Is it still good return on investment for consultancies to have a booth at ISPOR?

Is it still good return on investment for consultancies to have a booth at ISPOR?

I have been to more ISPOR conferences than you have had hot dinners, or perhaps I should say more than you have had poster-viewing canapes and paid-by-voucher glasses of wine! My attendance until the last three years has been as an exhibitor; at a booth as a representative of a consultancy to pharma/MedTech. On occasions, I was in a Sales Directorship role; at other times I was Consultant, Practice Lead and Director and before that in Project Management; all with a side remit to sell.

In the good old days we spent hours trying to align the images on our booth backdrop and fit together cumbersome tottering frames; borrowing some tape from neighbouring exhibitors with the same botch job issues. Over time, this gave way to more sophisticated graphically designed pop-up booths and espresso bar style environs, with digital displays. The conference freebies have also upped their game, though I still maintain that the best freebies to lure a customer to the stand are those that guilty parents will bring home for their children to play with; my own children have more blood cell shaped stress balls and needle shaped highlighter pens than your average 5 and 7 year olds.

Over time, new consultancies started to appear and others would merge, creating giant companies occupying double or triple booths and dominating the room with fluorescent branding and the smell of barista served lattes. Those “new kids on the block” from a few years ago are all now well established in their own right, with their own piece of the market and there still does seem to be enough business to go around despite the exhibit hall now hosting 108 consultancies according to the latest list. and others will be sauntering around touting for business during network sessions and breaks.

With such competition in the room, is it still worth the return on investment to secure a booth at ISPOR? My thoughts are below:

1. Go big (or modern) or go home

A half-hearted botch job of a stand will just not cut it in today’s environment. On the left of your booth someone will have a trained barista pouring lattes and on the right there will be a digital touch display and lounge chairs. If you are new to ISPOR, I would suggest that while gimmicks are not necessary, a stand which looks outdated or unprofessional will not position you well in this crowded room. If budget is an issue; simplicity of branding and imagery gives an air of modernity (less is more). Though with limited word space, choose them wisely (see point 6). Alternatively, consider attending without a booth and arranging to meet people in the break out spaces.

2. Engage with the conference program

Your company marketing machine for ISPOR may start ramping up in October and the wheels can be set into motion automatically year on year. You dust off the booth, bring a few leave pieces and order some business cards and get on the plane. Once at the conference, your only perusal of the conference agenda may be to look for the breaks when customers are likely to be milling round the exhibit hall. However, the ISPOR programme is a great insight into your customers reimbursement hot topics. I am talking here of the posters and presentations which are sponsored, co-funded and co-authored by pharma/MedTech companies. Key Account Management is really challenging in the consultancy to pharma environment because no sooner have you got on top of the research regarding your customer priorities, needs, challenges and contact people within a particular pharma company, then it will change and become outdated. This is one of the reasons I created a nimble pragmatic template for such, with the nuances of this niche market in mind. I propose that you should consider the conference programme as a Key Account Management cheat sheet of current pressing issues and themes and connect with people about these real points of resonance, rather than simply pitching your company blindly and hoping something sticks.

The conference programme this year is “Digital Transformation of Healthcare; Changing Roles and Sharing Responsibilities”. This is a perfect topic to leverage if your consultancy is focussing on digital deliverables and service enhancements to empower your pharma/MedTech customers. Why not tap into this contemporary visionary messaging and lure customers with the niggle that they are missing out on some modernisation of their market access plans, processes and tools.

Next year, why not plan and go beyond a poster presentation and a booth to having a speaking slot on the programme that is cutting edge and relevant and positions you as a necessary part of the mechanism for success in a contemporary and forward looking market access environment.

3. Arrange meetings prospectively

If you rely solely on passing traffic, you will come away with sparse useful contacts. Pre-GDPR we have all been there with the conference address labels trying to decipher who is attending and who we would like to meet. Nowadays, it is more guess work and perhaps based on who is on the conference programme, who is exhibiting a poster, who has a relevant title or geographical location and who has engaged with the conference app. Incidentally, has anyone else noticed that app release is delayed this year?

Setting up meetings prospectively is a sure-fire way to maximise your investment at ISPOR. Though this must be well coordinated; ensuring that someone remains at the booth at all times and allowing time for people to show up late due to distractions or caffeine needs en route to your stand. For this reason, I rarely book back-to-back meetings while doing outsourced business development for my consultancy clients and I try to ensure I have swapped mobile phone numbers to aid with flexibility.

4. Train booth team in techniques to engage passing customers

Just plopping some people behind a stand is not enough. Even a rudimentary understanding of body language will redress the far-too-often seen behaviours of sitting behind a stand, scrolling on a phone or typing furiously on a laptop. Then, when someone approaches, the not-so-subtle eyeing up of name badges to filter the potential customers from other passers-by. Followed perhaps by an awkward fidgety silence as someone reads the backdrop and picks up a leave piece and a chocolate from the bowl while avoiding eye contact with those behind the desk. Perhaps worse than the silence, is the launch into the car sales showroom spiel about the company, when this is not warranted or desired.

I love training people in consultancy based selling because it empowers them to harness their natural consultancy skills and focusses on authenticity rather than trying to be someone they are not. I encourage conversation starters that appeal to a person’s humanity and conversations based on what consultants enjoy about their job; which makes them naturally engaging when communicating what they do. Most importantly, I deconstruct the sales process so that even the most reticent consultant is empowered to generate business.

5. Record conversations, not just contact details

You get home from ISPOR, come in feeling jaded and jet lagged to the office and somewhere in the next week you tip out your laptop pockets to find a few chocolate wrappers, a stress ball, some free pens and a notebook and some tatty business cards. You send a generic “nice to meet you at the conference” email and can’t for the life of you remember the context of the conversation. An old-school method which I still think is genius, is an A5 sized slip of paper on a clipboard, with room to write notes about a conversation and staple a card to the corner. All contacts go into an envelope for systematic distribution and persistent (but not nagging) follow up on return. Sometimes a classic approach trumps modernity, I like to think so anyway.

6. Work on value message differentiation, in a “me-too” environment

A couple ISPORs ago I was struck by how similar the messaging was as I moved from stand to stand and how hollow the messaging became when so repeated and undifferentiated. I found myself wishing that consultancies would just “say what they are on the tin” so to speak; so I didn’t have to do the work of trying to suss it out while avoiding making eye contact for fear of being lured into a conversation about something I did not need. My vantage point as an independent consultant enables me to see things from a customer perspective in ways that were impossible from the outside looking in and I enjoy crystallising these customer insights for my consultancy clients through research from examples of their pharma/MedTech customer base.

One of the differentiators in a me-too environment is the consultant themselves, which speaks again to point 4 and the need to be engaging on stand. However, I truly believe that today it is necessary to spell out what you do in a way that can be read and assimilated quickly and to emphasise your USP; what do you do differently or what do you do better than then people on the next stand?

We previously explored whether value communication consultancies are good at communicating their own value. This year at ISPOR we are going to do a more formal and thorough analysis of booth messaging. If you want a copy in order to inform your marketing messaging for next year, you can pre-order the analysis by filling in our Quick Quote form and specifying “ISPOR booth messaging analysis” in the Relevant Information area (it's the last text box).

7. Ensure staff are not pre-occupied with project deadlines

I believe consultants make the best sellers. They can pull from the memory banks regarding case studies that resonate and they can lead sales encounters if appropriately trained and if able to reframe selling as providing answers to research questions; or even helping customers to ask the question they don’t know they are asking…and then helping them to find the answer. At some point management needs to make a decision to release time for key account management and selling in the calendars of consultants and that is an age old challenge, where time is money and project deadlines shout loud.

Key Account Management (KAM) and Insight Based Selling both involve research time; though in my KAM training I like to show how junior team members and administrative roles can help with this process; thus creating a sense of ownership over Business Development at every level of the organisation. I also use tried and tested templates to show how the research can be kept nimble and pragmatic for the changing environment. Notwithstanding the needs and proposed efficiencies, the fact remains that if you are going to invest time in sending someone to a conference; they need to be able to man the stand without being head down, sat down, furiously typing away on their laptop with stress hair and flushed cheeks. You might as well not send that person at all if they cannot really be present and in the room.

8. Consider whether your absence would be ominous

For many of my consultancy clients; to be missing at ISPOR would seem ominous. Anyone who is anyone in this space will be there and it may speak to the resource capacity of your company if you make a decision to stay away, both to existing and new customers.

9. Consider whether a booth is the right way to go

For some of my clients, they want to position themselves at a somewhat higher tier. Not as traders on the floor, but influencers at the policy or methods creation level. For such, a place on the programme is perhaps more fitting; accompanied by hiring a meeting room (on site, rather than off site preferred) or even a supplementary event or presentation outside of the programme on a high tier subject matter.

10. Use the conference for existing relationships, not just cold business

When conducting independent customer satisfaction interviews for many of my clients I am surprised by how willing customers are to have a face to face meeting. Some tell me that other vendors book in quarterly visits to keep the relationship going and stay ahead of the curve in terms of identifying needs and challenges and co-creating solutions. ISPOR is a great opportunity for informal chats over coffee; with training these conversations can be used to gain valuable insights and make a good impression without being overbearing or off-putting.

All said and done, I cannot help but smile at some of the memories from ISPORs gone by. It would be indiscrete to tell all the tales (what happens at ISPOR, stays at ISPOR… am I right?). However, it must be said, that there is something about coming away from the office environment and pulling together during the days and relaxing together over meals, that really does bond the team. It can also be a brilliant environment to sharpen communication skills by watching your peers in action in ways that the usual work week does not permit and, for the more junior in the organisation, it is an excellent training ground.

I now attend ISPOR as an independent consultant. Well…more of an accidental SME I suppose, having joined myself to a small team of people with similar backgrounds and ethos. We have ended up forming ourselves as a consultancy to consultancies; helping with freelance BD, sales training and KAM training/process and customer insights work. The view from this side of the booth gives us an excellent vantage point to understand the breadth and quality of vendors in this space and also to stand back and compare messaging with more independent and less “up to my eyeballs with deadlines” glasses on.

I will be attending ISPOR this year with one of my research Project Managers. We are intending to do a formal analysis and comparison of consultancy booth messaging; showing repetition and differentiators; which is intended to be used as an aid to help consultancies plan for ISPOR 2020. If you want a copy in order to inform your marketing messaging for next year, you can pre-order the analysis by filling in our Quick Quote form and specifying “ISPOR booth messaging analysis” in the Relevant Information area (it's the last text box).

Lastly, if you are attending ISPOR 2019 and would like to meet to discuss any of the perspectives of this article, do get in touch to plan a time; perhaps during one of the sessions where your booth traffic will be light.

Bon voyage and see you there!