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Each month in our Advice from the Booth Mom editorial series you will gain insight on how to set up your company trade show schedule, planning logistics and marketing efforts strategically at industry events. This week’s article from the Booth Mom is on lead management, turning leads into sales.

Lead Management Statistics

Any time the topic of lead management comes up in a discussion among exhibitors, there are a couple of statistics that are thrown out in conversation. The first is that the #1 reason exhibitors participate in trade shows is to gather leads that can be converted to future sales. Does that give you the hint that managing the lead gathering and follow-up process should be at the top-of-mind of every exhibit manager from the minute we start planning a show? Sounds reasonable, but the problem is, with all the other details and deadlines hounding us, strategic lead management often takes a back seat to tactics of exhibit design, messaging and staff logistics.    

The second stat is that an estimated 70-80% of leads gathered at trade shows are never followed up.  They die a sad and dusty death in a drawer or closet, never to be fulfilled. I’ve always wondered exactly what this statistic means, though.  Does it mean that only the top 20-30% of the hottest leads are contacted post-show, or that 20-30% of companies follow-up on all leads gathered at a show?  From my own experience, I know if I go to a show and have my badge scanned and ask for post-show contact, the majority of the time I’ll never hear from the exhibitor again.  Or, at best, I may get added to a database for periodic email nudges to buy their product. As a serious buyer, I find being ignored after I’ve requested specific follow-up to be frustrating, and the time I spent on the show floor a waste of time if exhibitors aren’t going to get back with me.  

One of my favorite industry sayings about leads is:  “A lead isn’t really a lead unless it leads to something after the show.” I don’t think truer words have ever been spoken!  But that saying insinuates that there will be a post-show follow-up, which, if the industry stat above holds true, may or may not be the case. The strategic and tactical processes agreed to by your show stakeholders during the show planning need to support the desired end result – leads that will be contacted, informed and efficiently moved through the sales cycle to get the outcome you want – a system that closes the loop from in-booth qualification to post-show sales.  Anything less should not be an acceptable end result.   

So where is your company on the continuum of lead management activities?

 Are you strong out of the gate with written goals and measurable objectives for the show’s lead gathering, with strong tactical plans of promotional activities to draw your target market to your exhibit, trained exhibit staff to efficiently qualify visitors yet leave them wanting further contact post-show, then the addition of your leads to your corporate database and distribution for follow-up, followed by regular sales reports of the status of the show leads?  If not, read on…

So what do you need to know – and do – to make sure your hard-earned leads don’t end up in the bottomless pit of a lead-eating CRM system, never to be heard from again?  Below you will learn about the things you can do to avoid the pitfalls of lead mismanagement.

Assemble your stakeholder team.

 The lead gathering and management process starts when you and your trade show stakeholder team sits down to determine all of the show’s strategic goals and objectives, including lead gathering. Be sure that you have team members from both Marketing and Sales who can give input into the procedures for generating, distributing and following up on leads.  

At the onset of the stakeholder meeting on lead generation, you’ll probably hear the Sales’ battle cry: “We need to fill our pipeline with leads!” as their primary goal.  Other common goals, more often owned by Marketing, include generating corporate branding and product awareness, educating your target market if you have a new or complex product, relationship-building with current customers and partners (and even potential new partners) and press-generating interaction with the media.  

Don’t just talk about your goals and the tactical objectives that will support them.  Write them down. Then determine how you’ll measure the success of each of these goals, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  Ask the question, “What results will it take to make this show a success for our company?”

What’s your definition of a “lead”?  

You need to get your stakeholders to all agree on your company’s definition of a lead to quantify, qualify and measure them properly. In the simplest terms, most companies consider leads as potential sales contacts; someone who expresses an interest in your company’s products or services. But some companies actually have another name for the activities at a trade show and consider the initial request for information on the show floor as an initial “inquiry” and don’t believe it becomes a “lead” until it has been qualified as a valid opportunity for the company.

But is all that’s required to set up a lead gathering program at a show to figure out how to shovel prospects’ contact info into your sales department’s pipeline for further qualification? No, you can’t stop there.

Another discussion that needs to take place with your stakeholder team is agreeing to a realistic number of leads (or inquiries) – or qualified leads – as your goal, based on your definition. Things to consider when setting your lead goal include the size of your target audience at the show based on information you can glean from show management about registered attendees’ job functions, buying influence and plans, product interest and company size.  And how many prospects can you realistically talk with and qualify during the show given the size of your booth space and exhibit staff? (Or as I like to point out to my more zealous clients, you can only stack visitors four high in a booth before they’ll fall over!) As an example, if there are 1,000 attendees at a show that fit your basic customer profile that you consider your target market, the show floor is open a total of 18 hours, you have four dedicated sales staff in your booth at all times, and the average conversation with an attendee lasts seven minutes, how many total conversations (regardless of how qualified they are) can you possibly have? (My math figures you have 18 hours multiplied by 60 minutes times four staff, divided by seven minutes each, you could potentially have 617 conversations or talk with about 2/3 of your target audience – if they were the only ones who stopped by your booth!) But get realistic.  Can anyone in their right mind expect to have constant and level traffic flow in your booth over every minute of the show (since we know the first thing in the morning, last hour of the day and final day of the show generate slower traffic), and a queue of perfectly-timed conversations?  And what percentage of those conversations do you expect will result in what you will ultimately determine is a qualified lead that will require post-show follow-up?  

One of my pet peeves is when I hear exhibitors brag about the number of leads they got at a show by putting a fishbowl out on their counter with a sign saying “Drop in your business card to win an iPad!” I hate to break the news to them, but those cards aren’t leads; they are just the contact info on contestants. You have no way of knowing if these people have any interest – or need – for your company’s product or service. All you know for sure about them is that they’d like to win a free iPad.  No qualifying information will turn the post-show contact from a cold call into a warm one (since you could have easily purchased a database of contact information before the show for a lot less expense than exhibiting).

There’s nothing inherently wrong with counting each and every lead/inquiry/contact (or whatever you want to call them) gathered at a show, but if you want meaningful numbers, you’ll need to determine what constitutes a qualified lead vs. the contestant, trick-or-treater or undercover competitor who you can categorize as post-show time wasters.

How will you categorize (or rate) your leads?

 What categories matter to your post-show measurement? Will you treat all show leads the same, with the same follow-up sent in the same timeframe?  Or will different categories of leads get more expedited or customized follow-up?

I’ve learned two things about categorizing leads – both through the University of Hard Knocks.  The first is to have my sales team rank leads as they take them based on the personal interaction they’ve had. This isn’t scientific, but I believe there’s nothing like that gut feel my trained exhibit staff have to help decide the ultimate value of a lead. My second revelation is not to have staff rate the leads on a 1 to 5 scale; instead, give them letter grades like we got in school.  There always seems to be confusion on whether a 1 or 5 is best so ask them to rank them after their conversation from A to F. But what, exactly constitutes a B or C grade? If you have five qualifying questions you’re asking and the prospect gives a positive answer to three of five, does that automatically make that lead a “C”? (5 out of 5 “right” answers would be an A, 4 out of 5 would be a B, 3 out of 5 would be a C, 2 out of 5 would be a D, and 1 out of 5 would be an F.) Then you need to decide if all post-show follow-ups will be prioritized by the rating given by the exhibit staff person, with all “A” leads followed-up before the “Bs”?  

Will each show day’s leads be rushed to someone to input into your system to have them ready for your team to begin follow-up as soon as the prospects are back in their office?  Or will your follow-up team receive the entire list of leads at once for processing?

Decide what system you will use to gather lead information.  

Does the show hire a vendor to rent badge scanners or apps to exhibitors? What options do you have for various models of lead scanners – from desktop models with printers to handheld devices to just renting an app to load on your staff members’ smartphones? Do the available systems offer the opportunity to customize your questions (generally for an additional fee) or are you stuck with their standard top 20 generic questions?  

If the show doesn’t offer exhibitors the opportunity to rent the technology to scan attendees’ badges, what is your fallback system? Will you purchase a 3rd-party system, set-up laptops or iPads to let attendees input their own contact info and answer a few qualifying questions, resort to paper and pens on clipboards, or employ a business card scanner to get just their basic the contact information?  

The other information you need to consider is how the lead info will be uploaded into your company’s sales database. How closely do the rental systems’ fields align with those of your CRM system? Will the data be provided to exhibitors in an uploadable format (i.e., CSV – comma separated value) to avoid the brain-numbing manual input?  If not, will the human resources be available when you need them to quickly input all the data into your database for distribution or do you need to outsource this function for more timely input?

What will your custom qualifying questions be?  

You need to know what information to gather from your prospects that are most critical to your company’s sales efforts.  The biggest pothole I see exhibit managers stepping into is assuming they (or the lead retrieval system vendor) somehow automagically know what data needs to be gathered on the show floor during the prospect interaction for post-show follow-up without the input of the people actually following up! Beyond the basic contact information you could glean from a business card (name, title, company name, address, email address, office and cell phone numbers and possibly company website URL), what type of basic (vs. custom) qualifying questions are considered standard to most official show vendors of the badge readers (i.e. prospect’s needs, level of decision-making influence, company size, timeframe to buy and follow-up action requested)?

Next, decide what custom questions are crucial to get the answers for that can help turn this into a sale, like the type of contact they had at the exhibit (i.e. attended theater presentation, had canned demo, custom demo, or discussion with sales engineer). Understand what problem they’re trying to solve (time, money or hassles), what products they’re most interested in, the name of the current product/vendor they’re using, if the purchase is already budgeted or has to go through an RFP process and the size of the opportunity. This is by no means a comprehensive list of custom qualifiers but does give you a flavor of information that would help the person tasked with following up after the show immensely to turn a cold call into a warm call.     

If you’re using the show’s official badge readers and paying to add customized questions, make sure you know the specifics on adding them like:

1) Is the number of customized questions limited to X number in addition to the standard questions, or can you customize the entire number of fields in the system?

2) Are the customized questions just Yes/No, or can you use questions with multiple choice answers and decision trees?

3) What is the maximum number of characters per field (usually under 30), which means some questions may need to be abbreviated.  Most lead gathering systems also allow you to add notes at the end of each lead. Using this field for additional (or personal) information can improve the post-show contact.  

All leads are not created equal.  

In addition to ranking your leads by their quality, you may also want to consider the differences in them and what that means when considering your show’s ROI (Return on Investment).  Was the visitor a suspect (someone your company hasn’t had prior contact with and doesn’t know your company), a prospect (someone who’s already aware of and been in touch with your company) or a past or current customer/client (who has the potential of purchasing additional products/services)?  Or are they a potential business partner or dealer/distributor? What is the dollar value of each of these types of leads to your company when it comes to new customer acquisition and the cost of generating a product sale?

And does what the attendees did while in your exhibit and where it occurred matter?  Yes, both interaction and location matters! Depending on the type of contact a visitor had at your exhibit and possibly even the location where the badge was scanned, this info may give you more insight into an attendee’s level of interest and knowledge about your product when contacted after the show.  If a visitor does what I call a “drive-by scanning”, just waving their badge at the person at the information counter in return for a pen or tin of breath mints, doesn’t that make them less interested or knowledgeable than the person who sat through a 7-minute presentation or had a twenty-minute one-on-one custom demo? Keeping track of where the lead was taken can give you valuable insight into your visitors’ activities in your booth. With the advent of RF (radio frequency) or NFC (near field communication) chips embedded in badges at some of the larger shows, even more, information can be gleaned with the right pre-show planning.   

I’ve heard it said about trade shows that they not actually for selling; they’re for accelerating the sales cycle.  So what’s your plan for nurturing the suspects through the sales cycle to get them up-to-speed about your company and your company more knowledgeable about their needs? Will the prospects who are already in your database be directed back to the person or distributor they’ve already been talking with? And who will jump on the opportunity to upsell your current customers on your latest and greatest products?  Hopefully, they already have a sales representative assigned to their account who can manage these opportunities.

 It’s OK to ask if prospects if they really want post-show follow-up.  

Exhibitors know that there are those booth visitors that are referred to as “trick-or-treaters”, with swag bags in hand. I decided to tackle this problem head-on when I worked for a company that always gave away high-value gifts to those who attended our sit-down theater presentations.  

We attracted throngs of trick-or-treaters to our corporate theater presentation for two reasons — and neither of those reasons was learning about our products. They wanted to sit down and rest for a few minutes on our comfy stools and/or also wanted our high-tech giveaway.  So, to alleviate the problem of trying to qualify the dozens of attendees following each presentation when trading the lead forms we’d placed on each seat of our theater for our giveaways after each show, I came up with a Plan B. I followed the short list of qualifying questions with a bold-print yes/no question on the bottom of the paper lead forms:  “I’m only here for the giveaway; no follow-up required. ☺.”  It was fun to watch the expressions on the faces of our theater visitors when they hit the last, loaded question on the lead form. I swear it was a cross between “Hey, this is a cool company!” and “Oh, good; one less SPAM in my email box!”  I estimated that almost 2/3 of the visitors in our presentation checked the box that they wanted no post-show follow-up.

My sales team was amazed at the improved quality of the show leads that were passed on to them. This elevated the trade show exhibit program in the eyes of the sales team since I was no longer burying them in non-productive leads. And this newfound respect for the show leads also seemed to make them work harder to qualify their one-on-one in-booth contacts, too, since they knew, to quote Ford’s old slogan, that “Quality is Job #1”.  

Determine who the leads will be distributed to and when. 

Do you understand your company’s system for distributing your leads and the timeframe attached? These systems can range from very simple to extremely complex. You need to have the plan for managing the leads post-show in place long before you ever get to the show. You’ll need to inform those responsible for the physical follow-up of when the leads will be available for download from the system vendor after show close (or if they’re immediately uploaded to the cloud as they’re scanned).  Make sure you have adequate resources in place to either input or upload the information into your database/CRM system, and everyone involved agrees with the follow-up action and timeframe for each category of leads, from the hottest to the coolest. Management of show leads may also be different if you have an internal salesforce vs. an external network of channel partners or dealers/distributors, both in distribution and your ability to track the number of sales resulting from your show leads.

I have a client whose Marketing and Sales Department VPs want to review the leads daily at show close, and they meet to discuss them and handle the physical distribution to their teams. And I have other clients who want leads sent daily to the CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system’s database administrator to start inputting them into that system the minute they’re available. Another client has me sort the A- and B-rated leads by territory and send those nightly to their regional managers for immediate distribution but wait to send all the C/D/F leads back to HQ at the end of the show. Having all these lead management decisions in place and having the follow-up staff on high alert will expedite your contacts and make you look very efficient to potential customers. The early bird does get the worm!

Don’t de-dup the leads!

 One of the most important lessons I’ve learned and continually pass on to those who manage leads is if you find the same person’s information multiple times in your spreadsheet of leads, don’t automatically take out the duplicates!  

Stop and think about it. These people have come back to visit your exhibit multiple times.  Can you tell by looking at which device they were scanned on whether they attended your theater presentation, had a one-on-one demo, or talked multiple times to the same salesperson?  All of these are buying signals that you’ve got someone who’s really interested in your product. (But if they scanned at the info counter giving out pens, not so much!) Don’t let your hottest leads just get included with all the others who only stopped by your booth once. Make sure that their multiple visits are added to the notes field for top-priority follow-up.

Close the loop.  

Closing the loop to track a lead to a sale is usually the hardest part of trade show lead management. If it were simple, more exhibitors would be doing a better job of tracking their leads to sales and sales to revenue gleaned from at-show meetings, proving their shows’ ROI.  

It’s at this stage of lead management that the finger-pointing and blame game often rears its ugly head.  If no sales are being reported as closed from the show leads, whose “fault” is it? Are the leads inherently bad based on poor quality of show attendees or a mismatch with your target audience? Or is it lack of sales follow-up ― or maybe just lack of reporting sales ― that’s keeping you from closing the loop on the status of sales from a show’s leads?

Is there a mechanism in place within your lead management system to provide you feedback on how many sales were made from the leads lovingly gathered at shows to measure whether or not you met your show goals?  If your show program isn’t getting credit for any sales from show-generated leads, you may want to look into whether your CRM system even tracks the origin of leads. I’ve run into the problem of my leads already being in the CRM system, permanently assigned to a sales rep, and this isn’t a changeable field.  So no matter how many times their name comes up on a show’s lead list, any sale is going to be attributed to the sales rep who made the initial contact, not the show.

Long sales cycles can also foul the timing of sales reports and impede post-show sales reporting.  Based on your company’s sales cycle, how long does it take for a lead to move through your sales pipeline?  And how does this compare to the time gap between show-end and post-show analysis reporting? If your management team doesn’t want to wait 18 months for your post-show report on the success of the XYZ Show, you’ll need to determine another metric to report.    

When it comes to lead management, sad to say, we can often “lead” our horse to water but can’t make it drink.  But we can be more aware of all the external forces that we can control in our show planning that will make lead gathering and management more efficient and effective and let us measure our show results.  

Keep an eye out for my next article, as I will dive into why a business card is not a lead. Do you have a question or want me to go over a specific topic? Click here. 

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