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The Center for Sales Strategy Blog

The Proper Way to Start a Business Conversation

The Proper Way to Start a Business Conversation

The best way to fall flat on your face in a business conversation is to start the conversation talking about business.

Cultivate the art of small talk, and chances are good that once you do get around to bantering about business, the conversation will be meaningful.

The Worst Way to Start a Business Conversation

The most useless conversation starter of all is the question, "How are you?" It's unlikely the person asking the question actually wants to know the details, and the person questioned is unlikely to tell anything close to the truth when presented with that personal question right off the bat.

Another way to guarantee a less-than-satisfying exchange is to seek someone out and immediately ask them what they do. Not only are such questions predictable and overused, but they also tend to result in a pat answer that offers zero communication.

People ask trite, easily answered questions to break the ice because they come to mind quickly, especially during awkward silences at industry conferences, charity events, dinner parties, and other social-professional gatherings.

7 Signs You Might Be Doing Your Needs Analysis Wrong

A Better Way to Break the Ice

Jump right in with a question that demands an answer you already have in mind, and your conversation partner may guard their response and back away from further engagement. Instead of an abrupt business-related beginning, approach the meeting in a friendly, conversational manner.

Start with a pleasant greeting. Depending on the time of day, a cordial 'good morning' or 'good afternoon' is appropriate and sets the tone for a productive back-and-forth. Whether speaking with a prospective employee, potential client, or business partner, thank the individual for taking time out of their busy day to meet with you. If the individual requested the meeting, it's okay to ask them why.

If a review of a person's LinkedIn profile yielded interesting info, use that to keep the conversation going. Remember, the first ten minutes of a conversation offers an impression that lasts. Start with affable small talk to put everyone at ease.

If You're at a Loss for Words

Keep a few conversation starters in mind, and the next time you're standing around before a conference begins or moving along a buffet line at a work-related party, you won't be at a loss for words. Linguaholic offers hundreds of business conversation starters. Here are a few of our favorites:

  • Am I the only one who finds it hard to start a conversation?
  • Are you coming to grips with the company software?
  • Do you have a current favorite project?
  • Do you have summer vacation plans?
  • Do you pack a lunch or prefer to go out?
  • Have you met everyone around the office yet?
  • Have you tried the local coffee shops yet?
  • Have you tried the party favors yet?
  • How are you settling in?
  • How did you wind up working in your field?
  • How long did you travel to get here today?
  • How many of these things have you been to this year?
  • I like your ____. Where did you get it?
  • Is there anything I should know before the conference?
  • It's my first time at an event like this.
  • It's nice to see you outside a meeting room for once.
  • Tell me something that doesn't involve spreadsheets or numbers.
  • This is better than meeting in a board room, isn't it?
  • What do you do when you're not on the clock?
  • What do you do when you're not wearing a suit and talking to people like me?
  • What do you think of this venue?
  • What's your favorite coffee?
  • What's your opinion of the office break room snacks?

A 4-Step Needs Analysis Process that Really Works

Should you have a chance to engage with a CEO or executive, don't spend the entire conversation in small talk. Instead, defer to their expertise and professional success by asking questions such as:

  • Do you think technological advances affect employee mental health?
  • How do you avoid business burnout?
  • How do your personal values affect your business decisions?
  • How has your life changed since you transitioned from employee to employer?
  • How have you grown through adversity?
  • Is there any business decision you'd go back and change if you could?
  • What do you wish you'd known before launching your business?
  • What's the most challenging part of your position?
  • What's your biggest professional pet peeve?

Enriching Friendships at Work-Related Social Functions

Harvard Business Review studied the situation and said that deliberately non-business conversations at work-related functions are an ideal way for coworkers to build multiplex ties that bring the benefits of real friendship to the workplace.

8 deliberately non-work questions suggested by Harvard Business Review:

  • What are you excited about right now?
  • What are you looking forward to?
  • What's the best thing that happened to you last year?
  • Where did you grow up?
  • Who's your favorite superhero?
  • Do you support a charitable cause?
  • What do you do for fun?
  • What's the most important thing to know about you?

Whether you're a department leader, a salesperson, or a CEO, asking non-work questions with open-ended questions puts your talk partner at ease while facilitating productive conversation.

Free Download: Needs Analysis Record Worksheet

*Editor's Note: This blog has been updated since its original post date.

Topics: Needs Analysis prospecting