Vendor Perspective of the LMA Annual Conference

Some years ago when I led a company that was a prominent vendor and sponsor to the legal marketing community, I would regularly take the LMA to task for its tone-deaf and heavy-handed approach to vendors.  They listened and today the association, and the legal marketing community, are far more receptive and embrace the involvement of legal vendors and suppliers.  Don't get me started on other legal associations which appear to regard vendors as evildoers whose role is to send money and logos in return for some token table scraps. So other than one comment, this post does not address the effectiveness of the LMA annual conference from the vendor perspective.  Rather, I will comment on vendor participation at the conference... what worked, and what didn't.

First, the one comment directed to LMA:  The hotel was a beautiful venue and well-suited for a business conference. However, the exhibit hall must be closer to the educational session rooms. No ifs, ands or buts about it.  Periodically a conference planning team will underestimate the importance of this single fact.  That's a mistake.  Since I'm confident every vendor made this point in their post-conference evaluations, I won't belabor it here.

I presented on the topic of managing legal directories, lists and rankings along with Nicole Carrubba of Captivate Legal Marketing.  Though we both have considerable expertise in this area, we spent some prep time on the phone interviewing directory publishers and consultants who specialize in this space.  The publishers, without exception, in some way incorporated the following three assumptions in their remarks: everyone hates us; the competitors stink; and our offering is defined by what the competitors are not.

There are certainly some legal marketers who don't like the very notion of directories, rankings and lists, believing them all to be part of some scam based on lawyer vanity.  But there are many who view these tools as standard components of a law firm's marketing mix, plus there is a constant influx of new marketers from outside the legal profession who have no pre-formed bias.  My recommendation, lose the chip on your shoulder.

In every business there are competitors.  There are often head-to-head fight-to-the-last-bullet battles between competitors.  And it's important to know the competition.  But my view has always mirrored legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden's (possibly apocryphal) view on  game preparation. He never reviewed film of his opponents, and instead focused his team on flawless execution of the basics.  In other words, it doesn't matter what the other guy is doing; all that matters is that we execute well.  In business, deliver what you promise, deliver what the client needs, and let the other guy worry about what you're doing.

In a similar fashion, find your own unique selling proposition.  Help the legal marketers answer the question, Why is your offering additive to my marketing mix?  It's not effective to use "We're better than the other guy because we don't do X or Y, we do Z."  This assumes I have superior knowledge of the other guy, which immediately diminishes your offering. What do you do well? Figure out how to say it.

Interestingly, as I walked the exhibit floor talking to multiple vendors, this theme reappeared several more times.  In one notable case, the president of a small technology company was barely able to articulate what his offering delivered. He hemmed and hawed waiting for the top sales guy to finish up with another prospect, and while he was waiting he described his product thusly:  "We're sort of a Product N light. We don't do all that they do, but then most people don't need all that anyway."  Product N, in case you hadn't guessed, is a leading product in the category.  My advice (well, beyond "Don't stand in the booth if you have nothing helpful to add") once again is to define your unique selling proposition in a few words.  Surely you must offer something that doesn't require me to know all about the competition first!

At one point I worked the exhibit hall during one of the educational sessions.  I suspect I'm not the only conference attendee who occasionally finds nothing of interest at the offered sessions, or perhaps just wants to talk to vendors without the crowd that amasses during breaks. However, the booths were mostly empty. Obviously I wasn't able to poke my head into every educational session, but since many vendors had exhibit-only passes, I surmised that they weren't attending a session and they weren't in the booth.  Where were they?  I can only hope that they were busy in a demo room or were holding some other private client discussions.  If they were at the hotel but not in the booth when prospects were there, that is a travesty.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the 15-minute chair massage in the information vendor's booth while no one was around.

The opposite is also true.  In some booths the vendor representatives repelled visitors through one of two techniques:  either they stood in a semi-circle in the front of the booth facing in while talking amongst themselves, making an approach impossible; or they stood in a semi-circle facing outward, making an approach daunting as 4 or 5 sets of eyes stared at every passer-by.  Some sat quietly working on their laptops undoubtedly attending to important client matters while we walked by, glanced at the literature, possibly picked up a giveaway pen, and moved on, never making eye contact.  A few, of course, made visitors feel welcome.  I won't go into detail here how to make that happen because it's more amusing to point out what doesn't work -- and besides, helping vendors better reach clients is part of what I do for a living!

Actually, I will reveal the greatest secret to increasing your ROI at a conference, particularly a close-knit community like the legal marketers.  It's this:  Be part of the community.  It's that simple.  How?  Buy more than exhibit-only badges and spend more time with the clients and prospects, learning alongside them in educational sessions, spreading out and mingling with them at breakfast, lunches and cocktail receptions, and attending all the after-hours events.

My former sales teams knew, enjoyed and heartily participated in this credo of non-stop client interaction.  We reached a point where our conference booth was the least important place for us to interact with clients.  We didn't even post a schedule.  We knew that during the conference, from roughly 7 AM to midnight every day, we were with our clients -- our friends! -- participating and contributing alongside them. When the exhibit hall was open, we'd all be around, though we wouldn't congregate in the booth and scare visitors away.  And we most certainly, and enthusiastically, joined our clients after-hours.  And we didn't always pick up the tab either.  Because we were members, not vendors.

At one point at the LMA's "gala" event, amidst all the dancing and frivolity, I stepped outside to get some air and to drop in to a bar next door to the conference hotel to have a drink with an old colleague.  There, arrayed in a group of 15 or so, was one vendor team.  There wasn't a client in sight, for they were all enjoying themselves back at the conference hotel.  Just the vendors enjoying themselves, by themselves. This is poignant example of what to do as a vendor to the community, rather than as a member of the community.  I'll wager a tall, cold drink at the next conference that the ROI report delivered to this vendor's management team was that the conference was good, but not great.

Legal vendors: what sort of sales team preparation do you undertake before attending a major industry conference?  Does the team memorize clear and concise elevator scripts, unique selling propositions and positioning statements?  Do they know their responsibility at the conference is not equal to their assigned booth times?  Does management in attendance know what to say, or when to be quiet?  Do they know when to join clients, and when to take the team offsite for well-deserved R&R?  This isn't rocket science.  Good products, even great products, don't sell themselves.  It takes work and practice to move along the continuum from vendor to the client community to member of the client community.  Are you there yet?  What are you waiting for?