The Ice Breaker

Learn the secret to breaking the ice and making small talk with new prospects.

Jeb Blount
May 1, 2011

In this article we explore a question from a Sales Professional who wants to know the best way to start a sales conversation with a new prospect.

Deon, a Sales Professional in the metals industry, wrote us with this question:

Do you have any advice on what I call the ‘Entry Line’, small talk, or introduction when meeting for the first time? I find it difficult to come up with something snappy every time I walk into a prospect’s door, and I also don't want to be remembered as ‘the cheesy sales guy.’ What is the best way of starting a conversation with a new prospect to get the juices flowing?

How to Make Small Talk

Well Deon, one of the hardest and scariest things to do in life is to make small talk with total strangers. Yet as sales professionals, we are forced to do this every day as a core part of our jobs. Every first-time appointment or meeting requires us to initiate a conversation or, in your words, “get the juices flowing,” with a stranger.  For some salespeople, this part of the sales call is so uncomfortable that they have a hard time even getting out of their car or picking up the phone. And this call reluctance has a debilitating impact on their career.

Small Talk is Hard for Both Sides

Of course, most of us don’t take the time to put ourselves in the prospect’s shoes either. Think about how uncomfortable prospects feel too. Like you, they are meeting a stranger and being forced to make small talk. They also have their guard up because

a) they don’t want to be sold and

b) they are prepared for a “snappy line” or intrusive personal questions.

Frankly, first time meetings are as hard or harder on your prospects as they are on you. We are all human and as I said earlier, meeting strangers is one of the scariest things we do in our lives.

How to Put Prospects at Ease

So consider this: What if the key to making small talk and beginning the rapport-building process is simply helping your prospect feel at ease?

You see, the secret to opening a conversation with a prospect is not what you say but rather what you ask. Like you Deon, salespeople everywhere spend time and energy trying to come up with a line or a joke to break the ice and relieve the inevitable tension when meeting new prospects. Unfortunately, these practiced lines just make things worse. Prospects see right through these contrived statements that lack authenticity. They know, and you know, that the gesture is not sincere. So you both do your best to get past the awkward silence and move on to business. However, because you failed to build a connection with your prospect, your chances of getting the deal done are slim.

How to Break the Ice

But by asking a question, instead of making a statement, you take advantage of one of the universal laws of human nature and engage your prospect right from the start. All people have one insatiable craving and that craving is to feel important, valued, and heard. The most effective way to engender these feelings in another person is to simply listen to them. When you ask a question, you provide an opportunity for your prospect to become the center of the conversation. And by giving them your genuine attention and interest, you are giving them the greatest gift of all--the feeling of importance. When this happens, you will quickly develop rapport and an emotional connection. Your prospect will feel at ease and your sales call will almost always be successful.

How to Ask Better Questions

However, you must be careful with your first questions. Imagine sitting on a plane, bus, or in a public place when a perfect stranger walks up to you and starts asking personal questions about your family. How would that make you feel? In all likelihood, your walls would go up and you would have the overwhelming desire to get away.

So the key is to start by asking questions that are easy to answer. If you have done research prior to your visit and you know that they or their company has recently won an award or been honored, you might want to ask about this. Or you can ask how business is going, or how long they have worked there. It really doesn’t matter as long as the question is easy and it gets your prospect talking.

How to Listen

Once they do begin talking listen deeply with your eyes, ears and heart. Give them your complete attention. If you are really listening, you will be given clues that will help you ask follow up questions that will keep them talking. The more they talk and the more you listen the more rapport you will build. Soon, with the connection you have made, you will be able to smoothly transition into a business conversation. And using the same process, your questions will uncover your prospect’s problems. With those problems revealed you will easily be able to build a value proposition that will solve your prospect’s problems and close the deal.

This is Jeb Blount, the Sales Guy.


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