How to Talk Business With Strangers

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A small business owner’s or entrepreneur’s personality is much more closely tied to the success of their business because their prospects and customers relate the business to the person. Rather than a large, faceless corporation, you are the face of your business. That’s one reason I advocate tying your personality to your marketing and advertising.

As you’re out and about in the community or as you attend business networking events, you’re going to meet lots of people. This gives you the perfect opportunity to discover a new customer, a potential joint venture partner, a new business referral partner or another business that you will become a customer of. You never know if the person sitting next to you on the plane or standing next to you at a networking event will become your best customer or biggest referral partner.

If you’re like me, you get a bit nervous approaching people you don’t know and striking up a conversation. It’s one of things we least like to do. We would rather just focus on creating a great product and providing exceptional service, hoping that new customers will magically appear.

The good news is that most other people are just as uncomfortable as you are to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Knowing that, you can relax and take the pressure off of yourself and the other person. The secret to talking business with a stranger is to talk about other things first. It starts with preparation and that preparation is done before you leave the house.

1. Read the headline news and the business news every day, whether you sit down with the newspaper, fire up your laptop or view your smart phone news app. Check out the leading stories of the day, especially what’s happening in your local town or neighborhood. There’s always a leading human interest story or breaking news about a local or national business. Form an opinion that you can share later when you meet that new contact.
2. Don’t leave home without your brochures, business cards or other form of information about your business. This seems obvious, but I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met people, asked for their information and they tell me they’ve run out of cards or forgotten their cards. Put a business process in place so that new cards get ordered on a regular basis.

When you meet someone, your goal is to get to know them a bit first before launching into a business discussion. Start by asking a question or making a statement that the person can agree with. Talking about the weather may be a cliché but it’s always an easy way to make a connection, especially when you live on the east coast like I do. We can agree that it’s too hot, too cold, about to rain, about to snow or every now and then on an unexpectedly gorgeous day, we can complain about being stuck inside.

After you’ve established a rapport, then you can ask an open ended question:
– At a networking event: “What made you decide to attend this meeting?” This gives the other person an opportunity to tell you what their business is and potentially a problem they are trying to solve. It gives you an opportunity to ask questions and show an interest in them.
– Standing in line at the post office, grocery store or mall: “What brings you here today?”
– On the plane: “Are you traveling for business or pleasure?”

As they’re talking, stay in the present moment and be genuinely interested. When you’re distracted thinking about the work waiting for you back at the office or your next appointment, that comes across as you not wanting to be there. Body language, arms folded and a rushed air about you is a big turn off to the other person.

As they’re talking, think about people in your network who may be interested in their services or might be a good connection for them and offer to make an introduction.

At this point they’ll probably ask you what you do and you can offer your business card and give them your elevator speech. Always have a current project or customer success story to illustrate what you do. Just talking about how great your products are is borrring! But when you can share the story of how you helped a customer overcome a problem or an interesting thing you uncovered or the fascinating thing you learned this week, it makes for a rich conversation. If it’s interesting, the person will want to hear more and ask questions.

In all candor, this approach doesn’t work all the time. You may meet someone who just isn’t interested in you or what you have to say. They may be distracted. They may hijack the conversation, talk about themselves and never ask you anything. Don’t take it personally. If they aren’t interested, move on to the next person. If they’re obnoxious and talk about themselves, they probably wouldn’t be a good customer or business partner for you anyway. Your goal is not to make a connection with everyone you meet, but to stay open to the possibilities of finding a potential customer or business partner.

Talk to people everywhere you go, cocktail parties, weddings, running errands, airplane rides, supermarket lines, sporting events, festivals, bookstores, etc. It gets easier, the more you practice and I guarantee it will help you grow your business.

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