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Customer Events

Why do them and how to make them effective

A customer event is an activity that precipitates and facilitates key customer and distributor personnel getting together in an environment that is not direct selling, but which is understood as a professional “non-threatening” distributor-sponsored event. Effective customer events often include elements of education, equipment demonstrations, distributor/supplier involvement, informal conversation, fun and food. Examples range from the “original” distributor event – the open house – to golf tournaments, seminars, expos, product demonstrations, forklift rodeos, fly-in visits, supplier showrooms, workshops, aftermarket fairs, lunch-n-learn educational opportunities and even pancake breakfasts.

Failure to professionally, incessantly, and obsessively invite is the single most common cause of failed customer events.

Customer events range in size from two-hour workshops with two to four customers and salespeople to anniversary expos drawing several hundred customers and dozens of suppliers over several days.

Venues for distributor/customer events include hotel meeting rooms, customer conference rooms, dealership facilities, supplier facilities and event centers. One distributor temporarily converted a classic car museum to a demonstration/presentation center for an afternoon customer event!

Formats for customer events vary from “drop by when you can” to “it’s free but you must reserve a spot” to charging customers to attend a professional all day seminar.

Unsuccessful Events
Many distributors understand the potential benefits of effective customer events. However, they try one or two and get discouraged when “nobody comes.” This is the most common result of a poorly conceived and planned customer event – lots of effort expended and dollars spent – but not enough customers show up to pay off.

The second most common failure: Customers come, everybody has a good time, no new business develops over a reasonable time frame. “What a waste of time and effort.”

A third customer event failure occurs when customers come but leave early or give negative feedback. The effort expended is counterproductive. This results from a poorly executed event or one that misses the target audience.

Because of failures such as these, many distributors discontinue customer events. That’s unfortunate. Well thought out and implemented customer events are among the most powerful distributor marketing tools.

Our distributorship has averaged four major customer events a year for ten years. In 2002 we held five major and four minor customer events using our 50th anniversary as a theme for several. This article examines what it takes to make customer events effective, and gives an outline for a major successful customer event – the Anniversary Expo.

MHECO’s ANNIVERSARY EXPO

On June 26-27, 2002 Materials Handling Equipment Company (Denver, CO) hosted an event celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. What is particularly noteworthy about this event is the fact that everyone, including invited guests, MHECO suppliers and MHECO employees, came away from the event as winners.

Event-goers attended facility tours and were afforded ample opportunities to dialog with MHECO suppliers at a 20-booth “captive” trade show. Gary T. Moore, president, says, “The trade show provides our customers with an opportunity to get better acquainted with products, see product demonstrations and go home with lots of ‘take-away’ literature.” While the winner of the “Give Us Your Worst Material Handling Problem” contest received a DVD player, MHECO personnel benefited by gaining more insight regarding their customers’ needs and issues.

Professionally designed invitation was sent out 60 days prior to event.
Professionally designed invitation was sent out 60 days prior to event.

The 50th anniversary theme was underscored first by an opportunity to inspect seven 1950s classic cars and then by an opportunity to guess the 1952 price of various pieces of material handling equipment. Seminars like “Safety in Material Handling & Warehousing” and “How to Store More in Less Space” created even more opportunities for dialog.

Half of the costs were absorbed by the manufacturers who participated in trade show booths, demonstration areas for their equipment, logos on invitations and other materials, as well as literature inserted into the packets provided each attendee.

Was the event a success? Consider the following: Over 425 customers’ personnel attended the event, each staying an average of three hours; over 200 leads were generated; there were too many relationship-building conversations between MHECO suppliers and MHECO customers to count; within 60 days of the event, over $100,000 in business was done (including the sale of two used forklifts during the celebration).

It sounds as if everyone was a winner.

 

Establish Objectives and a Concept
Every customer event needs a clear set of objectives along with a concept of how the event will take place. Major objectives for customer events include prospecting, building key customer relationships, generating leads and projects, and “setting a distributor apart” from competitors. Minor objectives include giving distributor employees a customer focus point beyond “what do you want today.” Well done customer events educate distributor employees and create a sense of forward motion for your company.

Target Audience
Clearly defining the target audience is the first step toward a successful customer event. The audience includes people you are currently doing business with, new prospects, specific industries, target job titles or certain geographic areas.

Target Specific Number of Attendees
Determine what attendance will define success.

THIRD ANNUAL HY-TEK FORKLIFT RODEO

On June 26-27, 2002 Materials Handling Equipment Company (Denver, CO) hosted an event celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary. What is particularly noteworthy about this event is the fact that everyone, including invited guests, MHECO suppliers and MHECO employees, came away from the event as winners.

Kraft Foods competitor on 4-square event while coaches look on.
Kraft Foods competitor on 4-square event while coaches look on.

Event-goers attended facility tours and were afforded ample opportunities to dialog with MHECO suppliers at a 20-booth “captive” trade show. Gary T. Moore, president, says, “The trade show provides our customers with an opportunity to get better acquainted with products, see product demonstrations and go home with lots of ‘take-away’ literature.” While the winner of the “Give Us Your Worst Material Handling Problem” contest received a DVD player, MHECO personnel benefited by gaining more insight regarding their customers’ needs and issues.

Hy-Tek Material Handling, Inc. (Columbus, OH) has found hosting the forklift rodeo in central Ohio to be a win-win event for everyone. In its third year, the most recent event was hosted on Saturday, February 8, 2003. The winner of the regional event moves on to a state-wide championship contest hosted by Yale dealers from across the state. The purpose of the rodeo is simple: to promote the safe and efficient operation of forklifts. Many aspects of the competition model real-life industrial situations and some simply measure skill. Over the years, Hy-Tek has created a partnership with the National Safety Council and the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation, Safety & Hygiene Division to align the local event with the state competition.

2003 Central Ohio Forklift Rodeo contestants for Saturday morning heat receive judging hints and rules before hitting the courses.
2003 Central Ohio Forklift Rodeo contestants for Saturday morning heat receive judging hints and rules before hitting the courses.

Hosting the rodeo is a win/win situation for end-users and for Hy-Tek. Hy-Tek customers have come to rely on the event as a morale- and team-building exercise, some to emphasize safety in the workplace, and some as an incentive program which rewards everything from attendance to safety records and overall job performance. And Hy-Tek benefits from the increased recognition of its name and the Yale product as customers and non-customers physically demo the product during the competition.

While trophies are awarded to recognize performance, Spirit plaques are given to recognize the enthusiastic support provided by rodeo-participating companies. In short, everyone wins when participating in the Central Ohio Forklift Rodeo.

 

Sell It Inside
Effective customer events only happen if the distributor sales force and other key people believe in it and are driven to make it happen. The first customer event “sale” is to the distributor’s own employees. They must know the objectives and have clear direction as to their role. An event chairperson can be important.

Brainstorm Ideas Inside
No one person has all the good ideas for a customer event. Brainstorming with key people and suppliers is often helpful and helps create “buy in.” However, it’s also important to stop brainstorming, pick a direction, and point!

Pick a Theme
Themes include education (i.e., “How To Store More In Less Space”), training, new product introductions, equipment demonstrations and new facilities. Any company anniversary can be a good theme for a customer event. It can be good to add a dash of fun to the theme. In the past we’ve used “The Magic Of Materials Handling” and the birthday party concept. For our 50th anniversary, we brought in classic cars from around the time of our company’s founding.

Pick a Format
This can vary from a small group focused on a topic of interest to a few customers, or a broad format meant to attract lots of new prospects and customers. The event may occur only at a specific time or may run over several hours or days. Reservations may be required, or the event can be on a “drop in as you can” basis. Other format issues to be addressed are:

  • Will people be seated for the event as in a seminar situation, or will they be walking around looking at trade show booths and demonstrations?
  • Will customers be active participants, as in a Forklift Rodeo?
  • Will they be involved in demonstrations, or just watch?
  • Will presentations be in PowerPoint?

All these things play a role in determining an appropriate format for the event.

PEAKLOGIX CUSTOMER OPEN HOUSE

Bob Rechenbach, principal of PeakLogix, presented the day's agenda.
Bob Rechenbach, principal of PeakLogix, presented the day’s agenda.
Many attendees came to hear industry expert Gary T. Moore.
Many attendees came to hear industry expert Gary T. Moore.

On Thursday, January 27, 125 people braved the City of Richmond’s coldest weather (-10°F and snow) to attend a Customer Open House at PeakLogix (Richmond, VA). The event included exhibits by 23 vendors and two presentations by Gary Moore, president of Materials Handling Equipment Company (Denver, CO) and a former president of MHEDA. Moore spoke about “Productivity in Materials Handling, Manufacturing & Warehousing” and “How to Store More in Less Space.” Overall reaction to the day’s events was very positive. PeakLogix has two customer events each year, one in the winter and one in the summer.

 

Select a Place
This must be consistent with the objectives, format and target audience. There are many advantages in holding an event at the distributor’s facility. Customers get to see distributor facilities and capabilities, and will meet more distributor people. Convenience is also important. The location has to be conveniently accessible to your target audience. For a complex customer event, reserving a hotel room or an outside venue may be appropriate.

Set Date and Time
The minimum planning cycle for a customer event is 30 days; a more comfortable time is 120 days. For major, complex events, up to six months may be appropriate. Consider the element of weather on the planned event schedule. What day(s) of the week will most likely encourage customer attendance? (Mondays and Fridays are usually not good.) What time of day?

Announce Inside
At an appropriate interval before the event, a formal internal announcement should be made. This indicates firm commitment to distributor people.

Involve Suppliers as Appropriate
For many customer events, distributors will want to involve suppliers to help with presentations or format. It may also be helpful to ask for cooperative advertising money to help pay for the event. This can take the form of sponsorship or trade show booths, golf hole sponsorships, or simply an advertising contribution.

SCOTT LIFT TRUCK’S ANNUAL
EMPLOYEE APPRECIATION PARTY

Past employee appreciation recipients
Past employee appreciation recipients

In an effort to trim costs, many companies made the decision to cancel their annual holiday parties. When word spread that, like others, Scott Lift Truck Corporation (Elk Grove Village, IL) would cancel a February employee appreciation event, employees offered to help pay for the party themselves. They reasoned that without a sanctioned company party, they would end up going out on their own and spending the same dollar. Once management learned how many of the employees look forward to a night out in their Sunday best, they went ahead with the annual gathering.

Upon arrival, employees and their spouses are welcomed with a gift and asked to wear a nametag. This year’s gift was a crystal combination clock and thermometer, engraved with the words, “SCOTT LIFT 2002.” Past gifts have included pen and pencil sets and luggage, always engraved or embroidered with the company name. Typically the annual events are well-attended, with 95% of the employees in attendance.

When it comes to karaoke, everyone is a star.
When it comes to karaoke, everyone is a star.

The party starts with an open bar and hors d’oeuvres. Just prior to the start of a five-course dinner, the management team introduces new employees and recognizes long-time employees and their milestone anniversaries. Occasionally the company awards an “Extra Mile” ring to an employee who has truly gone the extra mile. Only three such awards have been given since the first one, fifteen years ago. After dinner there is dancing and some hot karaoke.

The "Extra Mile" Ring
The “Extra Mile” ring

The event not only provides an opportunity for management to recognize the entire team, but provides an opportunity for the entire Scott Lift Truck family to unite and celebrate the achievements of the past year.

 

Invite Professionally and Aggressively
For major customer events, professionally prepared invitations are a must. Running something off on the copy machine just doesn’t cut it. In many cases, a graphic artist or advertising firm should help prepare invitations. There are lots of issues around the design of invitations. Suffice it to say, the more professional the invitation, the more effectively it communicates your event, the better chance of getting desired attendance. If customers don’t come, it’s a failed event, no matter how good the program.

A distributor database should be used for targeted or mass mailings. In certain circumstances, lists for invitations should be purchased. Salespeople should be asked to prepare their own targeted invitation lists. For some events, we print and mail professional invitations, and then follow these up with faxed and then e-mailed invitations. Then we invite again, by phone or in person. We also announce many events on our website.

Initial invitations for major events should be sent out approximately 60 days prior to the event, with repeat, targeted and personal invitations approximately 30 days prior to the event, up to the day before the event. Failure to professionally, incessantly, obsessively invite is the single most common cause of failed customer events.

Invite Through and Around Your People
Distributors committed to the success of a customer event should not rely solely on salespeople or managers to do the inviting. In addition to involving salespeople, distributors should also go direct to the target audience.

Ask for Reservations
For any significant event, customers should be required to fill out a reservation card or register online. This forces them to make a commitment and put it on their calendars. “Drop in if you can” is not a commitment. Customers who are not asked to make a reservation often don’t come. No commitment – no results. Registrants should then immediately receive a confirming letter or e-mail. For critical registrants, phone calls the day before can be effective reinforcers. Even with all this, expect from 10-25 percent “no shows.”

Communicate Registrations Internally
Distributor salespeople should be kept informed regularly of the list of registrants. This list should be updated frequently. This allows people to target those who have not yet registered. This also helps build momentum, and like a football game, momentum is important in an effective customer event.

Pay Attention to Details
Several things are important in the execution of a customer event. Any presentations or demonstrations must be professional. They must be rehearsed and then rehearsed again. Audio visual equipment must be professional grade with back-ups. Name spelling on name tags and letters of confirmation must be correct. Food, if you have it, better be good. Staff needs to be briefed on expectations. Do they know your objectives for the event? Do they know the right open-ended questions to ask in casual conversation? Do they know where to get answers if customers ask?

It is important to teach salespeople how to have professional, personal conversations during breaks or casual time at a customer event. This may be with folks who arrive early or at breaks or at lunch or before they leave. Do sales and support personnel know how to introduce themselves when they greet strangers? How to ask open-ended questions such as: “What is your area of responsibility?” “What are the key issues in your business right now?” “What’s changing in your business?” What’s changed since we last talked?” Some of the best moments of effective customer events are during this “casual” time when salespeople ask customers open-ended questions and get them to talk about what’s going on in their business.

After the Event
A system should be in place to appropriately follow up after an event. “Thank you for attending” letters can be a nice touch. Debrief. Performance should be measured against initial objectives. Determine what’s been learned about customers and projects. Management should monitor lead follow-up. Customers, suppliers and others who attended the event should be asked, “What should we do differently next time?” Suppliers who participated should be thanked and informed of event results.

Making Things Happen
In the 2002 business climate, our company developed the business philosophy and theme “Make Something Happen.” Customer events are one of the most effective ways for distributors to do this. They create reasons for customers to mix with distributor people and talk about what’s happening with their business and where they need help. They create momentum and excitement.

For samples of professional invitations we have produced for customer events, e-mail me at gmoore@mheco.com; write me at 1740 W. 13th Ave., Denver, CO 80204; or give me a call at 303-573-5333. You can also share ideas on your successful customer events for inclusion in a follow up article.

Material Handling Equipment Distributors Association
Gary T. Moore Meet the Author
Gary T. Moore is president of Materials Handling Equipment Company in Denver, Colorado.


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