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It takes time and expense to attend a conference. At the recent National Veteran Small Business Conference (VETS), for example, my company TAPE paid for a booth, as well as for eight of our people to attend conference sessions and work at that booth. And it was worth it! (Find out why I called VETS “a conference done right.”)

It was invaluable for us to be situated right there on the conference floor surrounded by delegates, many of whom were potential customers for us. For that reason, before an event we always spend a lot of time working on precisely what message we want to convey. In some cases, we know we’ll be in front of an agency we have already submitted a proposal to, so we can be ready for that. At other events, we’ll be looking to generate interest in some new long-term function we were trying to get started.

Aside from our staff, our company’s top officers were also in that booth – our President and CEO, as well as myself as Senior Vice-President and General Manager. People could approach us directly to talk about their problem, and when they did, we had a variety of informational materials on hand for each of our different areas of focus – whether that was education and training, program development or IT.

That’s the ideal scenario, whether you’re exhibiting at a conference or simply attending. You want to be equipped to explain exactly how you can solve each customer’s problem, with written materials to back that up – cut sheets, capability statements and the like.

Always have information on hand that’s specifically oriented to the people you’re about to meet and/or do business with, because those are the folks you want to tell the story to about what you do.

Your company may not need – or have – eight people to attend each conference. But you do have to understand who it is you’re selling to and what you’re selling, before you show up. Otherwise you’re going to stand around, waiting. You won’t know the right people when they’re in front of you, and even if you do recognize them, you won’t know what to say to them. And then you’ve wasted the money you spent on the conference in the first place.

For maximum visibility and opportunity, be sure to consider getting a sponsorship, table or booth at the conference. Many conferences have small business rates that make these opportunities quite affordable. In any case, make sure you get out and mingle with your ideal customers. Identify the sessions and events where they’re likely to be, and plan for how you can get in front of them. In some cases, your best customers will be other exhibitors, which make them very easy to find and approach.

Don’t try or expect to sign a deal at this point. What you want to do now is get your name known, and make a personal contact with someone you can follow up with later.

If you’ve chosen the right conference, you will get the chance to meet some actual customers. The next step is to determine if the person in front of you has a problem that you can solve, whether this person is interested in doing business with you and (most importantly) whether they have money to spend on solving their problem. If you can meet those criteria, you’ve got something.

You can find customers at conferences, provided that you:

  • Choose the right conference
  • Bring the right materials
  • Have the right conversations

For more tips about how to find customers, check out the first two posts in this series:

Finding Customers, Part One: Organizations, We Got Organizations

How to Find Customers, Part Two: Pairing Up to Win More Government Contracts

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