As the market gets tougher, more and more people are turning to alternative ways of generating new business — cold calling, marketing and, in particular, doing business through exhibitions.

For most businesses, their experience of exhibitions, conferences and road shows is fairly limited. They have perhaps attended a few, maybe even exhibited at a few in the past, yet are still unsure as to how to get the best return-on-investment (ROI) from them. In fact, when they do exhibit, they're probably guilty of making some of the common mistakes that most people make when it comes to exhibiting.

The Common Mistakes that Mean Losing Business at an Exhibition

Most people lose business at exhibitions because they commit some of the following common mistakes. Let's look at these in turn and then what you can do to avoid them.

1. Not Thinking About Your Outcomes Beforehand. This is a critical step that most people miss. It's essential to think about what you want from an exhibition in advance. Is it to showcase a new product? To gain new sales leads? To have a presence for buyers and show them you're still around and want their business?

You also need to think about what will make the exhibition a success for you. Is it number of new inquiries? Orders placed at the show? Orders that come in afterwards? In addition, which potential customers are you hoping to meet at the show? Have you sent them specifically targeted invitations, perhaps to an event you're hosting after the show starts?

2. Trying to Sell on the Stand. This is a huge mistake that most people make. Think about it: You've invested all that money, time and effort in having a presence at the exhibition, all the staff costs you've incurred for them attending, and you're letting valuable sales leads drift away because you're caught up in conversations with other people trying to sell them on what you're offering? Big mistake.

Exhibitions should only be about the first part of your sales pipeline—meeting and qualifying your potential customer. Anything more and you're going to be losing business because of the number of people you missed speaking to because you were too caught up in trying to sell someone else what you offer. Use the exhibition as a way of meeting, identifying and qualifying prospects, then you could potentially set up one-on-one meetings with prospects during the event in a quiet corner of the cafe, or an external venue. Alternatively, why not do a presentation on your company after the show one evening, and arrange meetings after that?

You've paid good money for your company and your staff (and yourself) to be at that exhibition. Don't let valuable sales leads walk away because you're too focused on one person.

3. Not Being on Top of Your Game. The amount of time, money and effort you've invested in the exhibition could go to waste if when the potential sales opportunity comes along, your salesperson isn't at the top of their game and fails to deal with it properly. At far too many exhibitions, salespeople or people manning the stands appear visibly hung-over, tired, and sometimes even still smell of the previous night's alcohol—not a great first impression for a potential new client, is it? Exhibitions can be long days. You need all your energy and focus to maximize the sales opportunities that come your way, without ruining the opportunities before they even have a chance to get started.

4. Not Following Up Properly. This is probably the biggest mistake of all. I regularly speak at exhibitions and conferences and I often go over to stands, engage the staff in conversation and show interest in their products and services. Usually they take my details (I give them my training company card) and I then wait to see how pro-active they are in following up my interest. About 10 percent of the time I receive a phone call, and about 50% of the time I receive an e-mail. That means that 40% of the time, I'm not getting any follow-up from that company at all.

So why would that be? Their company has spent all that time, effort and money to generate that lead, yet the salespeople don't follow up? Here are 3 quick reasons that explain in more detail:

  • Your Salespeople Didn't Take the Exhibition Seriously. Some salespeople still see exhibitions as a chance to get away from work and get drunk on the company (see mistake number 3 above). They don't take the leads seriously, see it as a hassle, and can't wait to get back to normal work.
  • You Gave it to the Wrong Person to Follow Up. Another big reason is that you gave to the wrong person to follow up! A lot of the time, follow up is done by marketing departments or office staff, not trained salespeople, and then wonder why the leads don't result in much business.
  • You Left it Too Long. People that are visiting exhibitions will probably be talking to you, and your competition. If they're in the market for your product or service, they may well be talking to other suppliers outside the exhibition as well. Yet you've done the work, you've met the person, you've got the lead. Then what do you do? Wait a couple of weeks to follow it up? Hopeless! Make sure if you've took the time, trouble and effort to get the lead in the first place, that you follow it up within 3 days maximum.

Follow the tips above and watch for the massive improvement in your sales from exhibitions.

SMM columnist Andy Preston is a leading expert on sales and selling for small businesses. You can see more about Andy at