Trade Show Smarts (Feature Article)
They almost came to blows.
At a recent trade show a visitor with a tiny video camera stood in the aisle, recording a product demonstration. When exhibit staff spotted the visitor, some harsh words, threats and chest bumping were exchanged. Eventually the parties were separated. No one wanted to see a couple of portly 50-somethings rolling around on the floor, only to be led away in cuffs and to be seen on the evening news.
That’s what’s nice about amateurs; they provide amusement as well as cover.
Distraction over, a professional business intelligence collector in the next booth and his eager salesperson/demonstrator/unwitting accomplice, go back to a discussion of a prototype product. Bit by bit the trained interviewer gathers enough information to render the product second rate before it’s ever sold, thanks to a well-meaning, but naïve exhibitor whose only crime is enthusiasm for his company and product. The collected information is added to that collected over the last few weeks from the same company through telephone calls, emails and perhaps a walk through the plant, right past all the guns, guards, gates and dogs. That’s nearly $10 million in product development, production and marketing costs at the top swirl of going down the drain.
Business intelligence operations are a fact of life. In 1999, one-third of Fortune 500 companies maintained funded and staffed intelligence departments; triple the number from 1996. One reason for the success is that manufacturers don’t believe they are visible or large enough to attract serious attention, not only from competitors, but political action groups, labor organizations or even other governments. Trade shows provide a unique supermarket for competitor information. Unique, because the purpose of a show is to put information out in the channel. Yet few managers are aware that every employee on site is in harm’s way for an intelligence download. Shows are a supermarket because trained collectors get fresher and more varieties of information from people with first-hand experience than they could ever get from a brochure or phone call.
And done correctly, business intelligence is legal, ethical, and, unlike the amateur videographer, undetectable. It’s done every day.
Let’s look at your next show the way a corporate intelligence department—perhaps only one person—would. The first meeting takes place 60 to 90 days in advance of the show opening. Product managers, technical people and marketers meet with one person trained as the intelligence quarterback. What comes out of the meeting is a shopping list of desired information. The questions are defined as precisely as possible. Not “How do they sell?” but “How much can Company X’s salespeople discount the product without going back to ask permission?” or “How will Company Y react if we cut prices by a, b and c%, and how long will it take to react?” In the jargon of business and state intelligence, this is called tasking.
At the same time, these product managers and market strategists decide what is not going to be revealed about themselves. Nine out of ten companies don’t know what their secrets are and fail this vital process. And we’re not talking about secret formulas. For example, a collector standing in line behind a target of interest need only gripe about how much traveling he does. It’s likely Mr. Target will dump his immediate future itinerary to commiserate or to show that his schedule is tougher. An email alert to salespeople in along Mr. Target’s itinerary gives them time to sensitize customers against Mr. Target’s products. The target’s casual conversation has made his sales trip next week that much less successful.
There will be several tasking meetings to refine the questions, making sure the information isn’t already known within the company. At the same time, a collector team is formed from company employees with some training. They don’t have sales or demo agendas, just intelligence collection. The team picks through the floor plan, speaker list, and exhibitor personnel, pre-registered and press attendee lists. They’re calling their friends and former colleagues. What they’re looking for are the most likely people to know the desired facts. They’re also boning up on all the target companies’ press material, Web sites, chat groups, financial and personnel news. Does the company have a press conference scheduled? What’s it about? Have we cultivated a press contact to attend for us? The results of each person’s effort go into a combined “playbook” that all team members take to the show. It’s important to know each other’s tasking because one collector may stumble into an opportunity valuable to a colleague.
Travel day, and the game begins at the airport. No logo-wear, ever. The targets identify themselves while the team stays invisible. Check the frequent flyer club, the restaurants and ticket lines because interesting sources are all over. But having decided in advance what subjects will not be discussed by anyone going to the show, the team enjoys the trip and maybe a helpfully chatty seatmate.
Arriving on set-up day, the team meets to confirm their roles, goals and contact information. There’s a review of legal and ethical guidelines—no bribery, misrepresentation, theft or coersion. Later, they practice a technique called elicitation—motivating people to tell you things you want to know, but don’t ask. By identifying and exploiting a source’s psychological need to teach, or correct others or gossip or complain or defend their status or brag, one avoids asking direct questions. The team warms up by starting conversations with strangers with an information objective in mind: How many kids does the source have? When was their last promotion? What do they love or hate about their job? How much do they have in the bank? What will the new product look like? The goal is to get the object information in less than three minutes, exchange a few more pleasantries, then move on.
While most attendees are flitting around like bees in a botanical garden, the team members methodically work their plan. In a panel room, one collector goes to the end of the line that rushes up to a targeted speaker, noting badges and listening to the questions being asked “offline.” When their turn comes, a simple thank you for a stimulating talk may be all it takes for an exchange of cards; perhaps an invitation for drinks or dinner. It probably won’t be accepted but that’s OK, the collector will use that later. Another collector, who happens to be a guest speaker herself, heads for the speakers’ lounge. In this cozy environment, invited “experts” regularly share confidential information amongst themselves because they are, well, experts. Experts have a deep seeded need to confer to reaffirm their expertness. The masses outside just wouldn’t understand. But the intelligence team member does. She’s a technical expert, a skilled elicitor and it was her suggestion to the conference committee months before that caused her “target” to be invited to speak in the first place.
Other members look to the places where they’ve been successful in the past, smoking areas, restaurants, the press room, even the elevators right after the exclusive, private dealer-only meeting lets out and everyone wants to run back to their rooms for a quick log-on, yakking all the way.
Each evening when the exhibits close, the team meets again in private. Perhaps a hotel suite doubling as the team’s war room, lounge and bunk house, or a dining room ‘way off the site. They will also meet with any hired consultants; badged under the consulting company’s name but working the team’s agenda. The events of the day are debriefed, each in turn. What worked, what didn’t work, new issues, issues no longer issues and so on. The ringmaster takes notes, and tapes the debriefing. It will be his job later to collate all the notes into a digest about each target company. Psychologists know that 30% of a conversation is forgotten in 24 hours, beginning with the middle, so now is the time to get it down on paper or tape. Hospitality events later? Then it’s back to work for everyone.
The cycle repeats through the show with a meeting each morning to set new tasks, and each evening to alter course and collect the harvest.
Reviewing the debrief notes while packing for departure, the ringmaster feels the haul has been good. All the original questions were answered. In addition there was a harvest of release schedules, beta site results, a couple of silent partnerships, a technological breakthrough or two, pricing, some major staffing and financial signals, a plant being closed, another on the block, morale down over here, bonuses up over there, exhibits getting smaller next year, exhibits getting bigger next year, this product is promised but late, that one is real but doesn’t work and some cute tchotchkies for the kids. Not bad.
Post show—the real work
Strategists and product managers debrief the ringmaster and the collector assigned to their issues. Bulletins will go out to the sales force and a summary goes to the big boss. The full report providing 50 to 70 pages of deep detail about a dozen competitors could have cost more than $100,000 from a consultant—if they could get it. Because it was collected by people intimately involved with the issues, the “What does it mean to us?” component would have been nearly unobtainable from a consultant at any price.
Before returning to their “regular” jobs, the collectors sort out their piles of business cards keeping the excellent and high potential sources and pitching the rest. The chosen will go on a company intelligence database and every three to five weeks an email or a phone call from the collector will keep the relationship warm and fuzzy. The refused dinner invitation to the popular speaker makes a good opener for a “maintenance contact.”
“Sorry we didn’t get to share a meal but I could see a lot of interest in your technology. By the way, I didn’t understand exactly how …” These cultivated relationships will really bloom at the show next year after 12 months of maintenance. With a base of sources it won’t be so much work. Next year, with a couple of new collectors to break in, this’ll be fun.
And what becomes of the $10 million investment in the new product mentioned earlier? It’s completely safe. The collector was part of another team engaged by the exhibitor’s CEO and head of security. The phone calls, emails and factory and booth visits were all a test to see how vulnerable the company might be to an intelligence attack. The eager demo person isn’t named in any reports so he is safe too. He will be joining the rest of his colleagues for additional training and information control procedures, all in the name of today’s jobs and tomorrow’s profits.
Where information changes hands
Best places for information exchange (or loss)
*Off site bars
*Oh yes, the exhibits and panel rooms, too.