Rumi, a 13th century Sufi mystic whose poetry is popular today, once wrote, "There are many ways to kneel and kiss the ground." This simple plug for diversity of expression stands in the 21st century, too, for multiple aspects of life, including business practices within the payments sphere.
For ISOs and merchant level salespeople (MLSs), there are many ways to prospect and gain merchants' trust. One method is to pursue vertical, or niche, markets. And one way to open those market doors is by attending vertical market tradeshows.
Some say tough times are the best times to attend niche market tradeshows. Competition at these events is reduced, and the merchants and vendors in attendance focus on results. And the intelligence you, as ISOs and MLSs, can gather on numerous verticals as well as the prospects, customers and competitors within them, can be invaluable.
At tradeshows you also have opportunities to talk to people who are often unreachable by other means. And the neutral territory of a show floor offers the promise of connecting with prospects you would otherwise never meet.
But according to Orvel Ray Wilson, co-author of the book Guerrilla Tradeshow Selling, 85 percent of money spent on tradeshows is wasted. So, what can you do to ensure your investment in tradeshow attendance pays off?
"The people who show up at tradeshows - especially in this economic climate - are serious," Wilson said. "They're looking for new solutions; they're looking for new contacts; they mean business. If you approach tradeshows correctly, you can reach more potential customers in an afternoon than you could in a month on the road."
In addition, Wilson pointed out that, while tradeshows are often decried as a waste of time and money, "the average cost of contacting a prospect in the field is $292 versus a $185 cost per tradeshow visitor."
Theodore Svoronos, Payment Consultant for Group ISO, feels it is necessary to attend vertical market tradeshows that "border in or around anyone who would need merchant account processing and other peripherals. I certainly don't consider attending these shows a misuse of marketing funds. "You have to give a little to get a little and go where others may not have gone or have not saturated yet; explore new business possibilities, obviously keeping in mind your ROI [return on investment] and a cost-benefit analysis."
To ensure that your tradeshow time and money are spent wisely, you must clarify what you hope to achieve by attending niche-market shows. Your goals will dictate which shows you attend, whether you will go as a visitor or exhibitor, what tools you will need and how you will follow up.
Anna Solomon, President of Fast Transact Inc., said her company does extensive research before sending anyone to tradeshows outside of the payments sphere. "We look at a past attendee list to see if there is already a presence from any of our competitors and, if so, how many will be there," she said. "We ask ourselves, are we targeting the other exhibitors for affiliate relationships or their accounts, or are we targeting the attendees?" she added.
Solomon advised ISOs and MLSs to consider whether they have unique programs offering real solutions to unaddressed needs of likely attendees. "If not, you won't stand out from the other merchant service providers already there," she said. "If the show is part of an association, then is there already a preferred provider? If there is, they may not let you exhibit."
If you already have customers within a particular niche market, go to shows where your strongest customers exhibit, or visit the shows they always attend. The tradeshow equivalent to buying low and selling high is finding the tradeshow that your buyers - but not your competitors - attend.
"The tradeshow you attend as a vendor should be targeted toward business owners, not just purchasers," said Dustin Niglio, President of Payment Logistics Ltd. "Tradeshows that target small businesses will generally bring in decision makers and business owners.
"Tradeshows that target medium to large businesses will generally attract purchasers and other nonmerchant-account decision makers. While contacts can be made at both, the most beneficial contacts will be those that are made directly with the decision makers of the business." Michael Reid, Relationship Manager at Heartland Payment Systems Inc., said all tradeshows provide a fantastic opportunity to learn about other people's businesses. "I've done business in each vertical over the years," he said. "The restaurant folks have the best food, drink and goodies but tend to be oversaturated with suitors. I tend towards lodging, B2B [business-to-business] and retail."
Jeff Fortney, Director of Business Development at Clearent LLC, said the best shows are often the smallest. "The most effective show I've been to was a little school tradeshow in San Diego," he said. "There were probably only about 150 people attending, but they had the time to talk."
Fortney added that his ideal show is one at which he can be a featured speaker. "Speaking at a show can get you excellent leads," he said. "I attended the Shot Show - a firearms tradeshow for sporting good stores, police and hunters that has over 100,000 attendees and fills the Las Vegas Convention Center - and got zero [results]."
The following year at the same show, Fortney spoke about payment processing. "Of those 100,000-plus people, only a dozen or so attended the panel I spoke on, but I got cards from all of them," he said. "I knew they were interested in the topic, and they knew I was knowledgeable."
Solomon said she and her colleagues look for opportunities to speak, do presentations or become some type of sponsor for tradeshows. "This puts your name in front of people over and over," she said. "You get more advertising opportunities as well as call-out over the announcements."
Tradeshows are ideal for scouting out what's going on in an industry: who the real players are, what the major pain points are, and what trends or changes in a particular industry may affect your business or dictate your sales message.
"We may just attend the show the first year to do reconnaissance to see if it is worth the expense of putting a booth together and to check out how our competitors are promoting themselves," Solomon said.
Vertical market shows are also opportune venues for cementing relationships with and encouraging referrals from existing clients, as well as finding the cracks in relationships. For example, if one of your customers is meeting with your competitors or complaining to other attendees about your services, you know you have issues to address.
In addition, if one of your merchants is going through a rough patch, you might hear about it through tradeshow gossip, not directly from your customer. And if you see resumes from your best customer's employees flying around the show floor, it provides a heads up that it's time to revise residual stream projections tied to that client.
"If you want to find out what's going on with your own customers, aim low on the food chain," Wilson said. "The C-level execs will 'blue sky' their answers to your questions, but the frontline salespeople with their feet on the concrete all day are likely to tell you the truth. That said, tradeshows are also a great opportunity to meet with the C-level executives if you plan early; take what they tell you with a grain of salt."
According to Svoronos, networking at tradeshows can also offer a low-risk way to tap verticals your company may not have thought of previously.
"Last summer we went to the Franchise Expo in Los Angeles, which proved to be quite fruitful," Svoronos said. "There were a number of firms selling franchises, along with over 600 franchisees, and we actually picked up some accounts from this tradeshow. And through other shows, we've actually hit verticals like tax offices and coffee shops."
Svoronos noted that the majority of attendees at such shows are retail-based, which is typically a low-risk market. "For us, it's a no-brainer, a great way to further diversify the portfolio with new brick-and-mortar and some click-and-mortar business and increase our bottom line monthlies," he said.
Sam Kota, Director of Business Development for Merchant Cash and Capital, a New York-based cash advance provider, recently attended a Restaurant Finance and Development Conference. "I don't go to these shows so much to get merchants," he said. "I try more or less to develop senior management relationships and affiliate myself with them, which provides me the opportunity to advise them on our product.
"There was a montage of executives from restaurant owners and operators to hospitality executives in finance, legal, accounting, real estate and brokers. From a growth perspective, it was great to learn about the inner workings of restaurant finance and what angles I could use as a consultant to see where our products would best work for them. Through these relationships, we can help our merchants and our ISOs grow."
Going to a tradeshow as an attendee - rather than an exhibitor - can be an effective way to learn about specific industries, meet people, scope out the competition or determine if you should exhibit next year. "You may need to attend the same show several years in a row to build confidence in your brand," Solomon said. "Longevity is something merchants look for. So you need to make sure you calculate that into the ROI."
But Wilson pointed out that "reverse selling" - attending a tradeshow as an observer, not an exhibitor, in order to sell - can be tricky.
"The pejorative term in the industry is 'suitcasing,' referring to people who walk the floor with a suitcase full of brochures, and you can be thrown out if caught," Wilson said. "Selling without a booth is walking a fine line ethically, but if you view it as a first step rather than a sales call, it can be done. But you want to be discrete."
Wilson suggested leaving brochures and sales pitches at home. He said simply bringing a pocket full of business cards and using a soft opening is the best way to network. For example, it will suffice to say, That looks interesting; tell me about what you do. "Resist the temptation to tell your own story, but take good notes," Wilson added. Additionally, not distracting exhibitors from their own sales efforts at tradeshows is critical. "The first morning of a show, no one is very receptive; they're exhausted, dealing with crowds and the pieces of their exhibit that didn't arrive," Wilson said. "The middle of the show will be the time exhibitors are doing the most real business. The best time to talk is the last few hours of the last day when traffic thins out."
Choose shows that allow plenty of time for exhibit hall face time. And pick shows your target markets attend, not ones at which your prospects exhibit. Ask to see lists of previous attendees, and look for names of people (or at least job titles) that you know to be your buyers or potential buyers.
Unfortunately, bankcard processing is rarely an impulse buy, so a crowded, noisy, tradeshow floor often works against immediate sales, but it is ideal for incremental client relationship development.
"Shortly after planting the seeds at these shows, customer growth and client acquisition will occur," Svoronos said. "It's like farming; plant the seeds first, and growth will come thereafter. In general, tradeshows are a great place to show what makes you different, cutting edge, and to show longevity and growth. We've seen you year after year, merchants and vendors say, so you must be doing something right.
Reid said tradeshows are what you make of them. "Most attendees are really just browsing and have no idea what to expect or what they may be looking for, so it's really about being patient and willing to interact happily just for the sake of being personable," he said. "I've also learned to keep expectations moderate; as a result, I've made more connections."
Niglio noted that small ISOs and MLSs should not be discouraged if they can't afford flashy displays for their booths. "What's important is that someone knowledgeable is standing at the booth at all times and that you have something there to capture the attention of your target audience," he said.
"I recommend a banner with your business name on it, a few terminals, a check reader or two and some gift cards," he added. "If you can bring a wireless terminal or something a bit out of the ordinary, that can be a good conversation starter even if it doesn't pertain to your target audience."
While razzle-dazzle isn't essential, Solomon insists that booths and marketing materials be professional. "A hometown look may work at a local chamber meeting, but out in the big world, it will do you more harm than good," she said.
Niglio emphasized the importance of having a genuine sales pitch and perhaps a good story that illustrates what you can do for a prospect's business." What separates you from the competition?" he asked. "Once you engage the prospect in conversation, you need to capture their attention quickly. If you're at a tradeshow for florists, offer to increase foot traffic and repeat business through a loyalty card program.
"Then tell them the best part of your service is that it's easy to implement and inexpensive, especially when factoring in the merchant account savings you're going to provide. Give your prospect enough program details to legitimize yourself and your company, but keep it general until you get a concrete appointment. Tradeshows are about prospecting, not closing deals."
Location, location, location may be the realtors mantra, but for maximum tradeshow sales think follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. "The biggest failure of an ISO or MLS attending a tradeshow as a vendor is lack of follow-up," Niglio said. "There is a small window of opportunity after the tradeshow where [contacting merchants] will be most effective - in my opinion about two weeks.
"Many ISOs and MLSs have to dedicate a few days out of the work week to attend a tradeshow and spend a significant amount of time catching up when they get back to work. But if you can't guarantee you'll have time to contact every one of your leads, then attending is not for you."
Fortney noted that he always obtains a list of attendees and communicates with all prospects who came to the show, not just those he met.
Wilson advised against following up too quickly because exhibitors are "in total overwhelm directly after the show but may forget your conversation after a few weeks," so be timely and persistent. "Don't count on exhibitors to follow up with you," he said. "They're backed up with their own follow-up."
Kota said he attends as many of the tradeshow luncheons and "intermediary meetings" as he can. He also said keeping in touch with tradeshow contacts by e-mail and phone works if you don't procrastinate.
"I recall a meeting with a gentleman from Saudi Arabia who bought franchises," Kota said. "There was nothing Merchant Cash and Capital could really even offer him with the exception of a cash advance, which he clearly had no need for, so I said, 'Who does your credit card processing?' He said that he usually just referred to his bank, so I said, 'Well, next time you're in New York, let's have dinner.'
"I may not have been able to help him with my core product, but again it's about building relationships. Additionally, I can come in and be more of a consultant, which helps my company expand into many different vertical markets."
Svoronos said attending vertical market tradeshows boils down to letting people know who you are and what you do. "Remember, these are all situations where there are acceptable businesses that use credit and debit cards to accept payment through one methodology or another," he added. "Find a niche, and you'll find a need."
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