Should Salespeople Work the Trade Show Booth?

Should salespeople work the trade show booth?

  • Are salespeople the right resource in the booth?
  • Trade shows set the stage for mismatched expectations
  • If not salespeople working the booth, then who?

If salespeople should work the trade show booth is one of the questions that comes up frequently when I’m teaching classes for Pragmatic Institute. The ensuing discussion can get really interesting and sometimes a little heated. It’s a question that begs further discussion given that it’s often the Sales Team that is driving the need for trade show attendance.

For many technology companies the number of trade shows in which they are exhibiting is down compared to previous years, but for the trade shows that they do participate in the need to show a return on investment is every bit as challenging.


In the early days of the technology industry, sales transactions could be conducted in a trade show booth. It was easy to justify the attendance at an event based on revenue.

Over time the ability to conduct sales transactions in the booth has been taken away. Even though this is the case for most trade shows today, there is still a sense from the Sales Team that it’s an opportunity to sell. This creates the perfect storm for a disconnect between what the Marketing Team is doing and what the Sales Team expects.

The Challenge

Today it’s not uncommon to measure the ‘success’ of a trade show investment based on the number of ‘leads’ generated. Most ‘leads’ aren’t really sales ready leads at all. They are swipes of attendees badges, often with little qualification other than a chance at winning the cool thing we were giving away.

The Marketing Team returns with a bucket full of badge swipes and proclaims the trade show a success, only to be chastised by the Sales Team as wasting their time and the company’s money.

The Reality

Through the years trade shows have evolved into education and networking forums. Little selling is actually conducted. Attendees are scouts looking to learn about the next new thing and identify new options to solve business problems. Scouts may be influencers of an eventual sale but lack the authority to make buying decisions. Salespeople respond to this reality by indicating that there were not enough buyers to talk with (and therefore it was not a worthwhile investment).

From the scout’s perspective they want to learn, they are not ready to be sold. Too strong of a sales emphasis turns them off.

From the company’s perspective we need to consider the opportunity cost of dedicating sales resources to the trade show booth. A direct sales force is a big investment. Salespeople are valuable resources and we want them to focus on activities that provide the best return. Working in a trade show booth for two or three days resulting in few (if any) sales ready leads would not qualify as a good return.

We need to reorient our thinking around trade shows. Instead of measuring the success of a trade show on leads alone, it’s time to focus on educating and informing influencers, planting the seeds for future sales transactions. The more they view us as being helpful, the more likely they will turn to us for future consideration.


So if we don’t have salespeople in the trade show booth, then who should we consider as an alternative? You may be in an organization with a dedicated trade show team and the debate about having salespeople in the booth isn’t even an issue for you. If you don’t have a dedicated trade show team, then what? Here are some alternatives to consider.

Sales Engineers

Sales Engineers can be highly effective working a trade show. They have product knowledge and they are comfortable helping people learn about your products. SEs are often viewed as more approachable, especially to a technical audience.

Product Marketing Managers

For product marketing managers, working a trade show can result in important market insights. It gives them the opportunity to engage in discussions with a broader audience that can help with building buyer personas. It’s not uncommon for product marketing managers to pull booth duty but for some companies it may be overlooked as an underutilized resource for trade shows.


Have you considered having customers work your trade show? From a learning and sharing point of view it can be ideal. Scouts are talking with a real, live user of your product.

Consider that your company is already paying for people to work the trade show. You have customers that may have a desire to attend the trade show, but lack the budget to get approval to attend. Offer to host them, provided they spend time working in the booth. It’s a win-win situation.

Give them a different color shirt so they are easily identified to the team as a customer. Give them guidelines of what’s expected and who to grab if they need help. Then let the magic happen.

Also consider having a contest to award customer evangelists to work your trade show booth. It’s a great way to get a knowledgeable resource and someone who is passionate about your products in front of influencers. At the same time it’s a great way to acknowledge and reward the important contribution customer evangelists have on your company’s success.

Jim Semick

Jim Semick

Jim Semick is co-founder of ProductPlan, a leading provider of cloud-based roadmap software for product and marketing teams. For more than 15 years he has helped launch new products now generating hundreds of millions in revenue. He was part of the founding team at AppFolio, a vertical SaaS company. Prior to AppFolio, Jim validated and created version 1.0 product requirements for GoToMyPC and GoToMeeting (acquired by Citrix). Jim is a frequent speaker on product management and the process of discovering successful business models. He contributes at Follow Jim on Twitter at @JimSemick.

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