A Salesperson’s Guide to Conference Networking for Fun, Education… and Profit [Part 1 of 2]

By Jeff Dieffenbach, EVP Sales and Marketing, Medallion Learning

For extroverts, conferences can be a veritable playground. For introverts, a slog or even a worst nightmare. For both, a waste of time… in the absence of a thoughtful plan for how to make the most of the event. This guide outlines a set of actionable steps—for introverts too!—to enjoying, learning, and selling at conferences and similar events.

Part 1 sets the table for making the most of conference networking: preparing to enjoy yourself, thinking about learning, and the main event, laying the groundwork to sell.

Enjoying

Presumably, you’re not at a conference just to have fun—you’re there to learn or sell. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the work. Unless you’re a total recluse, engaging with people on interesting topics is enjoyable. Follow the learning and selling steps below and you can’t help but have a great time along the way.

Learning

Just because your title says “sales” doesn’t mean you’re off the learning hook. Presumably, your company’s gone to fairly significant expense to get you on site, registered, fed, and lodged. Add some extra “R” to that “I” by keeping an eye out for—and bringing back—content and contacts that might benefit your colleagues in production and product management. Collecting information is just a side benefit, though—as we’ll touch on in the selling section, conference sessions offer a chance to do just that.

Power Tip: Plan your conference time in advance

In advance of the conference, study the program and plan the sessions you’ll attend. You might imagine being able to do this in real time once the event is underway … but you’d be wrong. Amidst the buzz of conversations, the ticking of the clock, and the march of session titles that all start to blur together, it’s simply not practical to make heads or tails of what’s what on the fly.

Keynote sessions with no competition are easy enough. But even with the luxury of time, it can be hard to keep the contents of ten parallel breakout sessions straight in your head. If the format allows, print them out so that you can compare them side-by-side. Or failing that, use the “binary sort” method that works as follows.

First, read and grasp the first session. Don’t just consider the content—take a look at the presenters and their organizations. Are they likely to deliver? Then, do the same for the second, and choose the better spend of your time. Now, tackle the third session and compare to the better of the first two. And so on. Note your choices in your calendar, on a pocket-sized printout of the agenda summary, or simply on a scrap of paper.

Also, pay attention to any registration list that the conference provides. Does it include phone numbers and/or email addresses? If so, there’s less need to get a business card when you’re talking with someone. But don’t assume that the list will include this information without checking first.

Power Tip: Share what you learn

Once you’re on site, take good notes. If you can do so electronically, all the better—it’ll save you time typing them up later. Once you’re done, preface them with an executive summary and share them with your colleagues appropriately.

Just because you’re there to learn doesn’t mean you need to attend every session. If a particular keynote or lineup of talks doesn’t offer anything of value, earmark the time to explore the exposition or arrange a meeting with a fellow attendee.

Selling

Just because you’re at the conference to learn doesn’t mean you’re off the selling hook. When you represent your organization well, you’re selling. And when you’re selling, you’re learning. In addition, as you meet and talk with people throughout the course of the conference, end by asking for their contact information and permission to have someone else from your organization give them a call to get to know one another.

For all but the most simple of products and services, it’s rare that you sell to someone unless you’ve first built a relationship. And building relationships—in a conference setting, what we might call “micro-relationships”—is what you’re there to do. More specifically, starting relationships, which we’ll focus on here.

To varying degrees, everyone at a conference is there to network. And that means meeting people. So as much as it may feel as if introducing yourself is an intrusion, it’s not.

Power Tip: Craft a crisp introduction

Before you’re ready to introduce yourself, though, there’s one key pre-requisite: having a crisp statement of what your organization does. How crisp? Two sentences. That is, if you can’t get the job done in one. Don’t worry—if your introduction goes well, you’ll get a chance to say more.

What constitutes an introduction going well? One of two outcomes: one, you and your conversation mate quickly detect a fit, or two, quickly detect a lack thereof. Given the former, continue the conversation. Given the latter, politely excuse yourself (more on that in a bit) and move on. What’s most precious at a conference is time—what you want to do most is avoid a protracted conversation that was dead on arrival.

Make the first sentence of your crisp and catchy statement as jargon-free as possible in describing what you do. At Lexia Learning Systems, we used “we create reading skill development software.” During a recent chat with someone from Air Methods, he used “we save lives.” For Medallion Learning, we might say “We create elearning experiences that put the learner first.”

Arguably, Air Methods doesn’t even need a second sentence to engage their audience. When I heard “we save lives,” I leaned forward, said I was hooked, and prompted, “Tell me more …” (For those keeping score at home, Air Methods operates the helicopter and fixed-wing “life flights” that get accident victims to hospitals or patients from one hospital to another.)

At Medallion Learning, we use sentence two to give a quick example: “For instance, we work with clients to create and deliver online product and service training to sales forces and customer service teams.” Is that all we do? No, but we can flesh our offering out deeper in the conversation.

At practiced introduction in hand, it’s time to pack your bags and get to the airport. In Part 2, we’ll pick up the trail on-site at the conference: put that introduction to work, guide the resulting conversation, identify a fit, and close the sale.

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