Conference Networking Strategies for Sales Teams

As I sat on the plane on my way back to Boston from the Restaurant Leadership Conference in Scottsdale, AZ, the things I did right and wrong washed over my brain.  Why did I spend too much time sitting in the second general session?  Should I have spent more time in the dining area?  Why didn’t I set up more meetings before I left for the conference?

Sales teams come to conferences with one goal in mind: pitch as many people as you can.  The restaurant industry, like many others, is a tight-knit group that needs to see a company’s representatives face-to-face for multiple years to have confidence the company will be around and innovating for many more.  The first year, you attend, shake hands, and collect business cards.  The second year you get a booth, reconnect with the industry, and close a couple deals.  The third year you lead a panel and close the early majority.  The best way to ensure you get to speak with as many potential clients as possible is to build a cohesive strategy weeks before landing at the conference site.

Pre-Conference

1. Get an Attendee List – If you’re a sponsor of the conference or getting a booth, ask for a list of attendees.  Once you get that list, Google their email addresses using the most common email structures: John@thelevelup.com, JValentine@thelevelup.com, John.Valentine@thelevelup.com, John@thelevelup.com, Valentine@thelevelup.com.  One of those email structures will hit the Google jackpot about 80% of the time.  Shoot these attendees an email letting them know what your booth number is.  Tell them to stop by.  Ask for their cell number so you can text them if you miss the prospect’s booth visit.  Let everyone know you simply want to shake their hand and meet them in person.  There is no better sales driver than face-to-face meetings.

During the Conference

1.  Send Prospects an Email Mid-Conference – Half the conference has passed and you still haven’t connected with a bunch of your prospects?  Send them a 2-line email letting them know you want to shake their hand and say hi.  You’ll be surprised by the quick, positive responses you get back.  Even the biggest industry stars have downtime, and some conferences are a bore.  Email them right before a scheduled break.

2.  Do NOT Sit Through Educational Sessions – The biggest mistake any salesperson can make at a conference is to sit through entire sessions.  Let’s be honest, over 90% of them are not even tangentially related to your business.  The only sessions you should completely attend are those of your competition.  Competitive intel is always important to know for prospect objections.  Walk into the session 10 minutes before it is scheduled to start, sit down next to a potential prospect, and have a short conversation to learn more about them and their business.  When the session is about to begin, politely excuse yourself to the bathroom and head out.

3.  Eat Twice During Every Meal Period – Dining areas are the #1 place to start a good conversation.  Why waste a meal period with one just one conversation?  Fill up your plate with half the food you would normally eat, sit down and chat up your table-mates, exchange business cards, excuse yourself, grab a clean plate, fill it up half way again, sit down at another table, and commence conversation number two.  If you’re eating dinner, you can squeeze in a third conversation with desert.

4.  Always Have a Pen On-Hand – You MUST write notes on every business card you receive.  Suggested notes are as follows: location you met the prospect, date, interesting tidbits, names of other decision-makers in the company, where her daughter is attending college, and anything that could bring a positive memory to mind.  Trust me, you’ll quickly forget who most of the people in your card stack are by the end of the conference.  Don’t get caught without material for a follow-up email.

5.  Bring More Business Cards Than you Think You Need – Business cards are like money in the conference industry.  Without a thick stack of your own, you won’t get anything back.  Oh, and have a business card that stands out.  Square cards, metal cards, and cards with creative fonts tend to be memorable.

6.  Hang out at Meeting Places During Downtime – If I’m not supposed to be anywhere for a while, I’ll hang out in the lobby or at the lobby bar (if the conference takes place in a hotel).  These locations and other landmarks are where people gather for meetings.  One person will inevitably arrive before the other, and they don’t like to appear lonely so they’ll make small talk with whomever is around.  You.  Take advantage.

7.  Remember, Your Product Comes Second – You will get absolutely nowhere if you pitch the product before introducing yourself and sharing something interesting about yourself.  Business owners are in [insert exotic/awesome location here] to kick back, learn a couple things, and connect with their industry friends.  You want to become a friend rather than another sales guy at the conference.   I sometimes spend 10 minutes befriending owners and let them ask what company I work for without prompting.  That way, you know they’re truly interested.

Post-Conference

1.  2-Day Rule – Don’t send emails or make calls to conference prospects until a couple days have passed.  Let the amateurs bombard the prospects with emails as they hit ‘delete’ without ever opening them.  A well-crafted email a few days after the conference with an eye-catching header will elicit a read.  That’s all you can ask for.

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Conference Networking Strategies for Sales Teams

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