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.

Q Notes, Quadrant 1: The Question Quadrant

To be useful to a client, you need ideas that help them. It’s a lot easier to get ideas when you understand their reality, what they need, how your client perceives their situation. You don’t get this without asking questions. A good sales meeting is devoted to questions.

qs-blackboardTo be useful to a client, you need ideas that help them. It’s a lot easier to get ideas when you understand their reality, what they need, how your client perceives their situation. You don’t get this without asking questions. A good sales meeting is devoted to questions.

Q-Notes is a technique for taking notes during a sales meeting with a client. But Q-Notes isn’t just a method for capturing what happens in a meeting; it’s a questioning agenda for the meeting itself.

Q-Notes organizes your notes page spatially, into four quadrants. Have a look at the Q-Notes template at the bottom of this article. Quadrant 1 doubles as your meeting agenda. Here’s how you use Quadrant 1.

When you enter the meeting Quadrant 1 is populated with at least five questions, five areas you’ve discovered in your research that you’d like to explore with your client. Once you’ve established credibility (i.e. when your client is willing to answer the questions you ask), start working through your agenda. Ask the questions you’ve written in Quadrant 1.

You’ll probably discover that some of the questions you entered the meeting with are dead ends. (That’s why we suggest starting with five.) Alternatively, some of the questions lead you to new question areas. Imagine you’re helping your client explore problems they’re having getting their new Quebec based operation up and running smoothly. They mention that the reason they expanded to Quebec was because they were having production issues in their US operations. That’s another whole area to explore. You scribble prdctn? in Quadrant 1 of your notes page. It’s a reminder to ask about those production issues when you’ve finished following the Quebec thread. Continue to note in Quadrant 1 any other new areas for exploration that come up as you’re talking. They add to your question agenda.

Quadrant 1 becomes an active improvised agenda. It reacts to the forks in the conversation that lead to new areas for you to ask about and explore.

As you listen to your client answer your questions, you’ll get ideas about how you might help. In a typical conversation, you’d probably offer these ideas as they occur to you. The Q-Notes process modifies the natural conversation slightly. You don’t say your ideas as they occur to you. You wait. You stay in the question. You note them in Quadrant 2, and you save them until the end of the meeting. Then you return to Quadrant 1, see your note, prdctn?, and ask a question about their US production issues. You follow your agenda of questions until you’re finished (or until your time is running out.)

Quadrant 1 is the active questioning agenda. Quadrant 2 is the value quadrant. Remember to stay in Quadrant 1 until you’re done exploring, only then do you cross the line into Quadrant 2.

We’ll talk more about the power of waiting to deliver that value in an upcoming post on Quadrant 2 of Q-Notes.

Qnotes

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

Preparing a Presentation for a Client Sales Meeting: Yay or Nay?

“She makes a presentation for every client. That’s the last thing in the world I would do,” he said. “She does seem to get business, though. I’ll never understand it.”

presentationI was working with the top three salespeople at a financial services company to build a sales training for new hires in the company. Part of the content for the training was a deconstruction of the top performers’ sales process.

One of the salespeople had separated his clients into categories, mostly by the structure of their entity. For example, was it a family business, a joint venture, a corporation, a trust, a fund…? For each type, he had identified a handful of issues that were relevant. When he sat down with the client he would start by exploring each issue. Usually, he’d find an area that his potential client was struggling with. Using that as a springboard, he would identify other stress areas and knock-on problems.

“Rule number one for me,” he said, “is to get them talking. I don’t want to be the one talking. If I am, it’s going to be a short meeting.”

The number two salesperson had a similar mantra: “Explore their reality, uncover all issues,” he said.

It was no surprise to me that both the top producers focused on identifying problems.

I mentioned to them both that I was meeting with the number three salesperson the next day to talk about her process. The two salespeople looked at me with raised eyebrows.

“She makes a presentation for every client. That’s the last thing in the world I would do,” said the first. The second concurred. “Why would I want to be talking to my slides?”

“She does seem to get business, though. I’ll never understand it,” said the first.

Kate did prepare a presentation for every client. It began with an analysis of some key statistics and indicators about their company, and her guess as to where they were headed. This was two slides and two minutes and theorized what their strategic focus was, if she could discern that focus. If she couldn’t, she guessed. Then she found a transaction; ideally one that Kate or the firm had worked on that seemed to exhibit the variables that were consistent with her client’s desires. And she would walk them through the details, especially those that were tailored to the needs that Kate anticipated her prospect might share.

“But why do you do a presentation?” I asked.

“So I can interrupt it.”

Here came the payoff insight. “While I’m presenting, I watch the faces of my client prospect, as soon as I see a flicker, a flinch, a sidelong glance, anything that indicates interest or disagreement, I ask. The presentation is just a platform. A platform for questions.”

Suddenly her method and the methods of the other two salespeople didn’t seem so different. Kate’s presentation created a structure for the meeting and gave her the credibility to ask questions about what was on the screen and her client’s reactions.

I asked her what happened if her assessment of their strategy was way off.

“If I’m wrong,” she replied, “it’s as good as being right. If I’m right, it indicates that I understand their business — I get credibility. If I’m wrong, they’ll explain it to me. They’ll say more when I’m wrong then when I’m right. Wrong means I get to ask questions and learn. If the whole presentation is right on, I actually lose. I need to be at least a little wrong to really understand.”

A presentation can be an effective mechanism for your meeting. It establishes credibility and it provides a platform from which you can ask questions. Just make sure you don’t spend your meeting presenting your presentation.

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

Two Brains Are Better Than One – Take a colleague to your sales meeting

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we deconstructed the sales process in Never Be Closing, we started with the face-to-face meeting, the most important event in the sales process. We worked backwards to the beginning of the sales process, and forward to the steps that help you mine the meeting to build a productive relationship. You could argue that the whole sales process is built to leverage the face-to face meeting. Preparing well and debriefing all have the goal of increasing the impact of the face-to-face meeting.

One way to leverage your face-to-face meeting and increase it’s impact is to go with a colleague. It requires a bit more structure, because you now have two mouths instead of one. The risk is that you and your colleague do twice as much talking and only half as much listening.

So have roles for your meeting. One person, the person who has a better sense of meeting process, and what content they want to get out of the meeting, plays the role of the leader. The other plays the role of the listener. The meeting leader does the lion’s share of carrying the conversation for the sales team, which is mostly asking questions.

The listener observes and listens to the client’s responses and reactions without the burden of having to contribute to the conversation. The listener also takes notes.

Good notes are critical to getting the most out of a meeting with a client. Because it’s not easy to lead a productive dialog and capture what was said, the listener pays a big dividend in leveraging your meeting. When you take notes by yourself, notes are cryptic- you can’t leave the conversation to write things down. With a partner, notes can be copious.

Since the listener has more mental bandwidth to think about the ramifications of what the client is saying, the note-taker/listener will often have follow up questions that the meeting leader will have missed. As meeting leader, ask the note-taker if they have any questions before moving on to a new topic.

One useful technique is that instead of introducing yourself, you can introduce each other. It allows you to be more playful in your introductions. Plus, you might learn something about how you’re perceived by letting your colleague introduce you to your client.

The most powerful benefit to going to a meeting with a colleague is debriefing the meeting with your team. This is where two brains are so much better than one. With two people who attended the meeting, you’ll remember different things and come up with more and different ideas to reach out to your client. And, you’ll have better notes with which to work.

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

Meet in Your Salesperson’s Office (a post for clients)

openMost of what we write is for salespeople (though we have always said that Never Be Closing is a sales book you’d want your clients to read).

Most of the time the salesperson visits the client. There’s an investment in travel time and expense, and it’s appropriate that the party looking for the business rather than the party who has it to offer incurs that cost. Plus, good salespeople like to meet in their client’s workspace. They see more and learn more by being at your site than somewhere else.

But here’s a question for you, clients.

When would you go to a salesperson’s office for a meeting?

It’s not such a bad idea to meet at your salesperson’s office, especially if you think there is a good chance you’ll be working with them.

Here’s why…

  1. You’ll actually see and meet the rest of the team who will be providing your service. You’ll often get better service from the support staff if you are more than just a name on a list, or worse, a number in a spreadsheet.
  2. Often, you’ll get a chance to meet the sales manager or someone at the C-suite level.
  3. It’s a way to show commitment to your service provider. People appreciate that.
  4. You can learn a lot about your sales representative by seeing his or her office and how their colleagues relate to them.
  5. And, you can get up and leave when you think the meeting is over. It’s easier to execute your own departure than to shoo a tenacious sales person out of your offices.
  6. Try it.

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