Not Here for the Chocolate: Thoughts from a Female Buyer walking the Tradeshow floor.
I have missed the tradeshows. Nothing fills my geeky little manufacturing heart with joy like strolling among hundreds of manufacturing experts and looking over tables filled with shiny little parts and slick new tools. Talking shop, talking trends, picking brains, and making connections. But if there is one thing the many pandemic shifts in business have highlighted for me, it is what has not changed. I am still the odd one out when I go strolling the floor.
I've been going to tradeshows since my dad first showed my around in the late 90's. I have attended primarily health technology events for the last 15 years. I now run a consulting business where I am frequently advising a wide range of companies and individuals on manufacturing partners. When I go to these events, I bring a shopping list a dozen items long and stay for the entire day. It gives me a lot of time for observation.
Like any other manufacturing focused event, attendees tend to be overwhelmingly male. If you look at the make-up of buyers versus sellers (those in the booths versus walking by them) the ratio becomes even more stark. I am a moderately attractive woman who appears to be anywhere between 20 and 45, too polished looking to immediately scream "engineer", but skipping the heels and dress that typically go with the professional saleswoman. No company branded polo or name tag to give clues to my origins, but I stride through the aisles as if I own them. I am a free agent, and I find myself a source of confusion to many.
"Are you looking for someone?"
"Which booth are you at?"
"Are you with the event organizers?"
"Do you need a pen?"
The non-verbal responses are similarly mixed. There is the "WTF" face that flashes up between when I say hello and when I started quizzing them on the minutiae of their product. The "Deer in the Headlights" look, followed by the sudden rush to the other side of the booth to "inspect the parts" one more time. The complete blank scan of the crowd that passes right through me, since I have turned invisible from 3 feet away.
I am writing this not to highlight (yet again) the challenges of gender inequality in our industry, but to point out the way good sales technique seems to go out the window when a potential customer walks up who does NOT look like your typical customer. After 20 years, my response is good humor and personal amusement, occasionally followed by solemnly adding a company to my list of organizations not to be recommended to clients or job seeking colleagues.
Whether it is a lack of basic people skills, or classic sales errors, I am frequently too pressed for time on the Expo floor to share much of what I've observed in the moment. However, I also realize that most good sales teams would really like to know what goes through my mind at these events.
So, for those who've ever wondered, here are the 5 things I wish I could tell the people behind the booth:
1) Ask (the Right) Questions
Two years ago, I walked past a young salesperson who literally jumped in front of me and all but pushed me into his booth space, all the while shot-gunning his pitch as to why I was absolutely going to buy his product today. He was selling workforce management software. I have no employees. I was bewildered at the sheer energy he was exerting to sell to me, knowing as I did that I was in no way a potentials sales prospect. Bemused, I decided to sit and see how long it would take him to learn this.
From the start of his ten-minute pitch to the end, he did not ask me a single question. Maybe it is a problem with shiny new sales employees, eager to demonstrate that they've memorized the marketing material. Maybe it was my generally open and friendly demeanor that encouraged him to continue in his sales groove at Mach 2. Either way, his energy and time was badly misspent. I did not buy his product.
One of the hardest things I had to work out when I started my business was identifying customers. Putting together a good pitch, a nice brochure and a friendly website were all good, but are wasted on someone who genuinely does not need what I am selling. I quickly discovered that there are many more people in this world that do not need what I am selling than do, and that even among those that do, not all of them are clients I want. When I meet a potential client, 90% of our first encounter is listening to them talk. Most of my quick chats over coffee never get my "full pitch", let alone a project proposal, because those first talks quickly tell me that (both of us) need to put our energies elsewhere.
This is why I am surprised at the lack of interest booth occupants have in who I am and what I do. You can tell me about the continuous monitoring system on your four-slide machine, or how your novel piston component addresses the challenge of filling containers of high viscosity substances, but you can't tell me if they solve my problems. You do not know what my problems are until you ask.
2) Be Helpful
I have (occasionally) had a salesperson from a random booth ask me what I was looking for. When I responded with an item or service they did not actually provide, they would either a) wish me luck or b) respond with a litany of potential other companies I should check out, where the booths were at the event and even possibly "Hey, I know their guy, let me write his info on one of my cards for you." This latter response tells me a couple of things. The salesperson obviously knows what they do and do not sell, but they also follow their industry close enough to recommend products (outside their own) that their potential customer might be seeking. I will stop and chat with these folks for some time, and I will take their marketing material, regardless of what it might be. I get random requests for referrals to services and products all the time, and I am more than happy to return a favor.
Another take on this is when I walk the floor with younger colleagues. I love taking budding engineers on a ride-along to show them all the amazing pieces of this industry. Some of them are looking for jobs, some are just there to learn. When I introduce them to individuals at different companies, I will see (again) two responses. We will either be dismissed as "non-prospects" and subsequently ignored, or the booth occupants will light up and openly share their knowledge, work experiences, and hand my younger colleague their cards. I have been incredibly proud to see far more of the latter than the former. We are a small industry, and the young people I support will one day be incredibly valuable and highly sought after. They will remember the kindness.
3) Handshakes only please
This seems to have faded out with Covid, but it still surprises my male colleagues when I share how frequently I will be touched at public events. Not necessarily in some icky, sexual predator type way, but there is something about being a woman that encourages random contact as a means of building rapport during a conversation. I have been patted on the head, tapped on the forehead, had my neck and shoulders massaged, been punched in the arm, had my clothes (scarf, jacket, sweater, purse, jewelry...) fondled, my ponytail tugged, and been "escorted" around a booth with a grip on my lower back, shoulders, or elbow, all by complete strangers. My personal pet peeve is being asked to flex so they can squeeze my biceps. This is enough of a problem that a senior executive gal pal and I have practiced "Expo-Jitsu" - working out physical techniques to navigate uninvited physical contact without creating an awkward social situation, such as would be the case with a swift kick to the knee. I will generally assume that the contact is harmless and avoid causing unnecessary embarrassment to the instigator. However, if you are doing your best to make me like you and want what you are selling, you should realize that anything beyond a firm handshake is distracting and incredibly irritating.
4) Be Kind, not "Polite"
Terms like "Politeness and Respect" tend to be blended with specific cultural norms around age and gender. With those cultural norms shifting rapidly, it can be hard to know what actions will be regarded as a sign of respect, and which will be greeted with irritation or annoyance (see the "escorting" in the previous paragraph). I know several men who want to "be polite" by opening a door for a woman, but who feel insecure that they may offend her instead. This kind of thinking has led to me to having numerous doors held open for me ... aaand an equal number being shut rapidly in my face.
In this current environment, my thinking is to fall back instead on "Empathy and Kindness". Empathy is taking the time to understand when a person may be in emotional or physical distress, and kindness is actively doing something to address it. When I open a door for someone, I do it because their hands are full and I can see them struggling. When I am at a professional luncheon and see someone looking a bit lost and alone, I will wave them over to the seat next to me. I'm not trying to get a date, I just know how awkward it can feel to approach a group of strangers. Instead of debating whether to stock 8-piece tool kits or luxury chocolate as booth SWAG, focus on what everyone really wants after a long day on their feet, like a free chair and place to charge their phone. Many of the best ways to impress a potential customer have nothing to do with who or what they are, but everything to do with how you see and interact with the world in general.
5) Don't be Weird
This covers all the random things that have emerged from strangers' mouths before it had been thoroughly screened by their brains. No special dispensation for me here. I openly bear the full blame for at least one incredibly cringe-worthy interaction per event. I have, after all, spent far more of my career studying machines than people. Just be aware that when you are encountering someone outside your usual range of experience, take a breath and double check your first words before letting them fly.
Hey Laaadies! We have chocolate!
You know we teach our kids not to take candy from strangers, right?
You look just like my grand-daughter...
... and half the guys in this room look like my dad, but I don't say that out-loud.
How does someone as good looking as you become an engineer?
The same way every other engineer does.
...Yes, my little Buttercup?
Is it weird being the only women all the time?
Trust me, this is far stranger for you than it is for me.
Best of luck to everyone out there keeping the industry moving. Stay safe and hope to see you all out on the floor. Just don't ask me to flex.