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The Pitch: Exhibit Hall Etiquette

June 01, 2000 - Article
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Posted: 06/2000

Exhibit Hall Etiquette
By Cynthia Lett

Attending and exhibiting at trade shows is all about building relationships, learning about new products and services and maybe negotiating a deal.

But everything starts with the relationship.

It is a fact that we like to do business with people we like. We are less willing to make a deal and write a check to a company represented by disrespectful, ignorant people.

You may say, "Well, of course! That is obvious." But if it were so obvious, why do so many people treat potential buyers and vendors so poorly?

The first impression we have of a company or product is the person who represents it. As a buyer, when you explore a booth on a trade show floor, you should notice how you are greeted? Is it with a smile? Did someone shake your hand? Were you even acknowledged?

How many times have you walked into a booth on a trade room floor and were ignored completely?

It's happened to me. When that happens, it is my cue to walk out quickly. If the booth attendant cannot be bothered to greet me appropriately, this is a company I cannot trust to meet my needs.

This is where knowing the proper etiquette and using it makes a huge difference between you and your competition.

A first impression is made within five seconds of meeting someone. We make a judgment about them and how we will interact based on their clothes, facial expressions, energy, confidence, personal power, perceived authority, posture, personal grooming, and most of all, by the way they treat us.

For five seconds, that's a lot of information being formulated. So you have to ask yourself, do you make that first impression a positive one? Or, do you leave the impression that the person is an imposition, a waste of your time and not worth making the effort.

To make first impressions powerful and positive, keep these tips in mind:

* Acknowledge the other person.

* Smile.

* Look the person in the eye.

* Extend your hand first to shake hands.

* Shake hands--web to web and no more than three pumps.

* Pump from the wrist, not the shoulder or the elbow.

* Make the handshake firm, not bone crushing. Don't give a "limp fish shake."

* Lean forward from the shoulder to put energy into your greeting.

* Introduce yourself by stating your first and last name and position.

* Whether you are the buyer or seller, always extend or accept a greeting--don't wander into a booth, grab a brochure or sample and run out without making a connection.

* Make the encounter worthwhile--even for the few moments you are there. Ask questions. Attempt to learn something about the product, service or buyer's needs.

* If the product is not of use to you or your company, thank the booth attendants and say goodbye without wasting their time. This shows respect for their business and their time. It will also leave a positive impression about you, because you never know when you may encounter them again.

* If you are the seller, qualify the lead by asking specific questions. Too many generalities waste time for both of you. Examples of good specific questions are, "Do you believe that our product would be helpful to you?" or "What prompted you to stop by our booth?" Remember, wasting someone else's time is a huge etiquette faux pas.

* Ask how you can follow up with them if you intend to do that. Don't ask, "May I have your card?" That is a demand for a gift, not a request for information. The reason we want someone's business card is to have information for follow-up. If you make the demand for a card, you may embarrass them if they don't have any to give. What you really are requesting is a way to follow up. Ask instead, "What is the best way to follow up with you?" or "Where may I send additional information?" This leaves a classier impression and respect for the other person.

* Understand the corporate culture. Is it informal? Does everyone use first names immediately? Or does it tend to be more formal? If so, don't forget to use an honorific (Mr., Ms., Dr., etc.).

* If someone else is occupying your attention when new guests come into your booth, at a break in the conversation, make an introduction and tell them that you will be with them momentarily. This gesture demonstrates several positives. You are acknowledging their presence, and you are making it easy for them to meet someone new.

* People who employ good etiquette act as a resource for others. Know who else is exhibiting and where they are located in case your new prospect would like to know.

* You are either a host or a guest in all situations. If you are the exhibitor, the host role is yours. Everyone who comes to your booth is coming to your office-away-from-the-office. Treat them with the respect you would use if they had made an appointment to meet you in the office. If you are a buyer, you are the guest. As a guest, you have certain duties as well. They include, being present in the conversation; being polite with your questions; making requests, not demands; not wasting anyone's time; and introducing yourself.

* Don't be a complainer. Do you like to hear about someone's aching feet or their hunger for lunch?

* Don't sit down. A person sitting is unapproachable at a show. If buyers want to learn about your product, and you are waiting for them in a chair, chances are they will walk on by and feel put off.

* Don't eat in the booth. If you are not in the position to share what you are eating with people who come into your booth, don't eat in front of them. (Also, chewing gum is a huge faux pas!).

* Be careful not to talk about a function you attended or plan to attend unless everyone at the show has been invited. Nothing makes people feel more uneasy than hearing about not being invited to an event. Along these lines, never make an invitation to one person if anyone else not invited could possibly hear.

* If you said "hello," you must say "goodbye." Don't disappear without closure of some sort.

* Shake hands to say "goodbye."

* Turn off your cell phone, unless you are on a break. If you must be in contact at all times, invest in a vibrating pager or cell phone. If either does go off in the company of others, ask if you may put the caller on hold until you can excuse yourself to a quiet, private location to talk. Don't carry on a conversation in front of anyone in your booth. That is a strong form of ignorance. It is the same as broadcasting your business on the front page of The Washington Post.

* If you don't know what to talk about to break the ice, consider what things you have in common. First, you are at a tradeshow, so ask if it meets their expectations. You had to travel, so ask how their trip was. You probably heard the general session opening speech, so ask their opinions about it. Compliment the guests in your booth on a positive aspect of their company. This could be the number of years they have been in business, their recent merger, their standing on the Fortune 500 list or a recent "win" they had in securing a big contract. Nothing makes someone pay attention to you in a positive way than being complimented.

* No gossiping. When it is slow in the booth, many salespeople revert to gossip to pass the time. This will kill your professional image quickly--even with your colleagues who are also participating.

* Brush up on your grammar. Poorly spoken English causes others to regard you as uneducated. Even a college degree doesn't count if you use the language improperly. Also remember, using swear words are taboo for a professional image. They also make others quite uncomfortable.

While this is a short list, the tips are important to cultivate proper behaviors at a trade show, or any business function.

Keep this in mind: Treat others with the respect, kindness and professionalism. If you do, you remain in good standing with your competition. You can really stand out if you master some of the suggestions.

Once you incorporate these behavior tips into your approach at a trade show, you will enjoy your relationship-building efforts and make each trade show a more effective use of your time and efforts and each business encounter more productive.

Cynthia Lett is director and CEO of The Lett Group, an international leader in etiquette and protocol training. Her weekly talk show, "It's Apropos!" can be heard on the Internet at www.success-talk.com. The Lett Group teaches a seminar called Trade Show & Meetings Etiquette. To contact her, call +1 888 933 3883, or visit www.lettgroup.com.

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