Economy in Retreat Means It’s Time for Sales Staffs to Charge Full Speed Ahead

HIL ANDERSON, SENIOR EDITOR
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Long Beach, CA – The downshifting of the U.S. economy means trade show organizers could see their sales force in danger of becoming bogged down in the same malaise that will be gripping their exhibitors and key attendees.

And according to Helen Berman, a longtime consultant and coach for sales professionals, that means managers will have their hands full ensuring that sales staff have everything they need to keep their customers – and themselves – from falling into a funk as marketing budgets tighten.

“A lot of us are scared and a lot of us are in denial,” Berman told the Southwest Chapter of the International Association of Exhibitions and Events (IAEE) July 22. “The next thing you have to do is to face reality and also get to the point where your colleagues do as well.”

Reality will be different from show to show depending on what industry they serve, although higher costs for travel and stingier marketing budgets will likely have organizers across the board digging in for a rough ride. “How are you going to ride this rollercoaster by minimizing anything negative and at the same time taking advantage of anything new?,” Berman asked the crowd of nearly 70 IAEE members – many themselves in sales – who attended her presentation at the Long Beach Convention Center.

Berman’s advice boiled down to the fact that just a few years ago, exhibitors may have signed up after a few phone calls. Now, they may have to be coaxed, cajoled and otherwise reeled in like a marlin on the run. Therefore, it is up to sales staffs to keep the clients engaged and lines of communication open over the long haul so that exhibitors don’t make the potentially disastrous mistake of deciding that a trade show won’t offer an adequate ROI next time around.

Personal Playbook for Tough Times

• Commit yourself to giving 100% to your job. Don’t let the idea that the economy is slow become an excuse for slowing down. “There is no magic bullet,” Berman said. “A lot of it is getting back to basics.” Make sure your sales staff maintains a consistent pace of phone calls to prospects. Have them keep a log of how many calls were made and how many times they got through to the decision maker.

• Keep the lines of communication open. Berman suggested that sales people take on the role of “compassionate cheerleader” – someone who allows clients to cry on their shoulder while encouraging them to stay in the game and not become so discouraged they do something rash such as skip a trade show. “Don’t let your clients use a recession as an excuse to fail,” she said.

• Don’t take rejection personally. Sales people are often their own breed of cat, psychologically. Those who revel in the euphoria of closing a big deal can tumble into despair when they hit a cold streak and their meeting quotas appear even more daunting. “Train them to stay on task, stay in the game, and don’t let your clients bench themselves,” said Berman.

• Look to the future. Sometimes, you have to accept it when an exhibitor downsizes. “At least they are still on board and recognize that your show is a positive investment,” she said. When the economy improves, these clients may increase their spending. “It’s not an ‘all-or-nothing’ game,” Berman said.

No Rest for Management, Either

Sales people can’t be left to their own devices during an economic downturn. Supervisors, department heads and even chief executives will have to pay closer attention to their folks in the field to keep them focused and enthusiastic.

As the sledding gets tougher, sales people naturally begin agonizing. It can get to the point, Berman warned, that fear leads to a freeze-up in which sales people and perhaps even their supervisors retreat into a shell and go through the motions when they should be out hustling harder than ever.

Berman said senior sales staff and department heads need to step in and offer the guidance and encouragement their junior employees will need to remain in the game. “If they are ever going to fall down in the job, this will be the time they do it,” Berman said. “And it will be out of fear.”

Seek Out the Senior ‘Yes’ Men

When there is less money to spend on exhibiting, it may be necessary for show organizers to bypass mid-level managers and take their case upstairs. People tasked with approving trade show expenditures for an exhibitor may be under firm orders to hold down expenses, which means a show sales person is wasting time singing the benefits of exhibiting. “We need to speak to the ultimate decision maker,” Berman said. “What we need to do is go up.”

Such situations provide show organizers the opportunity to step in and use their connections and seniority to gain access to the vice presidents and CEOs of exhibiting companies who can make things happen. In the executive suite, the logic of exhibiting can be more persuasive, and deals can be made.

Protect Your Prices

The rationale for exhibiting in good times is much the same as it is when things are not so good and should be the main focus of a sales presentation. But sales staff should expect that more customers will flat-out ask for discounts on their booth space. That, she said, is a slippery slope best to be avoided. “If you start playing that game, you are going to be playing it for years to come,” she said.

Some other ideas to consider:

• New sponsor packages. Give exhibitors a deal to buy into sponsorship programs or upgraded packages. The increased visibility will give the exhibitor a better chance for a good ROI while the show maintains the integrity of its pricing.

• Create webcasts. Pre-show Internet presentations give exhibitors another opportunity to get in front of their customers. Companies that simply cannot afford to spring for a large booth can augment the ROI on a 10’x10’ booth by sponsoring an online presentation as well.

• Consider new events. A smaller, more focused show may be more economical and appealing to an undecided exhibitor. “You can slice and dice their marketplace and you’ll be the ones that bring it to them,” Berman said.

• Become an information font for the industry. Sales people can become a primary source of solid information about the industry they serve because they are in constant contact with so many of the players. But don’t give it away, Berman said. Sales people can use their knowledge as leverage to keep lines of communication open with customers. “Tell them, ‘You don’t necessarily have to pay for it, but you have to engage me,’” Berman said. At the same time, managers should make sure their junior people are well schooled and up to date on the issues affecting their exhibitors’ business so they can carry on an in-depth discussion.

Pep Talk Over, Sales Team Takes the Field

Berman left the IAEE crowd knowing that while they would likely face a tough game in the months ahead, they could come out on the winning side with some smart play, teamwork and effort. “The companies that do the best job and fight for progress are the ones that are going to survive,” she said.

Reach Helen Berman at (310) 230-3899 or hberman@helenberman.com