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Super Sleuths: Using Trade Shows to Investigate Your Competition
By Susan Friedmann

Your company is in a precarious position. The marketplace is changing daily. New companies enter the industry. Your competitors are constantly unveiling new products, new services, and/or new marketing strategies. How do you keep up with – or even better, how do you anticipate -- these changes?

That’s where the trade show comes in. Gathered in one convenient location, you should find many, if not most, of your competitors. While industrial espionage is never a good idea, there’s nothing illegal or immoral about asking the booth staff a few pointed questions.

The answers you receive can be illuminating and useful, providing the type of knowledge your firm will need to time their new product launch, assess marketing stragegies, and so on. Even the smallest competitive advantage can make a huge difference in your bottom line.

But how do you know what to ask? Won’t your competitor’s booth staff take one look at you and laugh in your face?

Not if you ask the right questions. Realize that some of the answers you are seeking will be provided for you, without you saying a single word. A company’s promotional literature can be a gold mine of information, as can the size, placement, design and graphics of their exhibit. Experienced show attendees can ‘read’ a booth, discerning a number of valuable facts from these factors.

Just by virtue of being at the show, your competitors are sharing the following information:

- Who they are.
- What their reputation and image is in the marketplace.
- Part of their sales and marketing strategy.

Now visit your competitor’s booth. Before you talk to the booth staff, try to discern the following:

- Do they pose a threat to my company? Is their booth larger, better designed, more expensive, and filled with substantially more attendees than yours?
- What is the depth of their product/service offerings?
- What products and services are they choosing to ‘push’ at this event?
- What features are they emphasizing?

Make note of important differences between your competitors, especially if these disparities create any opportunities in the marketplace that your company could take advantage of.

Be subtle when talking with the booth staff. They don’t want to give away valuable industry information any more than you do – but you can still learn a lot during the course of a brief conversation, including the following items a general attendee would want to know:

- Product/service features and specifications. Don’t get too technical, or you’ll scare the booth staff off.
- Most recent product/service introductions.
- Ease of product installation and maintenance.
- Delivery schedule.
- Company and branch locations.
- Quality and service strengths and weaknesses (or what could be improved).
- Pricing strategies: commercial, non-profit, governmental
- Special pricing policies - do they offer: credit, discounts, incentives, consignments
- What is their corporate and business philosophy

After you have developed a rapport with the booth staff, you can move on to more intrusive questions, including:

- Who are their suppliers? Are they satisfied? Would they consider switching vendors? What are their complaints and unmet needs? What are the key factors in their purchasing decisions?
- Has the company integrated changing industry technology to create cost savings – again, be very general here. If you say “Gee, have you all adopted the new X-7T die cutting laser protocol?” or some other very technical question, they’ll know you’re not just a random attendee.
- If your competitors have made any important aquistions over the last year, giving them a competitive advantage
- Who do they see as the leaders in the industy? You can tell a lot about a company by the firms it tries to emulate.

Some questions are particularly valuable, as they will help you discover the competitor’s market share and learn a great deal about their distribution channels. Pay special attention to any markets that your competitors serve that you don’t – what can you learn from their success?

- Who are their largest and most important customers
- Why do customers choose the competitor’s products and services? What do they consider most valuable about the competitor’s products?
- How is their sales staff organized? Would you be dealing with a local, regional, or national sales rep?
- What market efforts, above and beyond trade shows, does the company engage in? Are they equally represented in all areas of the country or are their regional strenghts and weaknesses?

Written by Susan A. Friedmann,CSP, The Tradeshow Coach, Lake Placid, NY, author: “Meeting & Event Planning for Dummies,” working with companies to improve their meeting and event success through coaching, consulting and training. For a free copy of ExhibitSmart Tips of the Week, e-mail: susan@thetradeshowcoach.com; website: http://www.thetradeshowcoach.com


 
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