Guide: Maximizing Your Event Sales Opportunities (Part 1)

Maximizing Your Event Sales Opportunities

Maximizing Your Event Sales Opportunities 

Event businesses will likely set their eyes on maximizing event sales opportunities once again this year. For many, this means carefully evaluating the possible upgrade or implementation of a sales CRM and contact management system. Almost all changes organizations make in sales are directly related to how they will use their system, or what they need out of their system. So what really matters, and how can you ensure your business benefits from changes that you make this year?
First you have to decide if the system you have is a good fit for your organization, and this isn’t always easy. This is a critical decision that will affect sales for a long time. This can be a stressful process, and often people's careers will become tied to these systems. A CRM is embedded at the core of a business’s sales and operations processes, and those that fully understand what they want out of these kinds of projects will be the ones most likely to deploy a system that improves sales, drives growth, and provides a better experience for customers and prospects.
The fundamental question almost any organization must ask when considering a sales CRM implementation is if the business will utilize a well-known horizontal market CRM that spans multiple industries and business types, or an industry-specific vertical market CRM that contains specially designed features and functions that address the very specific industry needs. For exhibitions, event venues, and other large shows, there are a lot of moving parts to think through.

How data will fit your business

The first thing to consider when determining how your CRM system should be selected and configured is by looking at the process workflows you need to support. This will help you evaluate the proper structure of your CRM systems database.  The structure of a database doesn’t sound very exciting, but how the database of your CRM interacts with the rest of your business will directly determine how well it supports your sales processes. 
At that end of the day, your database determines what reports can get out of the system. Reports are what questions you and your staff have every day. Reports are just a way of getting these questions answered.  The hard part is what questions you need to ask yourself to determine the best course of action to improve results, and of course, how you capture the data in a smart, easy way so those reports can be populated. 
Almost every CRM supports basic sales information like accounts, contacts, opportunities, and orders. A horizontal market CRM provides these fields outright in a configurable fashion. A vertical market CRM contains all of the same fields, but usually ties them to other industry-specific categories or fields. For exhibitors this looks like events, the floorplan itself, online contracts, exhibitor portals, payment schedules, and items related to the exhibition industry. For venue this may be exhibitor services, calendars, and operations. This can be important to event businesses because having events linked to new opportunities will ultimately allow all the other parts of the business link into these opportunities; saving time and preventing double-data entry.

Sales people hate CRM and you know why…

Sales people usually dislike using a CRM, so there is always a balance between capturing the data you need and forcing your sales staff into cumbersome data entry. That’s where it’s really important to evaluate what kind of system you need and how you configure it. 
For some, when scratching the surface and reviewing systems, well-known horizontal market CRMs offer greater simplicity, but this must be weighed against the limitations and challenges these solutions bring when repurposed to manage renewing and selling booth space. This is often what is overlooked when systems are being demonstrated during the front side of a sales process. You will want a system that fits your business well, and horizontal market CRM systems require a lot more customization. How much customization your business needs will likely determine your path.

Maximizing Your Event Sales Opportunities

A close up of a horizontal market CRM system

When using a horizontal CRM, an organizer will generally use three key systems to operate the business; the CRM, a floorplan management system – which also often operates as the “billing system” – and a consolidated reporting system. The sales teams will operate the sales processes and procedures within the CRM, creating and maintaining account and contact records, sales notes, campaigns, sales opportunities, and sometimes orders and contracts. When the sales process is complete, customer information is pushed into the exhibition management system for floorplan assignment and billing. Then it is all made accessible to exhibitors via an online portals, and in some cases, pushed to the finance system for consolidated financial reporting. 
When all three systems are configured properly and the systems integrations are in place, this type of multi-system environment can offer a lot of benefits. Although, many of the benefits can be directly correlated to the benefits of integration rather than the systems themselves. However, this does allow event businesses to adopt best of breed systems for each of these items; which allows for the businesses to take advantage of some nice user productivity features that sometimes are not available in vertical market CRM solutions. 
The downside of this approach is each of these systems uses a different database, created by different development teams, using different code bases, standards and methodologies which can sometimes become enormously complex and costly. It also means that users will also have to learn three different systems and three different user interfaces, causing things to become silo’d based on responsibilities. If this is not managed properly it can cause internal and external finger pointing when issues arise.
The other major consideration with a horizontal market CRM is critical nature of order changes. As most event businesses will attest to, a significant number of events have corrections or revisions from the client, requiring changes to the associated data back through the various systems used by different departments. Even with multiple API integrations in place, it’s nearly impossible to accurately automate data validation back and forth between these systems. 

A close up of a unified CRM system

In this use case, the systems that were made up of several software solutions above are all now ideally self-contained in a single database. This is the fundamental difference between best of breed systems and a unified solution. The connection of the CRM platform and electronic event file throughout the system allows it to accommodate the nature of shows and events.  This makes; booth applications, contracts, payment plans, floor plan placement, sales, operations, order validations and invoicing all accessible within the CRM system. If a change is made at any time in the event cycle, it can be automatically updated for every department, because the information flows from one central database to each business unit – sales, exhibition management, and potentially other departments as well.
Maximizing Your Event Sales Opportunities

Maximizing Event Sales Opportunities Using Your System

So which path should event business go down; vertical market CRM or horizontal market CRM? A fundamental question that may help with this decision is asking your staff how often they deal with changes, and how often they’re forced to double-check things.
Changes are much easier to deal with in a single database. When there are multiple systems and databases it becomes difficult for businesses to identify a single source of the truth. This leads to a lot of double-checking and uncertainty. If this already currently going on inside the business it’s likely that a single database (like that inside of a vertical market solution) would benefit many of your sales processes.
Having a single database allows exhibition businesses to provide sales force automation around some of their most important tasks. I’ve seen businesses with vertical solutions insert some dynamic business rules to mesh with their sales process. One example of a business rule could be; when it's time to renew a customer,  the CRM system automatically clones the customer from the previous year’s event and changes them from active in the database to a prospect for the new event. Businesses seeking this level of automation would likely be better aligned with event-industry-specific vertical market CRM solution. It would be extremely difficult to configure a best of breed solution to successfully automate all a large number of these types of rules.
Organizations that don’t require that level of automation and have very simple sales processes may find themselves better aligned to a horizontal system. As we discussed above, sales people typically aren’t overly fond of CRM systems, and if you don’t plan on using a lot of the data you collect it may be better for you to simply provide the best user experience for your sales team as possible. This means simply having a sales team that needs to track accounts, contacts, follow-ups, and non-specific opportunities. This is often all some of the smaller shows need, and the sales people are happy with it.

The final verdict

Both CRM systems offer potential benefits to event businesses depending on their sales processes and business needs. Horizontal market CRM systems can handle simplified sales processes for some businesses as long as there are limited changes in the sales process to orders and opportunities.  Unified event systems give organizations a greater ability to track various customers and their relationships with their stakeholders. The level of automation, tracking, reporting, and flexibility needed by your business will ultimately determine the best fit.

When exploring CRM choices it’s best to build a checklist of needs and requirements before conducting a search or requesting vendor demos. Once your checklist is complete you can begin searching for possible solutions. I would encourage most businesses to look at both types of systems up front. After determining which systems fit best on paper, set up demos with each and narrow your list further from there. Ultimately, you want to select a system that fits your business and can support all the exciting new goals you have planned for your sales team in 2016 and into the future.
We will continue in this series later in the month as we take a deeper look at maximizing your event sales opportunities.

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