynote speech to find busy-looking people glued to their phones with their laptop bags on the seat next to them to avoid having to talk to anyone.

Over coffee you chat to – finally! – someone who recognises you from last year, only to have them dragged straight off by their MD to go and ‘network’.

At lunch you’re squeezed onto a table of four men from the same company who are having a training day – clearly keener to learn from each other rather than talk to you.

After an hour catching up on your own emails (might as well), you get to the wrap up speech at 3.15pm to find that 75% of the delegates have gone home and even the big exhibitors have started noisily packing up.

Sound at all familiar to you?

Does the thought of going to another industry event to ‘drum up some new business’ fill you with any sense of weariness, sore feet or dread?

If it does, then read on to find out easy ways to make going to events a really worthwhile – and even enjoyable – part of your sales and marketing strategy.

ONE – When choosing the events to go to

Pick the biggest conferences in your industry with everyone (who is anyone) attending and lots of famous keynote speakers.

This sound good on the surface, but stop and have a think.

Famous speakers are all well and good for training and motivational purposes, but are you there to learn or to grow your wider network? Famous speakers and big brand customers are in such demand you’re unlikely to get any meaningful conversations with them.

Biggest conference? That should ring alarm bells. Lots and lots of people you don’t know yet – and may never see again. Seniors schmoozing big clients and juniors there to learn. Lots of people from all the different sectors and sub-sectors in your industry.

Ask yourself if many of your specific target audience are going, or many existing customers? Even if they are, if it’s a big event, how on earth will you find them if they haven’t got a stand?

Imagine going to a small, niche event where everyone cares about the same things that you do.

  • Where most of the people attending have similar problems to solve.
  • Where you are very well positioned to help these businesses out.
  • Where there are many quiet moments that allow for longer, deeper conversations without interruption.
  • Where people want to chat about relevant work stuff with interested folk because that’s what they are there to do.
  • Where they introduce you to someone else at the next-door stand because you are part of a tight-knit group of people who cross paths regularly, part of a network.

Does that sound any more appealing?

TWO – Before you get to the event

Plan to meet as many people as you possibly can.

Aim to get as many business cards from people as possible, and give them your card at the same time. After all – it’s a sales funnel and you need plenty of new prospects in at the top to start qualifying, in order to potentially become clients in the future.

Hmmm. Which would you prefer? 100 random names acquired for your CRM or one new relationship started with a senior decision maker in a business that’s a good fit with yours, whose problems you already know you can solve?

If your aim is to gather names for CRMs, then go get 100.

But if you’re in the business of acquiring new clients for longer term relationships, see if you can find one who would appreciate your help.

Don’t find out who’s going in advance

Ignore the delegate list from last year’s event – after all, it’s probably going to be different people this year anyway. Right?

Wrong! Just because you can just turn up on the day and see who’s there when you get handed the bumpf on sign-up does not mean anything.

Imagine running through last year’s list of attendees and rating them against the qualification criteria for your own target audience to see how many would be a good fit for you.

You’d soon find out what percentage of businesses there are even a vaguely likely prospect – which has got to be useful for deciding whether to attend and then, if you do go, who to speak to first, and next, etc.

Don’t do your homework

There’s so many people going, it would be a massive waste of time to start researching all of them. Correct. If you’re going to huge industry conferences, that is (see above).

But if you’ve carefully chosen a small, niche event with a high percentage of likely prospects….

Making a RAG list (red, amber, green) of attendees means you can head straight for the green ones (your best fit prospects) to strike up conversations first. It means when you bump into people over the coffee urn – the one that never pours properly even when you’ve lined up the arrows – you can steal a swift glance at their name badge and (try to) remember their RAG status.

Red? Say hello, be very nice and introduce them to someone else near you to talk to.

Knowing who you want to speak to – in advance of getting there – means you can do your homework about those businesses before you meet them.

  • Know their general offer, size, sectors, locations.
  • Check out their website, social media profiles, content marketing activity and news feed.
  • See if you are (even loosely) connected to anyone there – and make a note.
  • Take your list up with you, with your notes and look at it throughout the day

Because when you do bump into a great prospect, there is nothing better than being able to have a slightly more meaningful conversation than – “Ah, so what does IBM do?”

THREE – While you’re at the event

SELL or help?

Whenever you strike into a conversation or turn up at a stand, don’t let them get a word in edge-ways and sell, SELL, SELL!

Well, it’s either that or introduce yourself with a smile and ask them some truly interested questions about their business that might lead to them sharing relevant problems where you could point them in the direction of useful resources, good contacts, other relevant networks they might benefit from or even advice.

Try being people curious.

And if you do find yourself switching unhelpfully into a sell mode, remind yourself of just how you can attract new clients by helping them and giving things away for free.

TRANSMIT, or listen?

And if the conversation turns to you and what you do, you can explain that briefly.

If they do start looking bored, you can try asking them some interested questions about how the show is working for them this year.

Is it the first time they’ve been and have they found it worthwhile? Did they go to the Birmingham one in April and if so, how did they find that in comparison? Have they seen Ys stand – it’s got a wonderful interactive video that’s worth a look if they have a mo….

They’ll probably appreciate and remember you as a kind, helpful person who it might be nice to stay in touch with…

Explain all those little ins and outs about what your company does

Is your aim to make sure they know exactly what you do?

Because you could go through and list all the different products and services (x 15) that you offer, and then list all the different benefits (x 6) of each. Just so they are completely clear about all of those. And of course, keep repeating your company or brand names throughout your talk (so that it sinks in).

Or, you could explain yourself simply. If you’re well positioned, you can do that at the same time as making it clear exactly what value you bring to businesses that are really very similar to them.

When they hear that, they just might be curious to know a bit more about the hows and whys of what you do.

Talk too much about yourself

I think you’ve get the message….

FOUR – After the event

Don’t follow anyone up afterwards

It’s busy after an event. So many business cards to put into your CRM – or your drawer, depending on where you’re at with new business processes.

A management meeting or two. Vital, unmissable or pointless, depending on the quality of the management.

Two proposals to write, 68 emails to respond to, customer invoicing to get done, three overdue calls to make.

But what is the first thing you should do? In fact, the one and only thing you can ever do to make sure that the event has any value for you whatsoever.

Do whatever it is that you said you would, to anyone you met at the conference.

  1. Offered to put them in contact with a useful person in their sector? Connect them.
  2. Said you’d forward them a link to that brilliant article? Send it. 
  3. Talked about setting up a meeting to find out more about each other? Call them with dates.

Everything else can wait.

So what should you ACTUALLY do at business events?

I’ve done what I often do – wibbled on too much in a really long blog post – so I’m going to put this next section up as a short second post which summarises the things you should actually do at sales events.


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