“I’m really not comfortable with the cold approach,” I said to her as we walked from tent to tent at the Tucson Festival of Books. The last half hour had been a series of approaching prospective clients, chatting for a few minutes, and trading business cards. It’s a bit awkward to head up to a complete stranger and ask them for a job. She responded, “But if you don’t do it, you won’t get your name out there.”

I looked over at a booth I passed up. Their book jacket design, their advertisements were on display. “I can help these guys,” I thought.

“Go.”

The biggest problem I have with the cold approach is this: I do not want to take up the exhibitor’s time.

At the Tucson Festival of Books (and at the GAMA Trade Show this coming week), the exhibitors are there to sell to customers—individuals, retailers, buyers. They are there to inform their customers about their product. And then along comes me, a non-customer. The roles are suddenly reversed: the exhibitor becomes the prospective client. I am taking up time that they were expecting to use to sell to others. As I do not want to deny the exhibitor an opportunity to earn money, I try to do three things during the cold approach:

One, make sure not to take up the exhibitor’s time with customers.

Two, let them know how I can help them.

And three, not come off as weasel.

That last one is extremely difficult. The exhibitor expects me to be a customer, not a person selling to them. It’s also difficult because of the limited time I have with them—once a customer comes up to that booth, I need to step back or end my pitch. So that pitch has to be fast and direct and (hopefully) not coming across as the archetypal used car salesman. Tricky to get that balance.

When I started the afternoon, it was strange. I would wait until the exhibitor was not talking with a customer (or there wasn’t a customer in the booth), which is weird because there is this guy just standing there. And when I finally approached the exhibitor, I would try to rush through want I wanted to say which may have come across as very impersonal. The verbal equivalent of a form letter, almost. Some exhibitors I had more time with, such as the people at Kore Press, a local feminist-owned publishing company that is geared toward publishing works by women. I really liked meeting them, even though I only had a few minutes at the booth and was always trying to be aware of the time I was taking up.

So the key really was something they teach you in retail: approach with a question that does not have a yes or no answer. By the end of the day, I had that approach question: “Does your company do design and layout in house or do you use freelancers?” This question gets a direct answer and, if they say they farm things out to freelancers, that is golden. The last booth, that question landed me in a nice conversation. That is when I realized that even though I was worried about taking up customer time, if the exhibitor really wants to talk business, they will talk business.

After the afternoon, I was glad to have this opportunity to use as a dry run. The cold approach is difficult to master, but I am much more confident and looking forward to GTS next week. Check here next week for a report from the trade show floor!

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