How to Use Conferences to Prospect for New Customers

By Geoffrey James

Because attendees are, by definition, interested in what you have to offer, software trade shows can be a productive environment for developing new customer contacts. Contrary to popular belief, though, most good prospects aren’t going to show up on the trade show floor. The place you are most likely to find qualified prospects is in conference sessions that deal specifically with your firm’s particular area of software interest.

The best way to prospect at a conference session is to get on the panel or be a featured speaker. This is easier than you might think. Conference organizers are constantly looking for panelists and, if you’ve become involved in consultative selling, you should be able to position yourself as somebody who has general knowledge about your industry, rather than merely a sales professional representing a certain firm. The trick is to approach the conference organizer as if he or she were a potential customer. When looking to be on a panel, craft your biography and presentation idea so that it emphasizes elements that will be of interest to the target audience.

Once you are on the panel, your job is to make it clear to audience members that you have information that is of value to them. In other words, the positive impression you make while you’re on the panel should translate into a desire, on the part of the attendees, to get some time alone with you. Needless to say, that’s the kind of sales call that can result in a real sales opportunity. To achieve this outcome, you must heed the following rules.

1. Use the right jargon. Know your audience members and talk from their viewpoint. Avoid jargon that might confuse them. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use any jargon at all, only that the jargon you use should be meaningful to audience members, rather than just buzzwords that are specific to your firm.

2. Stay light on your feet. Conference moderators often feel the need to spice up a session by asking provocative questions. If a question contains negative language or words you don’t like, do not repeat the moderator’s negative words. Instead, restate the question in a more positive way. For example, the question posed might be: Is it true that a lot of CRM licenses are just shelfware that nobody uses? Your answer might be: The real question here is how can companies get sales reps to use CRM. In my experience, one of the best ways to do this is….

3. Draw on your personal experience. While you should never talk directly about the quality of your software, it’s entirely appropriate to tell anecdotes about your personal experience in the business. The best stories are those that have a happy ending for the customer, such as a big promotion. It’s also appropriate to tell stories about software implementations that went badly, so long as you don’t point fingers directly at competitors.

4. Speak directly to your audience. The moderator is only there to help you get your message across to audience members. The other panelists are only there to make you look good by contrast – ideally, of course. Address your remarks directly to the audience and invite audience members to speak with you after the session. Try to remember as many faces as possible so when you run into people later at the conference you can open a conversation with: Say, didn’t I see you at the CRM of the Future session?