Perhaps the single most important selling medium available to small companies is the trade show -- which makes you wonder why so many of them use it as everything but an opportunity to sell. Ask 10 different companies why they attend trade shows, and you'll likely get 10 different answers: image, contact with customers, getting a sense of the market, and so on. Almost as an afterthought, they will add "generating leads."

That makes for a lot of futile activity: a company that does not come to sell rarely winds up doing very much selling. "Too many companies attend a show and wait for something to happen," notes Allen Konopacki, a leading trade show sales trainer. "No objectives have been set. They're not really sure why they're standing in this mass of people, other than the fact that their competitors are in the next booth. Without selling objectives, they get very symbolic. They give away visors and bags. They hire a woman in a bathing suit to pass out brochures. That has nothing to do with the purpose of trade shows, which is to find qualified prospects for your products and services."

This is not to deny that trade shows offer other opportunities as well -- to create an industry presence, to build an image -- but those are ancillary benefits. "Unless you try to generate leads from a trade show, the medium is inefficient," says Konopacki. "You spend thousands of dollars for a onetime exposure to an audience. That's like buying one television ad and expecting your message to be heard by every person in your target group."

On the other hand, trade shows can be extraordinarily efficient for identifying prospective customers and making sales, provided you keep those purposes in mind and prepare accordingly. That means asking yourself certain key questions long before you set foot on the trade show floor:

* Do you know why you're going? Before you can sell effectively, you have to know whom you want to sell to, and why. You need a strategy that identifies market segments, targets potential customers, and allows you to integrate the trade show with your other marketing efforts -- direct mail, telemarketing, advertising, and public relations. All this may seem obvious, but a surprising number of companies try to wing it at a trade show, and wind up getting lost in the clutter.

* Are you sure you've got the right trade show? Picking the right show is harder than it used to be, if only because there are many more to choose from. Last year, more than 9,000 exhibitions were held in the United States, up from 4,500 in 1978. To be sure, some industries are still dominated by a single national trade show: if you're selling to restaurants, for example, you'd be well advised to go to the popular National Restaurant Association's trade show.But what about the increasingly popular regional trade shows? Are they worth the time and expense?

The answer depends on your overall marketing strategy. Three years ago, for example, Unadulterated Food Products Inc., in Ridgewood, N.Y., decided to get its Snapple beverages into chain supermarkets. For distribution, it targeted beer wholesalers, which were suffering from the general decline in alcohol sales, and were looking for new products. So UFP began attending regional and national beer wholesalers' meetings, eventually signing up more than 170 distributors.

Strategy aside, it helps to have solid advance information about a show: the number of attendees, their positions in their respective companies, their purchasing influence. Unfortunately, few shows are formally audited by independent agencies, and the data provided by trade show management firms leave much to the imagination. Of course, you can always hire a marketing research firm to do an audit, as some Fortune 500 companies do, but that's beyond the means of most small companies.

The alternative is to do the legwork yourself. Armor Elevator Co., based in Louisville, exhibits at 3 major national trade shows and 15 other smaller shows each year. Before adding a show to its roster, the company sends a representative, a year in advance, to do an on-the-scene evaluation -- getting attendance breakdowns, talking to exhibitors and attendees. "It's too risky to go into a show with only a little information about who'll be there," says Marjorie Floyd, Armor's marketing services manager. "If the people who go to a show can't buy your product, it doesn't make sense for you to go."

* Do your customers and prospects know you're going to be there? If they don't, they may not find you. "When you rent exhibit space, you're essentially leasing a space in a shopping mall," notes Konopacki. "If you opened a store in a mall, you'd expect to do advertising and promotion to get people in the door. The same is true at a trade show."

It's particularly true if you are attending a major show for the first time, because you're liable to wind up off in a corner somewhere. At his first National Restaurant Association show, in 1980, Guy Kitchens of Royer Corp., in Madison, Ind., found himself next to the garbage cans. He has since cajoled the show management into giving him a better location, but he learned his lesson. Nowadays, Royer's salespeople prepare for the show by sending personal letters to prospective buyers of its custom-designed plastic name badges and swizzle sticks, and then following up with phone calls. The company also notifies current customers of its booth location with stickers on every mailing that leaves the company two months prior to the show.

Joe Gantz, president of Empire Brushes Inc., in Greenville, N.C., goes a step further, setting up appointments with key buyers weeks before the National Housewares Manufacturers Association's show. "It's hard for them to plan their time," he says, "but if you don't try to do it before the show, you may miss them there."

* Do you have specific, realistic objectives? If your goal is to generate 1,000 leads at a single show, don't be surprised if you fail. In a 10' X 10' booth, you might make eight contacts an hour. That adds up to about 180 people over the course of a two-and-a-half-day show.

The trick, of course, is to come up with challenging but reachable objectives. Armor Elevator, for example, set out to sign up two additional distributors at the 1985 exhibition of the National Association of Elevator Contractors. "That may not sound like much, but -- in our business -- it was a hefty goal, and we met it," says Floyd. "It helped all of us working in the booth to have the objective in mind." Guerdon Industries Inc., a Denver mobile-home manufacturer, asks its salespeople to set individual sales goals for trade shows. "It gives them more motivation to hit a target," says David Fuller, Guerdon's product-design manager.

If you go into a trade show with reasonable expectations, moreover, you come out in a much better position to assess the results. At LK Manufacturing Corp., a Westbury, N.Y., housewares manufacturer, president Robert Lutzker sets sales projections for new products based on their initial acceptance at the housewares show. "Knowing a show is coming gives me focus for the business," he says. "It's a regular event in the life of our company, one of the few things I can count on."

* Are your people adequately prepared? In order to reach your objectives, you need a strategy that your booth personnel understand. Guy Kitchens, for one, spends the day before the National Restaurant Association's show in caucus with Royer's sales staff about their show goals. "If everybody's delivering the same message in the booth, we have a more successful show," he says.

Trade show marketing planner Robert Francisco suggests assembling a preshow bulletin including your selling objectives; a selling scenario, complete with dialogue; the layout of the booth; and all preshow customer mailings. "Distribute it to everyone who will be in the booth a month before the show, to get them thinking about it," he advises. "And break down the costs of attending the show. If you let your people know how expensive the show is, and how important it may be to the company, they will take it more seriously."

Michael's of Oregon Co., a manufacturer of shooting accessories, provides its booth personnel with advance information on competing products. "We want everyone to know what they're up against, particularly at a trade show, where they're surrounded by the competition," says Jack Durrett, the company's vice-president for marketing.

Above all, you should be sure that your people understand what they're selling. According to the Trade Show Bureau, a recent study found that the major complaint of attendees is that booth personnel don't know enough about their companies' products and can't demonstrate them on the spot. Michael's of Oregon addresses that problem at a meeting the day before a show, during which Durrett and others demonstrate new products, talk about industry conditions, and go over the company's objectives. Then, at the end of the first selling day, the group meets again to discuss and refine the sales pitch.

* Are you ready to follow up? A successful trade show is an exhausting experience. After spending nine hours on the floor, the show team can usually look forward to an evening of entertaining important customers and prospects. To combat fatigue, large corporations rotate their staff during the day. Unfortunately, that is a luxury few small companies enjoy.

The good news is that trade shows seldom last more than two or three days. The bad news is that the work doesn't end there. To make the most of your trade show investment, you have to follow up right away. Some companies even bring direct-mail pieces to the show and send them out so that a prospect will have the information waiting on his desk when he returns. So there is no rest for the weary. "Don't plan a vacation right after a show," says Konopacki. "You'll probably need one, but it's the wrong time to leave."