A drive for competence in tech-conference booth-staff

Matt Simmons has had it up to here with booth-staff at technical conferences that don't know the products they're trying to sell. I totally know what he's talking about, if the person I'm talking to at a booth is only there to hand out glossy fliers and take my contact information so a sales engineer can call me next week, I wish I didn't bother stopping by. If I wanted to view their website, I'da, you know, viewed their website on my own time. I don't need a sales droid to hand me a printed out PDF. I want them to be able to answer technical questions about their products, that's why they're at a technical conference.

Another kind of problematic sales-staff is the person filling the role of Walmart Greeter. They're there to smile happily at you when you approach and forward you to someone who can answer all of your questions. Unless the booth in question is Walmart-scale, this role is largely unneeded. I appreciate the customer service touch of being warmly greeted, but it goes over a lot better for the vendor in question if my first contact can answer my questions.

The final problematic sales-staff person is the ostensible topic of Matt's post, the people that are there to act as a kind of live advertising poster for the booth. Frequently this role is shared with the Greeter, though not always. Sometimes you're fully expected to not talk to these people. They catch your eye because they're attractive, and in so doing you also get a view of the booth they're standing near. They might be in some kind of thematic costume (full HALO armor for Microsoft), or dressed provocatively (bikinis). As you walk right by them, you know they're not there to talk to you about product.

Matt's suggestion is to treat everyone in the booth as if they know what they're talking about, and to complain when you find someone that doesn't.

Very simple.

Some people are quite obviously part of the booth set, such as that HALO person hanging out by the XBOX display. Others, such as the rather attractive woman with a handful of bi-fold glossy pamphlets, aren't explicitly part of the scenery and should at least be able to field some technical questions. So ask them.

And yet, Matt is catching some grief in the comments section. More on that below the fold.

The comments come in a couple of types.

You can't change the sexual market-place so don't bother.

No, you can't change the sexual marketplace. But you can at least ensure that the people there to act as eye-candy can actually answer questions about the product in a meaningful way. Beautiful people who are also smart is a double-whammy for most tech-heads I know, and that is effective marketing.

Men like to look at hot women, so vendors will use hot women to get men into their booths. The dynamic goes back as long as advertising. You can't change that.

This assumes that your market is entirely male. It isn't.

In fact, such behavior can, and does, drive women away from these conferences. As more women get into technical fields, this starts becoming a problem for vendors as they alienate potential customers.

It's even worse internationally. You're not going to change that

Different countries have different cultural rules; again, nothing new there. And again, the more the expectation that booth-staff need to know about booth-product gets into the technical mind-share, the better off we all will be.

It's just advertising! You ignore advertising all the time. Why stop now?

Because by ignoring the eye-candy you also ignore the live woman standing there being ogled, possibly groped, and most definitely repeatedly propositioned. Treat them like a fully competent adult there to talk to you about product. For them it'll be a nice break from hearing, "Want to come back to my room? AHahahah." every 7 minutes.

Also, and Matt does go into this in the text of his post, ignoring those women gets you into the habit of equating beauty with lack of smarts. If someone looks too good, then obviously they're just a sales droid and don't know anything. That is a bad habit to get into, and it leaks into the rest of your life as well.

Such "advertising" is actually harmful, subversively so.


hey, thanks a lot for the support! You added some really great points. I've been really pleasantly surprised at the amount of emotion this is bringing out, both for and against. Getting people to recognize it and start talking is the only way to make a change.

Thanks again!

I certainly agree with you and will attempt to do this.
only challenge is that it has been a while since I've seen the blatant end of this, at least at the Canadian shows I've been to.

There are still the sales level people at the booths, but I've found they can be very useful at getting me basic over views, glossies when that is what I'm looking for, and directing me to the most appropriate tech for the questions I do have. I have also seen techs hand off people with non tech questions to the sales people to deal with (ex. licensing questions). So clearly there is a place for a sales 'droid' who can tell their products apart and be useful for the non-tech questions we may have. But like most things, they are best in moderation and I have taken offense with companies without any technical competence at a technical conference. We do need to be careful about pushing away useful tools just because we don't need them all the time, especially the ones that can keep our managers busy when they insist on joining us at these conferences.

The biggest issue I have seen is how other attendees interact with the few female IT professionals who do attend. Most of the guys are fairly nice and respectful, but there are still too many who will actually push a female out of the way(step on even) or directly ask 'why are you here?' in that condescending voice & expression that says she doesn't belong. Very much another symptom of the same root sexism problem we are trying to work against. I will defend such abused females as needed, but usually its been to just back her up with 'hey buster, you heard the lady, or do you have a defect hearing some humans?' for those few times they didn't get her message the first time.

Respect, takes strength to stand up with it. Keep it up.