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updated 1/28/2013 11:19:56 AM ET 2013-01-28T16:19:56

The North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) rolled into Detroit this week and turned its high beams on one of the country's largest industries. From electric to hybrid, high-performance to utility, the best ideas in motor vehicles drew hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts to the show, which is open to the public through Sunday January 27.

While automotive companies are large-scale businesses with large-scale marketing budgets, the customer engagement techniques they used are appropriate for small businesses, too -- on or off the trade show floor.

"The single most important element in effective marketing is the story -- people love to hear stories," says David Varady, chief marketing officer of EEI Global, a Rochester Hills, Mich-based marketing firm that designs and implements trade show displays for companies such as BMW and Mini Cooper. "If you can engage customers with the story of your brand, success will come much easier." 

Related: How to Add Personality to Your Loyalty Program

Here are four lessons in customer engagement that entrepreneurs can learn from the Auto Show:

1. Make existing customers feel valued. At the auto show, some carmakers had special swag and even a private lounge for their current customers. These show-goers were treated like celebrities within the display space. Recognizing and rewarding existing customers is an approach that can and should be used every day in business. 

"The hospitality mindset is big in Europe and is gaining traction here," says Varady. "Existing customers are considered guests and they are treated as such. The result is that they often become brand ambassadors."

2. Train employees to be brand experts. Auto show models aren't there just to look good -- they're the face and voice of the brand. Sharing stats such as miles per gallon and torque engine specs, each demonstrated a full understanding of the vehicle they represented. Small-business owners should also be sure their employees are prepared to represents their brand.

"A lot of money, time and effort can go into creating an exhibit space or marketing piece," says Varady. "Your staff can negate the customer experience, however, if they're not prepared or if they're interacting with guests in a way that's inappropriate with your brand. Taking enough time to prepare your staff is an often overlooked step for business owners, but it's a big mistake."

3. Make your business an oasis for customers. Trade shows are often littered with brochures and flyers. At the NAIAS, however, most literature was passed out only by request or sent electronically via computer kiosks. What was abundant were charging stations and seating. This valuable "gift" meant show-goers spent more time in the area.

"When you provide a service or convenience, you provide an oasis in a sea of madness -- and that can be more valuable than a brochure," says Varady. "People have a tendency to put up barriers if it looks like sharks are hovering, waiting for next prospect. Instead, create an intriguing, welcoming environment that includes elements of self-discovery such as informational kiosks. Customers will discover more about you on their own."

Related: 4 Marketing Hazards to Avoid

4. Do something unexpected. Chevrolet hasn't released a Stingray model of its Corvette since 1976, so the redesign of the classic drew crowds on a recent visit. Many of the attendees were surprised that the display model was dark gray and not red, but the unexpected color choice had the crowd talking even more.

"Trade show 101 is to surprise and delight," says Varady. Whether at a trade show, on your own sales floor, or online, think about what your customers have seen a million times and turn it on its ear. "This could be something as simple as offering a lack of sales pressure or it could be an elaborate display. When done effectively, it will elicit word of mouth," he says. "People have the power not to just consume content these days; they have the power to distribute it, too.”
 

Copyright © 2013 Entrepreneur.com, Inc.

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