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.

Why a Sales Conversation is Different from a Normal Conversation

conversationA good sales conversation involves the salesperson asking questions. As you listen to your client answer the questions you ask, your brain will give you ideas about how you might help. In a typical conversation, you’d probably offer these ideas as they occurred to you. In a good sales conversation with a client, we suggest you don’t say your ideas as they occur to you. You wait. You stay in the question. In this way, a good client conversation actually modifies the natural conversation process slightly. Here’s why.

1. Once you start talking about your idea, especially if you only have one, and double especially if it relates to your product, it’s hard not to defend it. And defending your product or idea at the beginning of a meeting is not a good start to a productive sales conversation.

2. At the end of the meeting you are most informed. An idea you had early in the meeting will get better (or discarded) as you learn more from your client.

3. It’s a powerful dynamic to summarize, at the end of a meeting, all the ideas you have to help your client (not just those linked to your product). It shows you listened with them in mind, throughout the whole meeting. It illustrates your potential value on many levels.

It takes practice to modify your normal conversational method; to not interject your ideas; to hold them until the end. Here are some conversation modification tips to help you stay in the question.

1. Look for and ask open–ended ‘How to…’ or ‘How might you…’ questions. ‘What might be all the ways…’ is another nice stem. These are open-ended questions that leave space for lots of answers and conjecture.

2. ‘Can you tell me more about…’ is a great starter to keep you in the question. (Ok, it’s technically a yes or no question, but it works like an open ended one. If the answer is ‘yes’, folks will usually go ahead and tell you more about it.)

3. Often you’ll have an idea or an answer jumping to get out of your head. You want to say, “You should expand to the south?” It’s hard not to. Try turning it into a question.

“To achieve more scale, have you though about expanding to the south?”
(This is better than saying. “You should do X.”)

But, you probably noticed that the question above is really an idea disguised as a question. It’s better than saying. “You should do X.” But, it’s not open-ended.

So, instead of proposing your idea, turn your yes-no question into an open question.

‘What might be all the ways to achieve scale?’

Maybe they already tried expanding south, (or whatever X is). If they have, the ‘What might be all the ways’ question above will usually elicit that. And hearing all the other things they tried so far may give you more ideas about what else they could try. Note those ideas, and save them until you’re finished questioning.

The most important thing to remember about Questions is to stay in them. The question starter stems help you do that. Again, they are..

How to..?
How might you..?
What might be all the ways..?
Can you tell me more about..?

Remember, stay in the question.