How to handle tough question in a trade show booth

Tough questions are those questions you hope no one will ask. But be ready for them because someone probably will.

Tough questions can be about late products, defective products, future products, news reports, indicted executives, stock prices, potential acquisitions and mergers, or a technical question that you don’t know the answer to.

Some visitors who ask these tough questions are just playing knowledge bowl with you; they think they know more than you do and they want to show off. Some tough questions are from competitors or even disguised competitors. Some are from the press or investors and you shouldn’t be talking to either of these types anyway because for you they become CLCs (Career Limiting Conversations). And some tough questions are legitimate and could be asked by your most customer, that’s assuming you have customers.

Your first reaction on how to handle any tough question might be to do what you do in your office; pull rank and start yelling, blame someone else you’re competing with for that promotion, or mentioning again how your father is the CEO and you don’t like where this conversation is going.

But at a trade show in your company’s booth the following general guidelines should help you handle tough questions:

  1. Anticipate which tough questions you’ll hear, and have some answers ready. You’ve probably heard a lot of these same tough questions before from customers as your products are lousy and your customer service is handled from a gulag in Siberia. But if there are some new issues, before the show, circulate whatever tough questions you anticipate hearing among the other people in your company staffing the booth. Get their help and input on some suggested answers.
  2. Respond to a tough question with a question of your own that asks why they’re asking the question. This can disarm an obnoxious or inappropriate question and will also give you a little more time to formulate an answer. This technique of answering a question with a question needs to be done smoothly and conversationally otherwise it comes across as being defensive. Remember how that felt when you tried it with the police? Not good.
  3. During the show, share effective answers and responses with your colleagues in the booth. Trade shows are real-time marketing so don’t wait until next year’s show or even until the next day. Keep the communication ongoing during the show. I know this flies in the face with your communication strategy with your spouse, but trust me on this one.
  4. Hand-off difficult visitors or unanswerable questions to the appropriate people. I’m thinking your PR person, CFO, and other management and executive-types. Let them earn their big bucks. Plus it’s fun to watch them squirm.
  5. Know how to handle the three classic sales objections that come across as tough questions in a trade show booth; real objections, misunderstandings, and skepticism.
  1. Real objections. Admit to them, apologize (if you need to) and then move on. Don’t dwell on it by continuing to explain or apologize. Less is more here.
  2. Misunderstandings. Take partial or full responsibility for the misunderstanding, explain how it really is, then move on. Most people just want to know what’s really going on.
  3. Skepticism. If a visitor just doesn’t believe something you said, and in this rare case, it’s actually the truth, try this three-step process: First, state your personal conviction, next offer proof, lastly restate your personal conviction. This format is sometimes called the “Skepticism Sandwich.”

And now, here are some sample tough questions and suggested ways to handle them:

TQ: Why is your pricing so high?

A: Move this to a cost of ownership or benefit discussion. You can say something like, “Actually our pricing is competitive with everyone else in our marketplace. Our list prices might be higher, but when you take into account the total cost of ownership, we’re actually lower. We think there is tremendous value in our products’ reliability and our customer service is best in the industry. I suggest you add in these additional, but harder to measure factors, when you’re doing your cost-justification.


TQ: What company are you going to acquire next?

A: This is a question for your investment, financial, or C-level people. Simply say that you are not qualified to answer those types of questions and if you did, you’d probably be asking around for a good head hunter.


TQ: When is that new product finally going to ship?

A: If the information on the new product is public, go ahead and discuss it. If it’s not public, don’t discuss it. Sort of like how you handle your embezzlement conviction.


TQ: How are your earnings going to be this quarter?

A: If your financial info has been released, go ahead and discuss them. If they’re not public yet, don’t discuss it.


TQ: How do your products compare with those from XYZ (one of your key competitors)?

A: You’re not in your booth to talk at length about your competitors. There are two elements for a good answer to this competitive question; Don’t mention your competitor’s name – lump them all together and describe them as, “your competitors”, and don’t criticize the competition – take the high road.

Hope this helps. Have fun at your next show.


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Handling competitive questions in a trade show booth

At trade shows competitors are everywhere: In other booths, in your booth, in the aisles, in the conference sessions, in the bus, in line for food, in the rest room. And when you’re in your own booth, paying thousands of dollars just for the space you should not spend any time with them.

But since the second biggest reason visitors go into an exhibit hall at a trade show is to evaluate competing products. If you’re at the right show, your competitors will be there and you’ll get asked competitive questions by some of your own visitors.

Back in my days selling engineering equipment for Xerox, we were taught how to handle competitive questions and that model still works. It’s great. Here’s how to use it:

If you get a comp a competitive question like, “How does your product compare with the one from XYZ?” Answer it with these two criteria in mind: (1) Don’t mention the competitor’s name in your answer, and (2) Don’t criticize or talk down the competition.

Say something like, “We compare favorably with all of our competitors. Tell me exactly what you’re looking for.” Remember, you are at a trade show to talk about your products, not your competitor’s. And don’t help your competitors by adding to the visitor’s awareness of your competitors by mentioning their name. Also, if you criticize them, the visitor might defend the competitor – not something you want to happen.

When you talk about your own products and services emphasize your differentiators, the things about your products that the competitors can’t match. And remember to not just features dump by listing off all of the things that are better about your product or service. Hook a differentiating feature to an agreed upon need to produce a benefit. This makes your selling technique of focusing on the visitor’s needs a differentiator too. Something your competitors may not do.

So be prepared: Know who your competitors are. Understand their strengths and weaknesses. Ask questions that lead to your competitive advantages and their weaknesses; your differentiators.

And be aware at trade shows because everything is public: Know who you’re talking to and what company they represent. You can be overheard anywhere; the plane, elevators, restaurants, etc. If you can’t see a visitor’s badge, ask them to make it visible. When you’ve collected a bit of a crowd for a presentation or demonstration, continue to interrupt yourself and greet visitors so you know who’s going to hear you.


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