At Seattle-area home shows, Karl Dropping has seen remodelers in their exhibit booths playing video games, their backs to attendees; or hunched over their lunches, food spread out among their business cards; or clustered in bunches, all but blocking people from approaching.

No wonder most remodeling companies limp away from home shows with little more than blisters on their feet and a bad taste in their mouths. But Dropping routinely wraps up such events with detailed information about 35 to 40 qualified prospects who go on to do projects worth $1 million or more with his company, Norsk Remodeling, Redmond, Wash.

NEW ATTITUDES Why does Norsk succeed at home shows where so many other remodelers fail? Some reasons are a function of its size; with $10 million in revenue, the company has the resources to invest $150,000 on a 600-square-foot exhibit space that it staffs at four major shows each year.

Beyond its deep pockets, however, much of the company's home-show success reflects attitudes and behaviors that companies of any size can adapt. A few key tenets:

Relationships, not sales. People don't go to home shows to find contractors, especially in upscale markets, Dropping says. “They go looking for ideas.” Rather than focusing on sales, Norsk creates an engaging space that draws in attendees. Staff then engage them in friendly chats that subtly qualify a selective few.

Idea center. Why rent a generic booth when you can build a mini-project? (See photo.) If you can't do a project, post a few large, high-quality project photos instead of a bunch of small ones, Dropping says. Lay out portfolio albums that people can flip through for more examples.

Norsk Remodeling's exhibit space features two kitchens ó one modern, one  traditional ó that showcase brand-new products loaned by its suppliers.
Norsk Remodeling Norsk Remodeling's exhibit space features two kitchens ó one modern, one traditional ó that showcase brand-new products loaned by its suppliers.

Qualifying questions. Never ask, “Can I answer any questions?”; it's a conversation-killer and makes people feel pressured. Dropping advises instead asking an open-ended question about what brought them by or what type of project they're interested in. Then start qualifying them and, if their location and other factors are a match, ask if they would like to know how your company works. “Always ask permission,” Dropping says. It's another subtle way to build trust and make clients feel comfortable.

Next step. Norsk Remodeling's staff explains that the next step is typically to take a look at the project. They then ask if that is something the prospect would like to do. If the prospects seem amenable, they're slid a notebook with client information forms to complete — or not. Be alert to body language: If prospects seem uncomfortable, stop them and say you'll get the remaining information later.

Follow-up. Set aside time the week after the show to discuss who in your company will contact which prospects. Call within a few days, and if two or three phone calls go unanswered, send them a friendly letter.

Consider also how you can bring people into your booth in the first place. Norsk Remodeling sends letters offering to comp clients and prospects on home-show admission. But even attendees who weren't already in the company's database have probably seen its vehicles, job signs, ads, Web site, or projects. Multiple “touch points” throughout the year make people more inclined to stop by and say hello, Dropping says.

Study Hall

Don't exhibit at home shows unprepared. Norsk Remodeling's staff can speak knowledgeably about the company's process and every product in their booth. They know the other exhibitors and helpfully refer people elsewhere when relevant. They even practice their “game face”: a friendly, open expression that makes them approachable. “It's better to be talking to somebody than to nobody,” Dropping says. “People will bring in others.”

More booth rules: No eating. Never sit down, unless it's on an eye-level chair. Avoid “coffee klatching” with colleagues. Never block the entrance or force people to stand in the aisle.