Leveraging Customer Service When Exhibiting at Trade Shows

(Originally published as a a Customer Service column in the
October 2000 issue of AFSMI's The Professional Journal.)

By William K. Pollock

Many businesses find that it is important to get out into the "real world" every once in a while to meet their customers and prospects face-to-face, and link a name on a customer information file to an actual individual. Most customers feel the same way, especially if they have been dealing with the same vendor and customer service personnel over a long period of time.

While industry trade shows may not exactly equate to the "real world", they still provide an excellent opportunity for those customer service management and staff personnel that do not normally get the chance to meet their customers in person, to do just that - meet their customers and prospects face-to-face, establish or reinforce an ongoing dialogue, and obtain some "real time" feedback. Even in the electronic age, there is still no substitute for direct, face-to-face communications to establish an even stronger bond between vendor and customer.

The principal purposes for a vendor to exhibit at a major national or regional trade show are essentially:

  • To display, exhibit and/or otherwise promote the company's:
    • Overall corporate business image, reputation and market presence;
    • Portfolio of products, services and support offerings;
    • Customer service and support capabilities;
    • Business partnerships and strategic alliances;
    • New or planned products/services; and
    • Any other "promotable" products, services, announcements or events.
  • To mix and mingle "informally" with the customer and prospect base so that names and voices can be connected to faces, and customers/prospects feel "closer" to the organization and the people with whom they regularly conduct business; and
  • To establish a presence at the trade shows and events that the marketplace expects the company to participate in as a symbol of its status, stature and commitment to the marketplace.
Further, trade shows can also serve as excellent venues in which unhappy customers can be "handheld" on a personal basis, new customers can be "gladhanded" for their recent purchases, and new prospects can be "schmoozed" in an attempt to win them over as customers.

However, the real key to a successful and customer service-oriented trade show exhibition presence, is to offer an uncluttered, focused and eye-appealing exhibit that is perceived by attendees and visitors to be warm, friendly and nonthreatening in terms of allowing them to stop by to:

  • Introduce themselves,
  • Meet some of the "disembodied voices" they have been speaking with regularly,
  • Collect newly available vendor/product information,
  • Pick up fresh brochures and marketing collateral, and
  • Move on to the next booth, exhibit or seminar.
Conducting business transactions at the exhibit location may not only be prohibited by the trade show exhibitor's agreement, but may also serve as a deterrent to those visitors who are simply trying to collect some information, meet some people and informally mix with their peers in an nonthreatening manner. Anything even remotely resembling a "hard sell" would only prove to be an affront to many who would otherwise have been happy just to visit your booth and walk away with nothing more than some new information and good feelings about your company.

Regardless of what services your organization is trying to sell, or what your customers and prospects are looking for when they visit your booth, one thing is clear - this is a perfect opportunity to show your visitors exactly how your organization practices customer service in the "real world". As such, the presence of your customer service and support personnel at the booth, interacting with a continuing current of existing and prospective customers, can often lead to surprising results. The services industry is a close community, and word of mouth generally carries a great deal of clout. A strong presence at the trade show booth can play an important role in communicating your organization's commitment to customer service.

However, there are also some areas to consider when exhibiting at a trade show that could present potential problems if not handled carefully. For example:

  • The principal purpose of exhibiting at a trade show is to present the company in its best light. It is, therefore, important to avoid doing anything other than exhibiting your products and services and meeting your customers and prospects, such as attempting to make sales on the trade show floor, conducting what might be considered to be an "intrusive" customer survey at the booth site, or any other activity that could be even remotely perceived as impeding the visitor's ability to get in and of the booth quickly, and without being otherwise "indisposed".
  • Customers/prospects may not totally "open-up" to company personnel at the exhibit site with respect to major problem issues. Even unhappy customers typically do not wish to "embarrass" their vendor in front of its other customers and prospects, especially in a public forum such as a trade show booth. As a result, some customers may not be totally honest in expressing their concerns directly to company personnel at their own trade show booth. In these instances, it is generally recommended that the vendor's customer service personnel make themselves available to "sneak away" from the booth with a customer that may have a critical concern that needs to be taken care of immediately.
In summary, our experience has strongly suggested that trade shows are designed to be most effective in allowing companies to "show off" their trade and customer service capabilities, and not to conduct business as usual with a seemingly captive audience. Any specific sales activities or business transactions would be more effectively handled off-site, and after show hours. Otherwise, the trade show venue is an excellent place to show your customers and prospects exactly what customer service is all about.
William K. Pollock is president of Strategies For GrowthSM (SFGSM), the Westtown, Pennsylvania-based services consulting firm specializing in strategic business planning, services marketing, CRM consulting, market/survey research, and customer satisfaction measurement and tracking programs. Bill may be reached at 610-399-9717 or via e-mail at wkp@s4growth.com.

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