Trade shows can be a great investment of time: three days that have the potential to make the next 300+ work-days better. They can just as easily feel like a total waste.
Since you are reading this piece, I’m guessing you’re the type of contractor that cares more than your competitors. You invest the time and do the on-the-business work to serve customers better than anyone. You have probably developed yourself into a local expert. So what better place to learn cutting-edge tools, materials, and methods than a trade show?
The dog and pony show
That idea crashes on the rocky shores of reality once you arrive at the show. There, you find yourself caught amid a slew of salesmen who have no new ideas to offer you. Since they’re aware that creating rapport is good for sales, they are more than happy to gobble up your time with small talk.
What these guys don’t seem to know is what might really differentiate their product from the twenty others like it there, other than their ability to connect with you over sports, your alma mater, or some other tidbit that won’t matter an iota in making you more effective this year. You start to realize there is nothing new in their booths: just a bunch of glad-handers doling out cards and scanning badges.
But this year will be different. This year you’re going to up your game and get strategically superior. Your tactics are properly aligned both with the highest potential and the brutal reality of the trade show world.
I’ve given this lots of thought and having used these methods myself, I’ve broken down the strategy into four simple parts:
1. Block time to come up with great questions. Good answers are smart; great questions are brilliant. Find a quiet moment when you are 100 percent awake and think about the biggest frustrations and aspirations for your business. What would you love to solve or achieve if you had no limits? The best book on great questions may be Keith Cunningham’s The Road Less Stupid.
2. Go alone or bring one great thought partner. African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Whenever I brought a biggish group of my people, it mildly inflated my ego (“Look what a big deal I am with all these people I have here wearing my shirts and hats.”), but it was a waste and my people sort of knew it. Let workers work, and only bring people with the right mindset to really think and research things.
3. Set activity goals. After getting clear on your outcome, set a standard for what you will do to find a great answer. For instance: “I will talk to 30 smart people today to see if anyone has built software to do ______.” This makes positive or negative answers more useful—if you speak to 35 people over three days and the answer remains, “Sorry, that doesn’t exist,” you can be more confident it is true than after having spoken to only five people.
4. Be playfully ruthless with your time. If you want to go on vacation, go someplace more fun than a trade show. If you go to a trade show, be as tight with your time and money as you are on any other workday. If Salesman Steve-O starts sucking you into a discussion of your March Madness predictions, say something playful but honest about what you plan to do that day: “Steve-O, you are hilarious. I’m here to grind, though, and I literally have to find 23 more people that can tell me if software exists to _______. Peace out, homie.” The 90s hip-hop slang makes rejection more fun for everybody; you stay moving, and Steve-O is free to find a customer that cares more about liking their account rep than innovation or best practices. Everybody wins, homie.