Meeting the right people at a conference isn’t easy. Anyone that has tried to connect with a potential sales prospect or strategic partner can relate. It's infinitely more challenging if the person of interest is speaking at the conference. As soon as she utters her last word, a mob of attendees rushes the speaker, waving business cards and vying for her attention. Overwhelmed, the target shuts down, politely nodding and smiling while she inconspicuously eyes the exit. As you try to navigate the chaos and get your 10 seconds of face time, you realize that there is little hope of being remembered or standing out. In some cases, especially if it’s an industry titan, you may not have a second opportunity to meet. Mission not accomplished.
Much of this frustration occurs because most people simply don’t know how to approach a bigwig at a conference. This lack of preparation guarantees failure. But working on a few simple issues and refocusing your strategy and intent will yield tremendous results. Here's how.
First, Manage Your Expectations
If you expect to close a deal at a conference then you are going to be disappointed all the time. I see people quite often go on and on about their product at a conference while a line of dozens are waiting for their turn and cursing the time hog under their breath. It isn’t the proper venue for a massive sales pitch or negotiation. Trying to do this will turn off your target completely, and they’ll probably think to themselves that you are a bit clueless or rude. Your goal is simply to have them agree to a follow up. That’s your mission and all you should really hope to expect. If the prospect says "I’d like to talk more with you. Here’s my card. Email me." Say great, stop talking, move on and savor your success.
Second, Pretend He’s Your Buddy
On more than one occasion I’ve had the opportunity to meet with the CEOs of Fortune 100 companies. I will admit to feeling a bit intimidated, especially with the CEOs of the single-digit list members. In instances where I felt like that, I failed to make a connection and wasted an opportunity to win a new client. After making that same mistake a few times, I decided to start pretending that these were just regular guys; that I was talking to a colleague. What a difference that made! Many highly successful business people are tired of people treating them like they are made of porcelain. It’s refreshing to have someone treat them just like what they are: a fellow human.
Third, Give to Get
This final tip is the most important of all. Don’t waste the precious time you have with them to ask for something. To capture their attention in 10 seconds offer to help them with something in which they have an interest. Research beforehand their activities, hobbies and personal interests. Maybe they have a nonprofit organization that they avidly support. After introducing yourself say something like, "I read that you are a big supporter of the XYZ animal shelter network. I think that’s great and would like to get more involved in that cause. Can I reach out to you to see how I can help?" Use that as an opportunity to let them get to know you. People do business with people. After establishing the human connection, business will follow.
No matter what you do, it’s highly unlikely that you'll achieve a one hundred percent success rate with prospects. Stop feeling discouraged after your first several failures. Your goal should be to obtain meaningful follow-ups with one out of five conference attendees. Keep reminding yourself of that every time you get turned down. In fact, you should feel excited about getting rejected. It means you are one step closer to getting to the yes.
If you put these recommendations in practice you will see a tremendous increase in the productivity of your time at conferences. If you attend 10 conferences a year and meet 5 important prospects at each conference, that pool will generate at least a few sizable sales. Don’t let yourself become discouraged. Keep at it. (Get more advice on networking at conferences.)
What are some of your conference success stories (or horror stories)?