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Effective Conversation Starters and Relationship Builders for Sales

Most salespeople struggle with what to talk about before their “sales pitch”. Small talk tends to be very hard for people especially when you are trying to build a genuine relationship with your prospect. To build that relationship, we want to add value to that person any way we can. We want them to have an amazing experience engaging with us, which in turn, will have them want to engage more often and for longer periods of time. To accomplish this, we make sure that we never fight for attention like everyone else. When they stop talking we’re not eager to jump in and talk about ourselves. Instead, we have more questions, so they can go deeper into the topic. We compliment them when the opportunity arises. We make statements that reinforce their own beliefs. We become fascinated and they can feel it.

Let’s be clear, I’m not recommending that you act like a star-struck fan. It’s important that you maintain a higher status than your prospect or at the very least, you’re on the same level. If you become a supplicant, not only will you lose any chance of getting sale, but you wouldn’t even be building the relationship.

If they don’t respect you then you wouldn’t be of value to them and everything goes downhill. Your goal is to hold the highest status possible in that relationship and still express a lot of interest in them. This combination in sales is powerful because it says, I don’t need you, but I want you. Or in business sense, I don’t need your business, but I do want it. The best part is that it says all that without saying anything. Demonstrations are far more powerful than declarations.

At different stages of the relationship, your conversations will change. The more you know about someone the more you can talk about, and the less you know about someone the more you can ask about.

Here are some conversation openers to play around with, where you can substitute words to fit your prospect:

• How long have you been at ABC Corp?

• Have you spent a big part of your career in the hospitality industry?

• What made you get into the consulting business?

• Your restaurant is amazing. I’ve never seen a kitchen kept so spotless. How do you do it?

• I was reading an interesting article you wrote on… (Give compliment… Ask question)

• I noticed on your LinkedIn profile you… (Ask question)

You don’t need to read a book on how to ask questions, but it will benefit you to have a few ‘go-to’ questions so you can get the conversation started and keep it flowing. When people don’t have conversation starters they resort to the most overused and abused topic in the world- the weather. Please don’t talk about the weather, nobody is interested in it unless we’re talking about something like a hurricane or other Acts of God. When salespeople don’t have enough questions to start a conversation and they don’t go the weather route, they usually end up making statements about themselves to start conversation. But when you do that without knowing anything about the person you’re talking to, you risk touching on topics that your prospect has no interest in or can’t relate to, or worse, offend them.

Recently I was listening to a recorded sales call that demonstrated this perfectly. I was listening to the recording to critique it and use the feedback as a training session for a client’s sales team. The salesperson started off by talking to the prospect with great energy in a tone that came off as if the two had known each other for years.

Salesperson: Hi Peter, this is John from XYZ

Prospect: Hey John, right on time.

Salesperson: Yes, I try to be. Hey, did you catch that Ranger game last night?

Prospect: No, I don’t really follow sports. Who has the time?! (Apparently, John did. That slacker!)

Salesperson: Oh man, it was amazing. They were tied 3-3 and lost in overtime! (Didn’t this guy just tell you that he doesn’t care?)

Prospect: Oh yeah? (The interest is just oozing out of his voice.)

Salesperson: Yeah, I got to watch it with my son. It sucked that they lost but it was great to spend the time with him. Those are the moments you live for. I can’t wait to take him to his first game. Do you have kids? (John probably should have asked this question before he told Peter that the only purpose to life is spending time with children Peter never had.)

Prospect:No, no I don’t. But hey, I have a hard stop at 3:15 pm. I’m sorry to have to cut this short today. Out of curiosity, what are the typical costs involved in this?

You know exactly how that ended. Talking price before going through the process will almost never result in a sale. The prospect went straight to price because he was cutting the conversation short. And he only cut it short because the salesperson instantly broke rapport by showing the prospect examples of how their worlds and views are very far apart. Now, could they have 100 other things in common? Absolutely. But Peter will never know because he probably won’t have another sales conversation with John. The worst part about this call was that Peter initially responded well to John. He sounded happy that John called exactly 3 pm on the dot and even acknowledged it, which means punctuality was important to him. John is professional, making it a point to call exactly at 3 pm, so also values punctuality. This could have been the first thing they connected with. They could have bonded by talking about the pet peeve of salespeople calling 5 minutes late keeping you waiting. Instead, John assumed that Peter loved sports, assumed he loved hockey specifically, assumed he had kids, and assumed that Peter shared that same belief that you live for the moments of watching sports with your kids. Remember the saying, don’t assume, you make an ass out of you and me.


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