Scenario: You're meeting a client, customer, or potential investor for the first time. You're ushered into his or her office. You sit down, look around, spot a knickknack, like a prominent photo, a spaceship model, or a team banner. To break the ice and build rapport, you say something like:

  • "Wow, that's a beautiful photo."
  • "Is that from Star Trek or Star Wars?"
  • "Are you a big Red Sox fan? "

Wrong move.

The "talk about the knickknack" ploy makes you seem unoriginal and boring. Hundreds of others have already brought up the knickknack, to the point where the client is sick of talking about it. You're expecting an enthusiastic response that will build rapport. What you get instead is a bland conversation-ender like, "Yeah, that was a gift."

Even if you do get into a conversation about the knickknack, it's impossible to gracefully segue from "How about those Red Sox" to "What are your biggest business problems" (or some other business-y topic.)

What to do instead? Simple: research the client's background, and open the conversation by asking about something they've done in the past, ideally something that's potentially relevant to the conversation that you'd eventually like to have. Examples:

  • "When I was doing my research for this meeting, I noticed that you spoke about Poiuyts at the Veeblefetzer conference two years ago. That's a controversial issue, so I'm curious how your presentation was received."
  • "Your LinkedIn profile says you worked in the medical devices before moving into high tech. While I can see how those two industry are similar, I can't help but think that there are some differences in how the two industries operate."
  • "I heard you were on the Potrezebie development team. Did you know when you were working on it that it would turn out to be such a groundbreaking product?"

This approach has three advantages:

  1. It shows that you cared enough about the meeting to do some research.
  2. It gets the client talking about their favorite subject: themselves.
  3. Because you're already talking business, it's a smooth segue to other business issues.