Making Small Talk

A client writes, "With my reserved personality I struggled as a sales rep to casually chat with customers, mostly sticking to business conversations. Whenever possible, I avoided taking customers out to lunch or dinner. Despite all this, I was a successful salesperson. Now a sales manager, I see some of the salespeople struggle with small talk the same way I did. How do I help them with something I am so bad at?"

Many successful salespeople lack an extroverted personality. The stereotype of the outgoing rep lives on, but all types of people do well in sales.    

The good news:  sometimes it's easier to coach from our own weaknesses. We have a greater awareness of and had to work hard to overcome them. With strengths, we often don't know why we're good at certain things, and struggle to coach others. 

Throughout my own career, I've always had positive responses to the questions below:

How long have you been in your position?

Customers answer this enthusiastically. They've just started, been there five or more years or worked for the company quite a while. No matter, they enjoy talking about their career trajectory.

What's the biggest difference between your prior position and this one?

I ask this question if they've been in their current role for less than two years. Most people pause and then give an interesting answer. Their insights help me understand them as an all-around professional.

What changes have you seen over the last several years?

I make this inquiry of those with tenure of three or more years. Most think for a moment, and then offer a thoughtful response.  While the information they provide often has little to do with my product or service, I learn more about their overall industry views. It makes me better informed.

Are you from this area originally?

When you ask this question, you win either way. People take pride in the area they've chosen to live.  If they aren't from the area, they might have accepted a job out of college or moved with a spouse. Others might have lived in that very town (or nearby) their entire lives. This question allows you to get a little more personal without being in any way inappropriate.

Warning Signals

As a young rep, while scheduling a follow-up appointment with a customer, he mentioned going on vacation soon. I made note of it and told him to have a good time. He smiled and thanked me. 

During the next call, I asked about his vacation. He gave me a cold stare and changed the subject immediately. I have no idea what happened, but it was a good lesson for me. No matter how well-meaning your question, you have to watch your level of familiarity. It differs with each customer and can change at a moment's notice. 

Over the years, I've learned to record things customers mention such as:  weddings, children's / spouse's names and activities, vacations, and hobbies. But I don't ask about these events directly unless I know them particularly well.  Instead, if it feels right, I'll say something like, "The last time we met you mentioned your daughter's volleyball game." They either talk about it enthusiastically because they want to, or acknowledge it quickly and we move on.  But I never get a cold stare. No one seems offended.

Final Thoughts

Some of us excel at small talk. Others find it difficult and stressful. If you know it's a weakness of yours or a rep's, help them assemble a list of questions that get conversations started. Try them out on joint sales calls (inside or field). See which ones work and which ones don't go over so well. In that way, you're helping them create a toolkit of solid questions.