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How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

New Contributor II
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So, you’re a graduate student or postdoc looking to get a job in industry.  You’ve been told that networking is the key to this.  Problem is, networking is a two-way street.  People network with others for mutual benefit and as a student you have little to offer in return for those already in industry.  What to do?

Perhaps you have an opportunity to attend a trade show or conference where companies are exhibiting.  Sounds like a great place to network with industry, right?  On the first day of the show, you attend the morning technical sessions, then walk the exhibition floor on your lunch break.  You approach a target company’s booth, pop in a breath mint, and walk in to introduce yourself.  My colleagues and I are well trained in what to do with you.  We politely introduce ourselves, walk you toward our giveaway counter, hand you a pen, walk you back out of the booth, and deposit you back into the walkway.  We need to keep our space open for customers who have jobs and money.

Nobody from industry wants to talk to you during the busiest time of the show when customers are around.  Instead, you want to target the latter part the show, particularly during hours when any remaining attendees are still in technical sessions.  Now, we can begin to explore the four phases of the salesperson-student relationship.

1. When you get in the way of a potential customer, you are a roadblock.

2. When you arrive during the dead period of the show, you are a welcome diversion.

3. When you let the salesperson practice their sales pitch on you, you become a sparring partner.

4. You enter the salesperson’s network by elevating to the status of sales enabler.

Salespeople dread the dead periods of a trade show when no customers are around.  They love to talk, especially about themselves, so it’s perfect to visit their booth during the dead time.  Ask them a couple questions that get them talking about how great they are.  For example, “How did you end up at this company?” will trigger most salespeople to share all of the great things they’ve done in their career.  You are a welcome diversion by helping the salesperson kill time.

Naturally, or at your prompting, the salesperson starts to talk about their products.  By asking relevant technical questions you become a sparring partner as the salesperson gets to practice for situations where a savvy customer may throw them a curveball.  Eventually, you’ll ask a technical question that they can’t answer.  The salesperson will likely say something like, “I’ve never been asked that before, I’ll need to ask my technical team.”  When this occurs, you have an opportunity to state your intentions clearly: “Look, I’m really interested in making connections with your company, would you be willing to introduce me to the individuals you plan to speak to?”

Salespeople view the world very simply.  There are people that help them make money (sales enablers) and there are people who get in the way of them making money (roadblocks).  You’ve now reached the status of sales enabler.  By asking them a question they hadn’t heard before, never thought to ask their technical team, and could have made look bad in front of a real customer, you’ve prepped them to go get the answer so that they can increase their probability of selling successfully.  Because you’ve added value to the relationship, that salesperson will gladly make introductions for you at their company.

The key to networking and maintaining your sales enabler status is the follow up.  Periodically, you can send the salesperson, with your other connections copied, a copy of an article that is relevant to their products and customers with a simple “saw this and thought it might be helpful to you” note.  You are now networked into the company, providing consistent value to the relationship, and in a position to get value in return when the company posts a job that you wish to be referred for.