It’s January! For many of us that means the trade show circuit is ramping up. Trade shows are a great way for a savvy end user to start shopping for a software product. After all, that’s what trade shows are all about. They give a savvy buyer an opportunity to compare a sampling of products against their core requirements and talk to a variety of vendors about their approach to quality, and their vision for the industry.

I enjoy trade shows as a way to meet customers, hear about new solutions, and mingle with our valued industry partners, but attending a big trade show isn’t necessarily all fun and games. That’s certainly true for digital signage and retail technology trade shows which seem to attract a wide range of vendors with vastly different approaches and varied skill sets. When exhibitors are all talking about new technology and using a lot of industry jargon it’s no surprise that it can get a little confusing. They can leave an ill prepared attendee more bewildered than when they arrived. When you add to the mix a range of dazzling lights and sounds, and the over-the-top displays, it’s enough to make anyone’s head spin.

We’ve seen this before and, if you’re willing to take our advice, our team of experts at ScreenScape are here to help. If you’re looking for a quality software product from a quality vendor but you can’t seem to tell one exhibitor’s sales pitch from the next, here are some simple but helpful tips to help you cut through all the flashiness, separate fact from fiction, and make your next trade show visit much more productive.

1. Identify what you’re looking for in a software product in advance. Know thy requirements.

You’d be surprised how many business customers go to trade shows with only a vague idea of what they are looking for in a product. Before you attend, make a list. Keep an open mind as you see and learn new approaches on the trade show floor while cross-referencing what you see and hear with your stated list of core requirements.

Some questions you might want to ask when sizing up a software product are:

  • Does the product meet my list of requirements? If so, how?
  • When was the last release and what was in it? What is your product roadmap? Features? Expected release dates?
  • How flexible is the solution? How scalable?
  • How easy or hard is the solution to deploy? to configure, to use?

2. Identify what you’re looking for in a vendor

Having a product that shows well is one thing … but what about the organizational depth of the vendor? There a few great software companies out there. Unfortunately there’s also a lot that simply aren’t at all what they seem to be. Some can’t even afford to maintain their own solution! The truth is … if you are buying a high tech product you can bet that the technology is going to change substantially over time and this means you’re not just buying the product … you’re investing in a long term relationship with the vendor as well. There are a lot of technology vendors out there that don’t have the technical chops to keep up with their own product let alone changes in the industry and related technologies. Some questions you might want to ask to size up the vendor are:

  • How long have you been in business?
  • How many developers do you have on staff?
  • How much money do you invest in engineering as a percentage of your overall budget?
  • What is your support policy?
  • What are your terms of service?

3. Ask for a live demo. Is this the product that is readily available today?
Believe it or not a lot of software vendors can’t give you a bona fide live demo on the spot. They might try to show you a video instead. They might say something like they need to book an appointment, or they need to get one of their sales engineers to lead the demo. In this day and age, these could be red flags. If the software isn’t easy enough for the salesperson to demo spontaneously it might be because it’s either too complicated or not quite what the salesperson is selling. If you do get a demonstration, you may want to ask:

  • Is this a live demo?
  • Is this a test system?
  • Is this exactly what I’d see if I bought the software today?
  • Do I need anything else to do this, as you’ve demonstrated?

4. Ask about the fees!

If you do like what you see in a product, and in a vendor, you might want to ask about fees to try to get a better feel for the big picture solution they are presenting. Not just software licensing fees but the total costs that a buyer should consider when building a business case in support of a decision to buy a complete, long term solution. A few simple questions can reveal complicated license fees, hidden costs like maintenance fees, professional services fees, content fees, hosting fees, and so on and so on! Sometimes a vendor might price their software below sustainable levels and use hidden extras to back-door a customer into what is actually an expensive model.
5. Don’t be distracted by bells & whistles!

When it comes to trade shows you can bet you’ll see lots of new and so-called buzzworthy new announcements. The digital signage arena is such a “big tent” you might hear of all kinds of new technologies that are supposed “game changers”. Once in a while that happens. But 95% of the time these bells and whistles are simply red herrings. Peripheral stuff, while interesting, is not as important as the core needs of a solid digital signage solution. Think in terms of affordability, ease of use, security, stability, reliability, and scalability. If the bells and whistles aren’t on your core requirements list treat them as a distraction. They might even be obscuring your view of the fundamentals for building an effective solution.