By Biff Matthews
I recently attended a webinar based on Blue Ocean Strategy, a business book so popular that it is now published in 37 languages. The rallying cry for the Blue Ocean approach is, Don't compete with rivals; make them irrelevant.
The book was written by W. Chan Kim and Ren‚e Mauborgne for people in the intensely competitive manufacturing and service industries.
The book's premise is that head-to-head competition in existing markets (called red oceans by the authors) is ultimately a losing game with diminishing profitability.
Those who will become, most successful in today's environment, say the authors, will do so by creating new markets (blue oceans). How?
They will find new unique or niche customers, fresh ways to add value to their services and more effective ways to reach the best prospects _ away from the din of competition.
The authors are spot on. And as ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLSs), you can follow their example into friendly new waters.
The most obvious requirement is education. Publications such as this one are excellent sources of industry news and information, as well as developments that will likely affect us in the future.
A useful distinction: "Vertical" magazines such as Pizza Today are written for the full range of job titles (store owners to distributors to cheese-makers) throughout one slice (sorry, couldn't resist) of an industry.
"Horizontal" publications such as Financial Executive cut across many sectors, focusing on readers working in diverse industries who share a specific job description.
You can't read all the magazines available, but you can selectively scan a few that are relevant to your best customers and prospects. By doing so, you will gain an understanding of their world that few in your profession ever will.
Tradeshows let you combine knowledge and networking. If you're a regular reader of this magazine, you're aware of shows sponsored by the American Bankers Association, ATM Industry Association, Electronic Transactions Association, NACHA _ The Electronic Payments Association, various acquirers' associations and others.
In our industry, the shows these organizations offer are the only venues at which all equipment makers, card Associations and everyone else involved in the food chain get together.
Tradeshows have become controversial: Companies love them – or hate them. It's a common perception that attendance is down, overall.
That may be true. There are increasingly more shows, and they're cannibalizing each other. So, you have to be more selective about where you spend your time.
I can't afford to put five salespeople on the road. But I can meet as many qualified prospects in only three to four days as those five people could in six months.
The ETA cites an interesting statistic: The number of attendees versus the number of exhibitors at its shows used to be 55% exhibitors, 45% attendees. That number has now flipped. They see this trend as positive.
Nationwide, leads generated at tradeshows account for about one-fifth of sales for business services firms. I think that number is fair for our industry, and I'm certainly not willing to forego those leads to save the cost of exhibiting.
It's also important to know what happens at important tradeshows serving the retail, hospitality and petroleum sectors: the National Retail Federation in January, National Restaurant Association in May, National Association of Convenience Stores in November and NACStech in May.
Industry-specific national shows present excellent opportunities to learn about distinct sectors. They help you understand what your customers are encountering and what's on the horizon.
Closer to home, regional shows are less crowded, more intimate venues. Often they are not on your competitors' radar. I just returned from the Southeast Petroleum Expo. I had feared it might be too small to be useful. But there were two key vendors in attendance that, by the time you read this, will be my clients.
One attendee will also become my customer as a result of our meeting at that show; it's a company of substantial size.
By doing selective post-show follow-up using the exhibitor list, I may be able to do even better. Some shows also provide attendee lists, which are excellent prospecting tools for enterprising MLSs.
I've noted increased participation at small, regional shows by a few seemingly unlikely groups. Two business brokers attended a recent show for retailers.
This may seem like an odd venue for them. But it makes sense for brokers to participate in shows attended by owners of food marts for the same reason it's wise for you to attend these types of shows: There are lots of prospects and not many rivals around to spoil the fun.
Doing well in these venues means being fully aware of and open to opportunities, particularly those that are not readily evident. Show participants and exhibitors are potential business-to-business ventures. Both are also potential lead sources and selling partners.
While attending shows is important, taking the next step and exhibiting allows clients to come to you, versus your pursuing them. A show is the only forum at which you have the chance to talk with hundreds of potential customers in a short time.
Occasionally you'll find that show rules have tightened. There were, for example, no vendors walking the floor at the Southeast Petroleum Expo last month. In deference to people who had paid to participate in the event, no vendors were allowed unless they were exhibitors.
An amiable show manager may make an exception _ once _ particularly if you're new to the field. But after that, the benefits go to those who have invested in the show, even when it seems like the worst happens.
Here's an example: My company attended an ETA show in Hawaii. Unfortunately, our booth was AWOL. Nothing arrived. But I had a table, so I had a sign made. It was certainly different, and it garnered lots of attention.
Everyone asked about it _ all day, every day. My colleagues and I knew 40% of those who visited our booth; 60% were new prospects.
By staying upbeat and approachable, we made the show productive, booth or no booth. (This is now my favorite case study for making lemonade when life gives you lemons.)
If you decide to move in this direction, here is some serious advice: Treat every visitor to your exhibit with equal regard.
Warren Buffet drives an old truck, often wears a flannel shirt and jeans, and is apt to have mud on his boots. A scraggy-looking person may own a business with hundreds of locations. By looking unkempt this executive may be testing your mettle.
Make sure your assessment of a person and your professionalism are not diminished by something as superficial as a prospect's clothing. Working a tradeshow for greatest benefit requires specific skills and an assertive, but tactful approach.
Exhibit companies offer seminars on how to maximize the return on your investment. Tradeshow publications and industry magazines also publish articles on getting the most benefit from shows.
Google some phrases pertaining to tradeshow exhibiting and you'll find plenty of useful information.
So sail your ocean blue. But remember, good things come to those who motivate, educate and participate. Become involved in the industries that make your livelihood possible. Join an association, chair or actively work on a committee, or deliver a presentation.
You'll learn how to help your customers thrive. And that is the only sure way to long-term success.
Biff Matthews is President of Thirteen Inc., the parent company of CardWare International, based in Heath, Ohio. He is one of 12 founding members of the Electronic Transactions Association, serving on its board, advisory board and committees. Call him at 740-522-2150 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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