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.

Making Initial Contact

Once you have at least a loose connection to your prospective client, you need to communicate it to your client, so when you call and ask for an opportunity to meet them, they already know who you are and how you’re connected to them…

Employing the Loose Connection

connection
Loose connections may be a nightmare for an electrician, but they are wonderful for sales people. If you want to get a yes to your request for a meeting, it’s useful if you’ve found a connection you share with your client, and even better if they know what that connection is. That’s what this post is about — activating the connection you’ve found.

The process for activating your loose connection is important. Use two separate communication methods (a belt and suspenders strategy is usually enough to ensure that the message gets through). Your email might go to a spam folder, your phone message will likely be listened to, a handwritten note might end up in the circular file, but it will probably be read. Send two types of missives, a call and a note, a call and an email, an email and a note, or an email from someone they know, then an email from you.

The content of your initial message explains who you are, the connection you have to them, and either asks for a meeting or says you’ll be calling to ask for one in the next week. If it’s an email, it’s less than a hundred words.

Your note, email and/or message might say, for example, “ Hi I’m Mary Snell at Berklee. I saw you speak on a panel at the user conference last week. I asked you the question about advanced interfaces [reference to how you’re connected]. I’d be pleased to get together with you and talk about whether working together might benefit us both. I’ll give you a call in the next week [and you do call in next week] to set up a time that works for you if you’re willing. Thanks.”

You can decide if this is better than the unconnected alternative: “ Hi I’m Mary Snell from Berklee. I’d love to get together with you and talk about whether working together might benefit us both. I’ll call you this week to set up a time if you’re willing. Thanks.”

You’ve found the connection to your prospective client. You communicated that connection so they know how they’re connected to you. Our next post will talk about the call for the meeting request; what you say and how you say it.

Finding the Loose Connection

Getting a “yes” rather than a “no” to a meeting request usually requires just one thing: a connection, however loose, between you and your prospect. Establish some connection, any connection, and your request for a meeting will usually be answered affirmatively.

… and Getting Yourself a “Yes”

switchboardYou pick up the phone — to call a prospective client with whom you’ve wanted to meet for a while. Today feels like the day. You make the call, get them on the line, and ask if you can come by their office for a meeting.

They say, “No thanks.”

Once a prospective client has said “no” to your request for a meeting, it’s even more difficult to get a “yes” later. You’ve already been disqualified. Getting a “no” switched to a “yes” is like getting someone to add an item to their to-do list that they’ve already crossed off. They disqualified you. From their perspective, that was progress. Getting an initial “no” is a situation to be avoided.

How might you increase the odds of a “yes” when you make that call?

Getting a “yes” rather than a “no” to a meeting request usually requires just one thing: a connection, however loose, between you and your prospect. Establish some connection, any connection, and your request for a meeting will usually be answered affirmatively.

What do we mean by connection? Here’s a list of reasons people are more likely to say yes to your request for a meeting. (Lists are useful to spark creative thinking.) When you read the list, let your brain make a creative connection — in this case a connection to a connection you may have to your client. (These are loosely ordered, starting with the strongest connections first.)

Network
  1. Someone your client knows referred you, especially if they sent an email saying so first. (This is gold.)
  2. You share a professional network. Someone in your company knows someone in theirs.
  3. You work with a well-known individual (or company or entity). For example if your clients are scientists, and the National Science Foundation is a client of yours, this is often enough of a connection to get a yes.
  4. You are connected to people who might be useful to them, service providers, researchers.
  5. You know people in common outside of work, through a club, a sport a hobby, or simple geography.
Your Company
  1. You can execute demonstrably faster or better than your competitors, and this might matter to your prospect.
  2. You have new capabilities of which your prospective client is unaware, which they might be able to profit from.
Your Business Knowledge
  1. You offer interesting insights into your client’s business.
  2. You have intelligence relevant to an initiative your client is undertaking.
  3. You work with companies in their supply or delivery chain, (and sometimes even a company who is a competitor.)
  4. You have specific experience in a niche they occupy.
  5. You can point to specific tricky problems that you solved with your creative and innovative capacity.
Serendipity
  1. You are going to be in their neighborhood or city.

Find a connection. Once you have a connection, we’ll tell you in the next post, how to employ that connection to get a yes to your request.

Hitting your (Sales) Target

You go into your meeting and you think, “I’ve got to make that sale.” That’s like sighting in on the bullseye and forgetting about gravity. You have a good chance of ending up in the dirt, 30 meters short of your goal.

arrow-targetEveryone who’s ever been in a selling situation wants to make the sale, close the deal, rack up those bonus points. But sometimes, in our effort to close the deal—to score—we may be aiming at the wrong thing.

Imagine you’re an archer aiming for a target 150 meters downfield. You draw your bow with all your strength, aim dead center at the bullseye, and let ’er fly. About two-thirds of the way down the range, your arrow lands neatly in the grass. As true as your aim seemed to be, gravity pulled your arrow down. You didn’t even reach the target, let alone score a bullseye.

It’s like that in sales too — if you’re only focusing on the sale itself.

But what if you focus higher — on the relationship. Then, like an archer aiming above the target, the track of your arrow forms a perfect arc and thwangs into the bullseye. In fact, the only way to consistently hit the bullseye is to aim above it.

It’s the same with sales. You go into your meeting and you think, “I’ve got to make that sale. That’s what I’m here to do, and that’s what I’m going to do.” That’s like sighting in on the bullseye and forgetting about gravity. You have a good chance of ending up in the dirt, 30 meters short of your goal.

If, instead of focusing all your energy on closing, you focus it on developing a relationship by being truly useful to your potential client, your arrow is more likely to arc smoothly into the bullseye.

Will you score a bullseye every time? Of course not. But your winning shots will be higher — much higher. And here’s the fun part: By aiming at the relationship instead of the sale, you’ll have a much better chance not only of closing this deal, but the one after that and the one after that and the one after that.

So if you want to hit the bullseye, aim above it.