June 2008


In between showings of our beautiful cot covers to attendees, I had time to chat with Ryan and Spencer from Hilltop.net about the nature of trade shows and how to grab the attention of passing funeral directors.

Ryan’s early pitch to passersby was “Do you have a website?” which occasionally yielded a “No,” providing an opening for him to talk about his easy-to-use and inexpensive web service.

Unfornately, everyone who answered “Yes” kept walking, as it was clear, at least to them, that he wasn’t offering anything they needed.

After discussing the “art of the pitch” with Ryan and Spencer, I suggested they look more closely at what their company really does.

Does Hilltop.net make great websites?  Sure.  But if I’ve already got a website, I don’t have a “I need a website” problem.

“But,” Ryan countered, “We make websites a lot easier.  With our software, you can upload obituaries to your site in seconds, without having to know any programming.”

“And you don’t have to resize photos,” Added Spencer.

So the problem that visitors might have isn’t “I need a website.”  It’s “My website is too hard to update and maintain.”

Ryan and Spencer decided to start asking variations of the questions “Do you have an easy-to-update website?” and “How fast can you add an obituary to your current website?” to more accurately focus their visitors on what their company really does.

As for our cot cover business, I learned from several of my new customers and those who chose not to buy that certain features of my covers are more desirable than others.

In fact, I got a lot of upturned noses and dismissive waves when I mentioned that the ULTRA model of our covers features a second pocket.  Turns out no one cares about another pocket.

I also tested my new “don’t contaminate your suit pocket” line on folks and found that it worked better than I had anticipated.  Here’s how the “contaminate” pitch goes:

And the DELUXE cover features this VersaPocket.  It’s got a compartment for paperwork, so you don’t have to shove the paperwork under the deceased’s feet anymore.  And this outside compartment is for gloves.  Now, you don’t want to leave those gloves at a family’s home, but you also don’t want to shove them in your pocket because they’re used gloves.  This pocket is made entirely from our FluidBlocker lining, which is impervious to fluids.  Why contaminate your pocket – I don’t know about you, but I only have this coat drycleaned once a month – when there’s such an easy, sanitary place right here on the cover.

And it worked!  Better than imagined.  And now it’s part of my aresenal.

Why is it so effective?

Because, like my pitch about our CleanEdge binding protecting the lower edge from dirt and my pitch about the soft yet protective features of the FluidBlocker lining, the VersaPocket’s compartments for gloves and paperwork solve a specific problem that many funeral professionals didn’t even realize they had.

To put this into a wider consumer perspective, imagine music before the iPod or other MP3 devices.  No one had a portability problem (the Walkman debuted in 1979) back then.  The iPod solved a problem few knew they had:  storage.  It seems like a huge issue now, but few people could carry all their music with their Walkman.  In fact, people often created mixtapes or carried a box of cassettes to expand their music selection.  Later, CD wallets boosted the number of albums that could be easily transported.

If you had been visiting a consumer electronics show in the late 90’s early 2000’s and been asked “do you have a portable music system” you’d have pointed to your Walkman or transistor radio and kept walking.

Why talk to a guy selling portable music systems when you don’t have a “portable music” problem?

Luckily for their bottom line, Apple and others didn’t sell early iPods or MP3 players as “portable music.”  They asked the question, “can you carry and access all your music instantly?”

Asking the right question translates into real money.

What else worked?  Well, we also got a lot of people into the booth by asking if they’d ever seen one of our new-style covers.  If they had, we asked if they’d seen them in person and then asked permission to show them the two reasons why our covers are so much better.

The most important point for us was getting guests into our booth to look at our covers.  Once we got them to agree to take a look at our product, we generated sales almost 1/3rd of the time.

Knowing the right question, related to a real problem your market experiences, can be the difference between profit and debt.  Choose your questions wisely.

We’re finally back home (after an overnight stop in Chattanooga and a early morning drive to Florida) and it’s time to review the trip and update ya’ll on the final days.

Let’s start with a recap of our in-booth sales figures.  Day 1 saw 6 sales.  Day 2 generated 13.  And day 3 offered 12 more.

And while we didn’t reach our 40 cover goal, we still had 31 convention sales.  Even better, 21 of them went out the door, which means less time spent in the workshop boxing up product and shipping it out.

It also meant that we had less junk to take back to Florida with us!  With less baggage, we were able to see out the back window on the way home.

DAY 3 IMPRESSIONS

Wednesday (last day of the Expo) was actually kinda slow, with many funeral directors arriving later in the session to check out the expo before lunch and the Kentucky Digital Death Certificate explanation that followed.

Luckily, many of the people who promised to come back to order did, while others who had already ordered stopped back to say hello or drag another funeral director over to show off the new cover they’d selected.  A few of these new “converts” actually sold covers for us, just by their persuasive belief in our product.  It’s amazing how they retained most of the important points about features and benefits. 

Because it slacked off, I had the opportunity to visit with other vendors and do a few short interviews.  In the coming days, I’ll post videos with Spencer and Ryan from Hilltop.net, William from Custom Air Trays and Rob from Peaceful Valley Tributes.

CONVENTION WRAP-UP

Because this was our first Kentucky convention, I did not expect a warm welcome.  In fact, I really expected to do a lot of “fancy footwork” to get people interested in our product.  Fortunately, the folks in the Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio area are extremely receptive to new ideas and are very courteous.

My goal of 40 covers sold was based upon an expected attendance of 1200 funeral directors.  And while we spoke to many, many funeral directors, there’s no way we had interactions with even 600 of them.  In the business center of our Wingate by Wyndham hotel (where they let me use the copier for free!) I printed our convention special onto 300 of our brochures.  We’ve still got a handful of those left.

So a realistic assessment is that we had some interaction with no more than 300 funeral homes at the show.  Of those, we sold 31 covers, giving us about a 10% sell-through rate.

Is that good? 

Absolutely, considering that other forms of unsolicited sales, like direct mail or door-to-door, yield less than 2% on average.

Our average cover, with a 10% convention discount, goes for $202.50.  That means we generated over $6000 in sales during a 3-day show.  Here’s a breakdown of our expenses:

Of course, the sign and new display will be re-used at our next conventions, but I’ve included them here to create a more accurate picture of the full amount I had to pay to make this convention a success.

We generated $6000 in immediate sales, making this convention profitable, as I generally want ot make at least twice as much as we spend.  Do we have a 50% margin on our product?  Hardly, but I know that getting this product into funeral directors’ hands will mean more sales in the future, when their competitors and colleagues see our covers in person.

Interestingly, we’re one of the few companies that actually set such important goals and restrictions for our advertising.  I was surprised to learn that some other vendors don’t even track how many sales they get from each ad they run or don’t care how many direct orders they get at a convention.

But I run our little company on the idea that it has to make money to survive, which means I’m not going to tap my own savings or my partner’s savings to make it work. 

Our expenses for the NFDA Convention in Las Vegas last year were just over $4000 and we made $8000+ in sales.

For this year’s NFDA, we’ll save some money,  since the show is in our own backyard.  That means no rental car, hotel visits or entertainment expenses.  Absorbing the cost of the new display and a better sign means we’ve got more money to spend on other items.

I’ve already selected and paid for our booth at the 2008 NFDA Convention in Orlando this October.  Yes, it was expensive:  $2700 for a penninsula booth.  But the exposure and location are worth the price.

I’m setting a tentative goal of 100 in-booth sales for the 2008 NFDA Convention. 

Ambitious?  I certainly hope so.

Doable?  Just wait ’til you hear my amazing sales pitch!

Funny story:  our neighbor across the aisle at the KFDA show was William from Custom Air Trays.  He doesn’t own a funeral home or work for one, but by the end of the show he knew our speil word-for-word.  Heck, I think I might have been able to sell him one!

The second day of the show is over and we’re halfway to our goal of 40 covers sold.

Do I think we’ll make it?  The realistic part of my mind says we can’t possibly sell 20 more covers in our last 2.5 hour day, but heck, stranger things have happened

We met a lot of interesting funeral directors today and had some great conversations about the importance of beautiful, comforting removal images (that means getting better cot covers).

I also had some really good discussion with Spencer and Ryan from Hilltop.net about expos and how to interact with potential customers.  Hilltop.net offers a pretty impressive product:  easily-customized funeral home websites with a wonderfully-simple obituary editor that look really professional.  Even better, a total website solution, including a custom web address (example:  smithfamilyfuneralhome.com) from Hilltop.net costs just $29.95 a month.

Tomorrow, the Kentucky Department of Vital Statistics unveils the new online version of the Kentucky death certificate.  I’ve got a feeling (actually, Spencer Guiley had the feeling first and shared it with me) that many of our visitors will make it a point to attend the show tomorrow, if only to get some answers about the way this new digital certificate will change their business.

Even better, we’ve had a number of funeral directors who are returning Wednesday (tomorrow) to order something and take it with them.  Others told us that their bosses would be at the show on the last day and would order then.

So we’ll see how much we can sell tomorrow.  Until then…

First things first – my favorite part of this trip so far has been coasting down the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky and seeing the Prius’ info screen look like this:

The readout shows the blue power arrows pointing back toward the battery (meaning the the gas engine is off and the in-wheel generators are charging the battery) and the car is getting more than 99.9 miles per gallon.

We arrived in Louisville and headed right for the convention center.  We got most of the booth setup and headed out to the hotel. 

I booked a business hotel, Wingate by Wyndham, mostly because I knew I might need their business center (free photocopier, computer and printer use) and they offer free wired and wireless Internet access.  And the room is pretty huge:

After a bit of shopping (snack cakes to pass out at the show) we met Michael Manley from Funeral Business Advisor for dinner.

He had some great ideas and we’ll continue the discussion at our first vendor dinner on Tuesday evening after the show.

After dinner, we hit Wal-Mart and Lowes.  We were missing some simple items for the show:  cleaning wipes, an additional wire shelf and carpet.

That’s right, we hit the road for Kentucky without knowing what we’d use to cover the floor!

Luckily, Lowe’s had a remnant piece 12-feet wide and 14-feet long, marked down to just $42 because of a slight defect:  7 fist-sized holes caused by a forklift tine.

We still bought it, partly because I’m frugal, but mostly because my skill with a straight-edge, a utility knife and a roll of duct tape turned the 12×14 piece into a 10×14 piece with a perfectly disguised seam partway through.

We also had to create a new sign, since I accidentally forgot our fabric sign at the workshop.  Black foam board, peel-and-stick foam sheets and some quick-thinking turned into a pretty nifty sign.

Here’s the result of our hard work:

I especially like the way our beautiful, expensive-looking carpet (don’t tell anyone how little I spent) contrasts with the black of the side railing and the cover I made for our fake mortuary cot:

And the $130 we spent on a closet organizer and a few extra shelves turned into a custom-looking tradeshow display, quite to my surprise:

Even better, when we returned for the opening of the show, our neighbors from Hilltop Computing were there, including Final Embrace reader Spencer Guilley!

The show ended at 8:00 pm and we’d already sold 6 covers with promises of several more orders tomorrow from guests who visited today.

Many of the expected funeral directors haven’t yet arrived (Monday was only the kick-off reception) and a large number of our visitors shared that the decision-makers from their firm would be arriving on Wednesday.

We’ll sleep late tomorrow, have a leisurely lunch and hit the convention at Noon for a 1:00 pm Expo opening.

We’ve arrived in Louisville!

The convention center is large, but we were able to drive right onto the show floor (!) and unload the car just a few dozen feet from our booth.

The booth, which is 15 feet long and 10 feet wide, is great for our product.  We set up both the chrome metal shelving and our mock mortuary cot.

Made from PVC, the mock cot is designed to mimic the shape and height of a standard mortuary cot.  Unlike a standard cot, the mock stretcher fits into a small duffel bag (thanks to PVC elbows and t-connectors) and can be stowed in the trunk of a car.

I’m having dinner with Michael Manley of the Funeral Business Advisor magazine tonight.  We’re cooking up a few important developments for his and my readers.

Talk to you soon!

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