Making Small Talk Big

The single most important event in the sales process is the first face-to-face meeting with a new prospective client. If you think about it, the beginning of the most important event in the sales process is a big moment. Do you really want to burn it talking about the weather?

small-talkSmall talk, the ritualistic chat that occurs at the beginning of any meeting, is often about the weather, your trip from the airport, or the local sports team’s recent success or failure.

The single most important event in the sales process is the first face-to-face meeting with a new prospective client. If you think about it, the beginning of the most important event in the sales process is a big moment. Do you really want to burn it talking about the weather?

The ultimate strategic goal of a sales meeting with a client prospect is to be useful to the person sitting in front of you. There are ways to be deliberate and strategic about small talk in those big opening moments so it serves as more than just idle chatter.

So how does the age-old human custom of small talk fit into your being useful?

Small talk: a story

In the final month before I left my sales job in the banking industry, I was handing off my clients to Karl, my replacement. Karl and I traveled from Boston to meet David, the CFO of a large real estate company in Chicago. Seated in David’s office, we were waiting for him to arrive. He strode in ten minutes later and said,

”Sorry I’m late, I just got back from vacation, and there is a lot going on today.”

Karl says, ”Where did you go on vacation?”

David looks at Karl quizzically. (They have yet to even be introduced.) “We have a house a couple of hours north of here in the Michigan lakes area.”

“My wife is from Michigan,” says Karl, “We vacation in the Michigan lakes every summer.”

And then a conversation breaks out about this golf course and that renovated hotel — a conversation that I don’t participate in at all. And even though the point was to connect David and Karl, and that was exactly what was happening, I still remember sitting there feeling left out of their animated chat.

Small talk and being useful

To be useful you need to be able to dig into and understand your client’s situation. In order for you to dig, the person sitting in front of you has to be willing to answer the questions you ask. For that, you need credibility.

And small talk, if you’re just a little bit deliberate, can influence your credibility. In Never Be Closing we discuss three routes to credibility: shared community, professional process/protocol, and expertise/experience/knowledge.

Within seconds of meeting David, Karl was able to access a shared community; to connect with David around a mutual vacation spot. Was that enough to get him credibility? More specifically, was that connection enough that David would be willing to answer the questions Karl needed to ask to figure out how to be useful; questions about what was going on at David’s company right now?

The answer to that question depends on David and his approach to understanding people and situations. For some people, a sense of shared community provides enough comfort and credibility that they’ll happily move to the exploration part of the meeting. In any event, it was pretty clear that the shared community Karl discovered certainly didn’t hurt.

And yes, Karl was a little bit lucky. But, he wouldn’t have been lucky at all if he hadn’t paid attention, asked about what he was curious about, and disclosed his own connection to the Michigan lakes.

Karl made small talk big. Here are the small talk habits he practiced that increase the opportunities for connections to happen.

Five Steps to Making Small Talk Big

1. Follow your curiosity. Focus on what you are genuinely interested in. In the lobby, waiting area, or your client’s office, look at the walls. See what’s around you that piques your interest. The photo of the ribbon cutting? The artwork in the lobby? The trophy in the glass case? Authentic connection begins with authentic curiosity.

Find something you’re curious about, and…

2. Ask. Karl asked David where he went on vacation. Karl wouldn’t have had the chance to be lucky if he hadn’t asked the question.

Make it a habit to ask questions that aren’t about business, and to…

3. Make it Personal. It might be your only chance to access information about your client prospect that’s outside of their work role. Don’t waste that time talking about the weather and the traffic.

By making the small talk more personal, Karl was able to…

4. Disclose. When you tell something about yourself, it offers the person you’re talking to an opportunity to make a connection to you. Disclosure invites disclosure. Tell something about you, and you create space for your client to find shared community. Karl did both. He asked where David vacationed, and he disclosed his connection to Michigan’s lakes.

And, time is short so…

5. Start right away. The moment you enter your client’s building, start noticing what topics grab your interest. Small talk usually lasts for less than ten minutes, and begins when someone comes to the waiting area to meet you. Often, that person will be a part of the meeting you’re about to have. There are a multitude of conversation starters if you pay attention to what’s around you, and what’s happening.


When you know why you’re engaging in it and how it can help you run a more effective meeting, the habits that make small talk even more useful are simple and obvious. How simple and obvious? It boils down to this:

Ask right away about anything you see that you are curious about. And then explain why you’re curious about it.

By asking about what you are authentically curious about, and disclosing why you’re curious, you can find connections, access shared community, and build credibility. Credibility gets you to the next step in the meeting process. When your client will answer the questions you ask. Will effective small talk always get you credibility? Not necessarily, but it will happen a lot more if you are deliberate about trying.

The ideas from this post come from Tim and Tim’s book Never Be Closing.

More on Taking Notes

The face-to-face client meeting is the most important piece of the sales process. Capturing everything you can from that meeting fuels the future of the relationship.

PencilsBlogIn our previous post we introduced some thoughts from Never Be Closing and The Mom Test, about taking notes in a sales meeting.

If you’ve ever tried to decipher your notes after a meeting, you’ll know why this topic is relevant. The face-to-face client meeting is the most important piece of the sales process. Capturing everything you can from that meeting fuels the future of the relationship.

You have to take notes in a meeting so you can mine what you learned in the meeting to build the relationship. It takes a certain skill to conduct a useful conversation, and capture anything useful that surfaces in that conversation.

Our last post gave some key ideas around how to record more information with fewer strokes of the pen (by using Q-notes and symbols), so you can pay attention to your client and not your notebook. Here are some other thoughts on note-taking that we culled from the two books.

Go to meetings in twos. One can take notes, writing as much as necessary, while the other conducts the conversation. The note taker can also be thinking, to make sure important threads in the conversation get followed through.

Capture direct quotes, says The Mom Test. They can be powerful descriptions of your product or service that you wouldn’t think of yourself.

Use emoticons to capture the emotion of the person as he or she said what they said. Angry, excited or blasé; the emotion (or lack of it) with which something is said, is information. How people feel is sometimes more useful than what they say.

Always debrief the meeting notes afterward with your team. Always.

And it goes without saying: Always take notes. Good luck!

Taking Notes in a Client Meeting

306cdebe-31af-4f82-9689-d4794266688cRob Fitz’s book, The Mom Test, was recommended by a friend, who is the CTO of a financial startup. It’s essentially a book about sales conversations for startup entrepreneurs. The Mom Test explains to an entrepreneur how to have a conversation with potential future customers; a conversation that truly allows you to validate (or disqualify) your startup idea. In the preview of the book the author says one of the topics he’ll cover is how to take notes in a meeting while still paying attention.

Naturally, our first thought was, “Rob Fitz has stolen our idea!” How to take notes in a meeting and still have a conversation is a Never Be Closing idea. We talk about how to effectively take notes in a meeting. We haven’t seen anyone else write about it — until Rob Fitz.

Rob’s book is really useful if you have a startup idea you want to vet. One must read to the end of The Mom Test to find out Rob’s technique on the how-to-take-notes question. Although Rob’s technique is different than ours, the premise for why and how to take notes is the same. Since it’s not easy to write down the answer to one question while asking another, the premise for effective note taking in a meeting is this: write as little as possible and have it mean as much as possible.

Rob’s technique to do this is to use a series of symbols that replace words one uses often; shorthand headings really, to help you understand and navigate your notes. Here are Rob’s symbols.

[Z-symbol for lightning bolt] Pain or problem

Π Goal or job-to-be-done (symbol is a soccer/football goal)

☐ Obstacle


⤴ Workaround

^ Background or context (symbol is a distant mountain)

☑ Feature request or purchasing criteria

$ Money or budgets or purchasing process

♀ Mentioned a specific person or company

☆ Follow-up task

Never Be Closing suggests a different technique: organizing your notes spatially on the page, by quadrant. We call it Q-notes. You write different categories of notes in different quadrants. Q-notes works like this:

The upper left quadrant is areas to explore further in the meeting- Questions. (Rob’s first four symbols might fit there.)

The lower left quadrant is information you want to remember but won’t explore further in the meeting. (Rob’s next four symbols fit there.)

The lower right quadrant is for follow-up items, Rob’s last symbol.

The upper right quadrant in the Q-notes format is the ideas you have to deliver value to your client; transmitted at the end of the meeting. (Rob’s book is more about exploratory sales conversations, finding out if someone would truly buy your future product or service. Delivering value today to your client isn’t featured in his thinking.)

The top half of your page is for use during the meeting, and the bottom half of your page is for your use after the meeting.

If you know that everything you write in the upper left quadrant of your page is a question you want to ask during the meeting, you can write less and still decipher what you wrote and what it means.

The two methods taken together allow you to capture even more information while paying attention to your future customer instead of your own scribbling. With a little practice, you can make a note (and a symbol) in a quadrant of your page and never break eye contact with your client.

Good luck!

Pest or Perseverance

When you call a prospective client to request a meeting for the first time, the primary rule is, have something useful to say. That’s the legwork that makes a cold call less chilly.

perseveranceWhen you call a prospective client to request a meeting for the first time, the primary rule is, have something useful to say. It’s data they might be interested in. It’s a transaction that is similar to one they did or might do. It’s a problem they might share, that you’ve already solved. It’s data information or research that might be relevant, or it’s how you are connected or linked to them. (It’s also best if you can pre-deliver this info.) That’s the legwork that makes a cold call less chilly.

Once you know what you are going to say that’s either potentially useful to them, or connects you to them (or both), then you’re ready to call.

Before you call take five minutes to practice what you want to say and how you want to say it. Write it down. Read it. Say it. Say it without reading it, from memory. Then get your calendar, a pen, and we suggest making the call in the morning. (But that depends on you and, something that’s difficult to know at this point, how they use their day.)

“Hi Jon, this is Tim Wills at Berenger. I know you through Bill Stern at the K of C Club. Berenger developed a new add-on to our product that you should know is out there. I’m going to be in St Louis in three weeks. Can we meet for 30 minutes?”

When Jon says “yes,” make the date and get off the phone. Your goal is to meet your new client face to face. Save your ideas and thoughts for the meeting itself when you are better prepared.

The chances you get Jon on your first try are pretty slim. Even after eight bounces to voicemail, assume that every call you make will be the one that is picked up by your client prospect. Even on your ninth call, you still do a quick in-your-head rehearsal. And, you haven’t left eight messages, especially on voice mail. That’s a great way to lower yourself to pest status. You might have left one or two so your client knows you are calling to set up a meeting, delivering on the promise you made in your initial correspondence.

Preparing to make the meeting request call is one of the differences between being a pest and persevering.

Good Luck!

The Cold (Call) War

Is cold calling a necessary part of being a salesperson? Or should a good salesperson never be cold calling? The battle continues because the answer is contextual. Whether cold calling is useful depends on your situation, your industry and your product.

coldcallThe battle over cold calling rages on.

Is cold calling a necessary part of being a salesperson? Or should a good salesperson never be cold calling?

The battle continues because the answer is contextual. Both of the above statements are true, depending on context. Whether cold calling is useful depends on your situation, your industry and your product.

Cold calling is a viable option if the following criteria are met.

  1. There are many potential buyers of your product. Many means many, like nearly everyone — examples are insurance and shoes.
  2. The opportunity cost to a ‘no’ to your request, whether that request is for a meeting or to actually buy your product, is low. In other words you don’t really care if they say no, presumably because there are many more folks out there whom you can find. As an example, you have a hundred more names on a list of people who clicked a web link identifying their interest in Florida real estate, and that happens to be what you’re selling.
  3. There are many routes into a client organization. If you are selling facilitation services to run meetings more effectively, any departmental manager could use your services. If one manager at Aquacorp says no, you are not closed out from calling on another.
  4. Your pitch can outline a need quickly. People have to get it. And to get it, the problem your product solves must be universally understood. “Tired of sewing patches on the ripped knees of your children’s pants? Toughskins will outlast any other pair of pants.” Parents who have that problem get it right away. (Still, my brothers and I wore a lot of holes in the knees of Toughskin jeans.)

Another way to think about it is the reverse. Would you be disappointed if the person on the other end of the phone said no to your request? If the answer is ‘yes,’ then don’t cold call.