The vast majority of in-booth interactions involve merely listening to attendees' needs and then relaying product information accordingly. But once in a while, exhibit staffers are bound to get a question that throws them out of their normal listen/respond rhythm. Depending on what's happening in your industry and your company, they could get queries about everything from how your product stacks up to the competition's new shiny bauble to why your brand just gobbled up one of the beloved industry little guys.
So in addition to preparing your staff to handle these awkward situations, you need to give them some down-and-dirty strategies to sidestep them as well. Here, then, is a primer on how to prepare for and respond to atypical questions in the booth.
1. Prepare. After each day of a show, ask staffers what odd questions they received from attendees, and create a list. This will help you keep a finger on the pulse of the industry and make some generalizations about what people are concerned about at the time. Then, devise appropriate answers for these tough questions, and others like them, seeking help from other people within your organization if necessary. Go over these questions and suitable answers or prescribed courses of action for each.
Furthermore, take a look at your company and industry to see if there's anything going on that might prompt new questions. For example, is one of your new products late to market or defective? Has a company executive recently made the news for improper behavior? Have stock prices plummeted, or are there industry rumors of an upcoming merger? Devise a list of potential questions and fitting answers and distribute these to your staff. By giving staffers a few examples of the questions they're likely to field in the booth, you'll help them mentally prepare for the onslaught and hopefully prevent any blank-stare responses.
Finally, encourage staffers to discuss oddball questions with each other and devise answers on the fly (with your assistance if necessary). If one attendee posed a tough query to your staff, chances are that other similar questions could be coming their way. Even if a staffer fudged the first response, there's no reason to get it wrong twice.
2. Master the handoff. Once in a while, attendees' queries are better answered by an executive or trained media professional in the booth. If you have these people on hand at the show, be sure your staffers are aware of who they are, how they can find them, and what type of questions should be directed their way. That way, tough questions can go straight to a booth staffer that's specifically trained to answer them.
And, if your company is indeed involved in some kind of scandal, merger, or "tricky" situation, consider sending someone to the show whose sole purpose is to address attendees' concerns. That way, you'll have one person with the right answer every time, so the rest of your staff can focus on traditional staffing duties.
3. Call their bluff. Some people are just jerks. They want to see staffers squirm, so they'll keep pounding away at them with rude comments and questions no matter how charming or informative the answers. In this case, it might be best for staff to respond to these questions with questions. Staff should ask attendees why they're posing these specific questions, and if there's some underlying issue they're not discussing.
Occasionally, these people do have an issue, which when ferreted out, can be solved or at least addressed. But if attendees are simply being jerks, responding to their question with a question will often disarm them and give staffers a little more time to formulate answers â?" or to bring other staffers into the conversation to render aid. Remember, though, staffers must always stay calm and be polite. Otherwise, they'll come off as defensive, and that could open a whole new can of worms.
4. Apologize. Often, a simple "I'm sorry that ..." is all attendees are looking for with their questions or complaints. They want a real human to step up to the plate and admit that the company or product somehow wronged them. After that happens, their steam usually dissipates, and they can move on.
So if someone or something related to your company has truly wronged the attendee, ask your staff to admit the error and apologize. But then move on. And if it turns out that there has merely been a misunderstanding, perhaps between a salesperson in the field and this attendee, your staff should take partial or full responsibility for it and do their best to clear up the misunderstanding. Most attendees just want to know what's really going on, and an explanation will often satisfy their needs. Again, as soon as possible, staff should redirect the conversation toward a positive topic. You don't want the attendee leaving your company's booth with a bad taste in his or her mouth.
5. Don't call out or criticize the competition. If you're exhibiting at the right shows, you're probably surrounded by competing companies.
As such, you can expect to get questions about how your product stacks up to the competition. But you're at the show to generate awareness for and interest in your products, not those of your competitors. Even mentioning competitors by name gives them unnecessary "airtime" with attendees.
And blasting the competition isn't a good idea because for all you know, the customer with whom your staffer is speaking may already own the competitor's product. If you belittle the competition, you're essentially calling the attendee stupid for buying the somehow defective product. Or worse, the attendee might start arguing for the competition. Now you've got someone openly touting the competition in your company's booth where other attendees are likely to hear the exchange.
When an attendee asks how your product compares to the competition, staffers shouldn't mention competitors by name, nor talk badly about them. Rather, they should offer a vague answer and then ask the attendee about his or her needs. For example, they could try, "We compare favorably with all of our competitors. Tell me exactly what you're looking for." Or better yet, have them highlight differentiators that the competition can't match.
For example, let's say someone asks why your prices are higher than the competition. Staffers could say something like, "Actually, our list prices might be higher, but when you take into account the total cost of ownership, we're actually lower given our products' reliability and our outstanding customer service." And remember, staff shouldn't info dump a list of features on the attendee. All conversations should be geared toward attendees' needs.
As you can see, training staffers to handle tough questions isn't any harder than prepping them to complete other booth duties. Just prepare them with information and go-to sources in the booth, and arm them with appropriate responses and tactics. Before long, they will be managing awkward questions with ease.
– Matt Hill, president, The Hill Group, San Jose, CA