Drop Your Hook Where the Fish Are: Market at Trade Shows

  • February 20, 2008
  • Edward Poll

The real definition of marketing is simple: Identify the people most likely to hire you for the work you want to do, communicate with them to let them know who you are, and then develop close relationships with these people to demonstrate how you can help them achieve their goals.

To be effective, irrespective of the size of the law firm or the firm's marketing activities as a whole, each lawyer must demonstrate both expertise and enthusiasm to entice a prospect to become a client. This is done using many tools, some with more credibility than others: writing a newspaper or trade magazine article, speaking to a community organization, running an advertisement, launching a web site, mailing out a brochure. The goal, no matter what is done, is to create a personal relationship with the prospect before he or she becomes a client.

If you accept that premise, then there is no better way to establish effective prospect relationships than by establishing a presence for your firm or your practice at industry trade shows and association meetings. By properly researching and targeting your attendance, you can meet more prospects in one day than you might otherwise meet in months. And by physically being present at these meetings of potential clients, you demonstrate that you know their business, understand their concerns, and are serious about offering solutions.

Comfort Zone

Law firms and lawyers who don't "get" marketing would say they've lowered themselves to being mere vendors by attending trade shows. After all, trade show attendance, if done right, requires renting booths, setting up referral arrangements with other exhibitors, speaking at event sessions, and above all spending otherwise billable time in the booth actually meeting and talking to the attendees.

But lawyers are vendors. We sell professional services. Law firms that don't recognize that are doomed to stagnation and failure. The size of the firm makes no difference—marketing for small law firm attorneys is no different than for large law firm attorneys. Large law firm practitioners must market individually just as small law firm practitioners do.

Perhaps the real reason for reluctance about trade show participation is that too many lawyers believe they are not marketing-oriented or skilled. People generally prefer to stay within their comfort zone and do the things that come naturally.

Many times, when I coach lawyers, the focus becomes learning what the comfort zone is and demonstrating to the lawyer that he/she can do far more than they think within that zone. Once lawyers understand this zone and what activities are appropriate within it, they are off and running, contributing to the firm in ways not previously contemplated.

Unique Selling Position

Finding a comfort zone and using it are two different skills. No matter how or where you market, and especially at a trade show, it's essential to know two things to create your marketing strategy.

First, who are you marketing to? Create a profile of your ideal client and develop a marketing strategy that focuses on this target, not everyone. Talk to current clients who give you the kind of work you want and profile them in terms of demographics, industry, location, and financial performance. Ask them what industry associations they belong to and what events they attend. Tell them you want to attend these events to learn more about their industry and the problems they face, and see how they react. Almost uniformly, that reaction will be positive.

Studies consistently show that clients and prospects both actively seek lawyers who know the client's industry and understand their business. Such targeted effort is the difference between marketing and successful marketing.

Second, what makes you different as a lawyer? Clients see lawyers as competent. Thus, the phrase, 'I'm a good lawyer' no longer holds the same cache as before. While service is still the one factor that clients want from lawyers more than anything else (assuming competence), saying we provide personal service somehow misses the mark.

One way to stand out is to establish what marketers call a unique selling position (USP). Be different. Offer something that your competitors don't or can't. Create something new that your clients need or want. If you can't think of what makes you unique, you're really nothing more than a commodity to your clients. Finding the USP is not easy, but is essential to communicate to prospects why they should engage you rather than someone else. Develop what marketers call your "elevator speech"—a 20-second summary that you could quickly give it to a potential client next to you in an elevator. That same speech will stand you in good stead at a trade show booth.

Before the Show

Large firms may have a marketing staff experienced in selecting the trade show, preparing the exhibit and the materials available there, and conducting follow-up. Smaller firms and individual practitioners typically do not. But whether or not you get in-house help, you should take an active role in preparing to attend.

Above all, make sure you get the attendee list so you can evaluate and single out your targets. Conduct pre-meeting mailings (letters and e-mails both) to let these targets know you'll be there and invite them to your booth or display. Identify other vendors who are prospects you want to meet. Find out which trade publication editors and reporters are planning to attend the event so you can get on their calendars and talk about your industry views and experience. When you meet with them share some new piece of news, tell them about where your firm is going (strategically) and offer to help them in anyway you can.

Remember that your purpose in attending the show is to actively identify, meet and pitch to potential clients—not just look for leads. After all, your lead is another firm's client, and your client is another firm's potential lead. Be prepared for competition by knowing in advance who you want to speak to and what you want to say to them. Do your homework about the industry so that you can use the event to gather market intelligence that will help your firm as you walk the aisles and participate in sessions and events.

At the Show

Make the commitment to personal marketing. There is a psychology to the trade show environment that goes beyond glad-handing and networking. At a show the visitor is in control of the encounter. Treat a visitor at your booth the way the visitor expects to be treated as your client, regardless of their initial interest level. They may be a viable prospect who will remember the brush-off, the snub or a condescending attitude. People remember attitudes and behavior that make them uncomfortable, and you will likely not get a second chance to correct a bad first impression. That means you should be prepared to follow this checklist:

  • Stand in front of or to the side of your booth/table, not behind.
  • Be approachable.
  • Initiate conversations.
  • Talk with exhibitors nearby to develop relationships.
  • Walk the floor during the show, draw people to your booth and meet others.
  • Get everyone's business card and make notes on those you want to follow up with.
  • Welcome new visitors even if you are engaged with someone. A polite "Excuse me" and "Hello" can be done quickly and easily.
  • Never talk on your cell phone, and avoid other distractions. Convey that the visitors to your booth are your number one priority. Focus on the 80-20 Rule: spend your time 80 per cent listening and 20 per cent talking.

Note that the emphasis of this list is on you, the individual lawyer, and your performance in meeting others. That's where the importance lies—not in a flashy booth, giveaway contests, glossy brochures and all the rest. These things may help if done in a quality way, but if a prospect wants to use your services it will be because of the attitude and interest you convey, rather than what catchy gadgets you give away.

After the Show

All the effort in the world will be wasted if you don't do the appropriate follow-up. Review every business card that you received and contact the person by phone within one week of the show. Don't wait, and don't use e-mail. The objective is to build on the personal relationship you established at the show by providing value. Here's how:

  • Offer research on key stakeholders and pressing industry issues.
  • Send an article of interest about the prospect's industry.
  • Give an invitation to an entertainment or sporting event.
  • Offer opportunities for training.
  • Send a book you’ve written that would interest the recipient.

Establishing business relationships requires giving, not taking. You have to earn the right to a client relationship by providing that person with value, defined as outstanding service plus an understanding of what the client really needs.

If you've approached the trade show experience correctly, you not only will serve the current needs of the client-prospect, you will enjoy your trade show experience and also increase your revenues.

Edward Poll (edpoll@lawbiz.com) is a certified management consultant and coach in Los Angeles who coaches attorneys and law firms on how to deliver their services more profitably. He is the author of Attorney and Law Firm Guide to the Business of Law: Planning and Operating for Survival and Growth, 2nd ed. (ABA, 2002), Collecting Your Fee: Getting Paid from Intake to Invoice (ABA, 2003) and, most recently, Selling Your Law Practice: The Profitable Exit Strategy (LawBiz, 2005).