How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

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How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

Postby Dustin Levy » Mon Jan 04, 2016 6:32 am

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.
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Re: How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

Postby Ana » Tue Jan 05, 2016 11:43 am

In my experience when preparing for a job hunt by the end of my postdoc (I wanted to move to industry) trade shows are not that useful for a researcher. I even travelled all the way from Canada to Europe to participate in one of the largest european trade shows since I wanted to get closer to home, and I talked to all of my target companies and collected all the cards and had very nice conversations and feedback.

But they where the wrong people.

Unless you are interested in a customer interface role (like technical sales or medical affairs) trade shows are fun but don’t lead to very useful contacts. That is because the people you come across are customer interface people, and unless it is a very small company they are too removed from research to even know the name of the department heads (hiring managers).

I think for a researcher, science conferences are still the best networking opportunity doing the usual homework of contacting people ahead of the conference to set up appointments. Companies send their scientists to those, including their science managers and business development people. Only if you are interesting in a sales job you could get job leads from a salesman at a trade show because their internal connections and motivation to get you to the right person are rather low. I guess the overall advice would be to go where your target peers and future managers hang out, and to not underestimate trade shows if you are interested in a customer interface role.
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Re: How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

Postby D.X. » Wed Jan 06, 2016 3:40 am

To add to Ana's comment,

From a pharmaceutical Company perspective, we only exhibit at medical congresses where predominantly staff from Sales and mainly Medical Affairs attend. The Sales Staff will not be able to have techincal conversations with you (even if they have an understanding) since they are bound to very narrowed discussion areas as defined by the Company (as per law and promotional codes). They will not have sufficient Network or Motivation to Network you towards scientific functions in the Company. Talk to them if you're interested in Pharmaaceutical Sales as a career. The Medical staff on the booth are, usually MSLs/Med Info Folks who can be also limiting with the exception of if one is interested in Medical functions - but they too will be limited in how much "technical" discussions you can have as a matter of subject matter expertise. More often, most of the booth staff, including the booth captain will not know all of the Company staff who are attending, especially the scientific functions. You can try to ask the Medical Person if they know which Posters are being presented from the Company.

Also for pharma, not all congresses are the same, only at the really big ones would you have an opportunity to perhaps meet some of the scientist/techincal People. Especially if they are presenting a poster. So troll the poster sessions to find any Company pre-clinical Posters (look for author affiliations) on the poster. It can be hit an miss if you fine a pre-clincial poster at These congresses. Try finding pharmacokenetic Posters, as well, those authores will be more connected to the scientific functions.

As far as manufacturing trade Shows, there is no reason for a Pharmaceutical Company to exhibit here, you'll only find the Company scientists either presenting a poster or a session. Just start reading the badges if the Company Name is on the badge and introduce yourself. You may find a CMO exhbiting but not sure.

For medical device/diagnostic companies, Dustin's suggetsions may be applicable.

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Re: How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

Postby Dave Walker » Wed Jan 06, 2016 11:54 am

Thanks again to Dustin bringing up a good topic of discussion. In my experience every grad student and postdoc will be going to conferences sooner or later, so this is quite timely!

From my perspective as a salesperson:

Trade shows are high-volume, low-probability events. When I'm behind the booth, I have no choice but to choose whom I speak to -- the majority of them are not my future clients. (The stories I could tell!)

I think that the student/postdoc should also prioritize: talk to Senior Scientists, Directors, VPs at these events whenever possible. They are at the talks, the posters, even the lines for coffee. They are a much more direct way into learning about a company than through a salesperson or MSL/FAS/etc. The real magic at big conferences happens in-between the official events; it's the most raw and powerful form of networking.


That being said, if you can manage your time well, adding salespeople to your network can be rewarding.

I had a sales teacher who liked to say: "Everything works, a little bit." If trade shows are low-probability, I wondered why anyone even goes to them? It's because it's a sales strategy that works, even if a little bit.

In a smaller company the salesperson may know the hiring manager for R&D. At a larger company they may be able to check internal job postings to get you better information than what you have. And they are by nature willing to network freely.

As Dave has mentioned repeatedly in his columns, the best job searching strategy is to prioritize the most rewarding opportunities, which is usually informational interviewing and networking. However, it is foolish not to keep all options open, as long as you prioritize.
"The single factor that differentiates Nobel laureates from other scientists is training with another Nobel laureate." -- Sol Snyder
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Re: How to Network with Industry at a Trade Show

Postby Dustin Levy » Mon Jan 11, 2016 4:16 pm

Thanks Dave and others for your perspective. I agree that the networking through salespeople at small companies is likely worthwhile, more generally, it should be a good approach at any company or within any industry where the technical merits of the product or service are a key part of the sales message. Whenever this is the case, those salespeople are likely in frequent contact with the technical personnel at the company for product training, Q&A, sales strategy, etc. If you’re targeting a larger company or an industry where technical information is closely held, salespeople may not be able to connect you to the right people.

I know of two research students who have networked into my company through the sales team at a trade show, precisely because they are aware of recent research and literature relevant to our products that we don’t have the time to stay current on. They are well positioned to find a landing spot with us after graduation because they are already adding value in their networking relationship with our company.
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