LIVE ISSUE: TRAINING - Being trained by the AEO. The AEO is running 50 training courses this year. Mike Fletcher gives a fly-on-the-wall account of the first, on telesales

Think of a number between one and ten. You can stick with that number or change it to another as long as it's between one and ten. Now multiply the number by nine and add the two digits of the result together. Take away five from that number. Take the corresponding letter of the alphabet and think of a country that begins with that letter. Now take the second letter of that country and think of a large animal.

It's 11 o'clock on a Wednesday morning and nine somewhat bemused exhibition salespeople are sitting in the Dover Room at Wembley Exhibition and Conference Centre, doing their sums and asking themselves where the tutor, Answers Training International managing director Simon Naudi, is heading with this mathematical conundrum. And why they're all thinking of an elephant from Denmark.

"It is all about creating the illusion that the customer has a choice," says Naudi. "In reality, if you say phrases in a particular order and ask the right questions you can predict a likely outcome."

This is Winning Exhibition Telephone Sales, the first of 50 training courses being offered by the Association of Exhibition Organisers (AEO) in 2002. Hanging on Naudi's every word is Ben Gosset from Haymarket Exhibitions, Alex Howard from Inside Communications, Mervyn Ramsey from Resources Exhibitions and six sales staff from Turret Rai. Howard is new to sales and has been selling the Chartered Institute of Housing exhibition for only three days.

Turret Rai's Paul Tweedle and Christine Attew are the most experienced salespeople here, with 16 years and 13 years respectively (but not all in exhibitions). Their company has no formal in-house training and all six Turret Rai staff have never had any training in how to sell shows over the telephone.

The morning's first activity was an early indication of Naudi's energetic approach to teaching the steps of selling exhibitions. "We're going to start with a test, an exam. I'm not going to tell you how much time you have but I shall walk among you, constantly clicking my fingers and telling you which questions you should have answered and how long you haven't got left,

he says. "If you don't know the answer, then guess. If you can't guess then just write 'blue cheese'. Ready? Go."

The purpose behind this test is to recreate the pressure of a sales environment and to show where the sales process can go wrong over the phone. Trick questions highlighted the importance of phrasing sentences in the correct way, providing enough information but not overloading the customer with information, and giving the customer breathing space to form a conversation and get a good first impression.

"The first things you say over the phone are very important because you can guarantee the person at the other end is busy,

says Naudi. "The average small to medium sized enterprise receives about 50 cold sales calls a day so you have to be exceptional to grab their attention."

Naudi argues that potential customers don't need to visit shows, in the same way that you don't actually need to buy anything in the western world.

"We convince ourselves that we need things but really we want a particular brand or a new item of clothing and we transcribe that want into a need,

he says. "The secret is to know why people may want to come by asking questions. The need will then be motivated by either the want for profit, prestige or fear of the consequences of not attending."

The theory is that as soon as the salesperson has worked out what motivates the potential customer, they can then tailor the conversation and answer any objections with the right response.

Naudi explains: "Fear buyers can be reassured with audited figures and customer care, whereas prestige buyers want to hear about the show's reputation and who the main sponsors are. Buyers motivated by profit would be interested to hear how the show can make them money and generate business for their companies."

A popular pitfall during this sales conversation occurs when the salesperson hurts the customer. Naudi uses the story of a man's run-down house to illustrate the point.

"I really like the house but I see the tiles on your roof are loose, the paint is peeling off your walls and the grass in your front garden is overgrown. This hurts the man and he will naturally leap to the defence of his property and claim that the tiles remained in place during the last hurricane, he likes the paint to look like that and the tall grass hides his dog's shit.

"As salespeople you need to talk about how much you like the house. The man will then say, 'but my tiles are loose and the paint is peeling off my walls and I just can't get around to cutting the grass - I wish I knew someone who could help me'."

Role-playing within groups of three is a key part of the course. "It's alright knowing what to say in theory but practice smokes out the hiccups,

says Naudi. Throughout the day the attendees practised their opening speeches to create the right first impression, asked questions in order to predict which motivating factor they should tailor the patter towards and practised getting past the company secretary or "gatekeeper

to speak to the decision-maker or buyer.

"If an objection occurs only when you mention your name then it may be a fob-off so it's best to ask when the secretary would like you to call back so you can speak to the buyer or make an appointment. In most cases, because she has asked you to call back, she'll put you through. I have many more secretaries than buyers on my Christmas card list,

says Naudi.

How to handle people's objections and closing techniques were also dealt with during the two-day course, again with an emphasis on role-playing.

At 11am on the first day, every one of the six attendees had their own degree of exhibition sales knowledge, as well as that elephant from Denmark on their minds. By the end, the less experienced took away an insight into the world of selling exhibitions but the more experienced had their skills re-evaluated and structured more towards the exhibition sales medium.

"When we first discovered the course content we thought it was really meant for people who had sold for less than 12 months so we were anticipating something quite basic,

says Attew.

But as Naudi points out: "Good sales technique is about doing the basics better than anybody else, so focused and regular training is paramount whatever the level of experience."

OPINION - Austen Hawkins, deputy director, AEO

We work in a service industry. Most senior executives would agree with the old cliche that their businesses are only as good as their people ... and yet surely our people are only as good as the training we give them.

If we are to develop as an industry, we need to train our staff to be able to make that move forward.

Staff retention is a real issue. Providing training is one way of demonstrating to your employees that you are interested in their future and not just in what you can get out of them. On all staff satisfaction surveys, whatever the industry, providing appropriate training comes near the top of the list of issues that make people believe that their company is a good place to work.

The AEO believes that the more trained people there are in an industry, the more respect that industry as a whole will receive from outsiders.

I would draw a parallel between the direct marketing industry and the exhibition industry. They are both of similar size yet direct marketing has a much higher industry profile. I believe much of this is down to the training provided by the Institute of Direct Marketing (IDM). If a company wants to employ a good direct marketer it will specify the IDM diploma in the job ad. We don't have that same level of professional on-the-job qualification in exhibition management.

Finally, there is too little ongoing training available once people have entered the industry. The AEO is trying to address this very issue.

The goal we are aiming to achieve is an industry-wide recognised continual training programme across the key disciplines of sales, marketing and operations, as well as personal development training in an exhibitions context.

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