You’ve just walked into the office of hot prospect for your first face-to-face sales call.  You shake hands and you both sit down.  What’s the smartest way to start out the conversation:

  • ICEBREAKER #1: Compliment something in the prospect's office, such as the family photo, the motivational poster on the wall, the view out the window, etc.
  • ICEBREAKER #2: Make a reference to something in the news, like a big win by a local sports team or a major world event.
  • ICEBREAKER #3: Make a remark that lets the prospect know that you have put some thought into the prospect and the prospect's firm.

If you answered #3, you’re absolutely right. 

Icebreaker #1 is a dumb move because almost everybody who comes into that office for the first time makes that exact same remark.  So that icebreaker just makes you one of the crowd.

Icebreaker #2 is similarly stupid because the news story is utterly irrelevant to the reason that you’re in the prospect’s office. You’re not the prospect’s friend.  You’re there to do business.  Trying to be “friendly” just makes you look smarmy.

More importantly, both those icebreakers signal, loud and clear, that you haven't bothered to do any research on the customer and are "winging it" (which is probably the case). By contrast, opening the conversation with a remark that’s relevant to the reason you’re in the prospect’s office tells the prospect that you’re not there to waste time or chit-chat.

Once you’ve started the (business) conversation, you can continue with a question leads towards developing the opportunity or further qualifying the prospect.

Unlike the two traditional icebreakers, the business-oriented opening remark opens a natural segue to the sales process because you've already placed the conversation in a business context, while still showing a interest in the customer.

Needless to say, making an intelligent remark means doing some research prior to the meeting. At the very least, you should have checked the Internet for an overview of the prospect's business and for any important biographical information about the prospect and prospect's career.

Here are a couple of examples adapted from a conversation I had with Dr. Earl Taylor, master trainer for Dale Carnegie:

  • Icebreaker: "I noticed from your LinkedIn bio that you used to work in the telecom industry. What was the biggest challenge that you faced, as an executive, moving into a new industry?"
  • Follow-through: "I've often thought that the kind of alliances that are common in the telecom industry might make sense in our industry, too. If we were to forge a strategic alliance, how could we craft it so that both our firms achieved their goals more quickly?"
  • Icebreaker: "I really appreciate that you're taking the time to meet with me when things are clearly so hectic. I'll bet one of the reasons that you're so busy is that you're getting ready for that big reorganization that was announced last week."
  • Segue: "I think my company might help you reduce inventory. When the new management looks at your department, how will they determine whether your inventory is running efficiently?"

Get the picture?  No idle chit-chat. Instead, create instant credibility by showing that you’ve done your research and are ready to add value.