You're at a trade show, conference, cocktail party, or networking event. You find yourself face to face with someone you know is a potential customer for your company's product or service. You want to make the sale and you know the only way to do that is to get that person talking with you. Only you can't think what to say to make that happen.
Here's what you don't want to say: "Let me tell you about our wonderful product." Say something like that and your prospective customer will want to escape the way you would from an overly aggressive cosmetics salesperson at the mall. Smart sellers know that you first have to create a relationship with a prospective customer, whether for a few minutes or over a longer period of time, and only then try pitching whatever you have to sell.
To get started, try any of these conversational openings:
1. Ask a question (not related to the sale).
Prospects who have been exposed to a lot of other people selling stuff--for instance at a trade show--are likely bracing themselves for a spiel about the wonderful whatever-it-is you're selling. You can use that dynamic to your advantage by surprising them with a question about almost anything else, from "Do you know what time the keynote starts?" to "Where's the best place around here to get a pizza?"
2. Say something about the weather.
The reason people talk so much about the weather is that it's the safest topic there is. And there's almost always something to say, whether it's "Gee, what a beautiful day!" or "When will this rain ever stop?"
3. Ask if they are enjoying the event.
"Are you having a good day so far?" is a safe way to start a conversation in nearly any circumstance.
4. Ask about their work.
This too is a pretty safe conversation starter as most people like to talk about their jobs. Name badges can be a really big help. If the badge mentions a title and it's an uncommon one, ask what kind of work they do. If the badge mentions a company you're not familiar with, ask about what the company does. If it's a household name, you can always ask what it's like to work there.
5. Comment on the venue.
Unless the event is taking place in a completely generic hotel or convention venue, there's always something to say about where you're meeting. If it's your first time there, you can say so and say what your first impressions are (especially if they're positive). If the event is in your home town, you can ask what they think of the place.
6. Praise something they did.
If you know prospective customers by reputation, know about their companies, don't pass up the opportunity to say something nice about anything they or their company have done. "I really thought your last advertising campaign was very effective." Or: "I really enjoyed your blog post." It could even be, "I thought you asked a really great question in this morning's session."
Any of these tells your prospects that you are actually paying attention and listening to what they have to say. That's a very powerful opener indeed.
7. Compliment them on their clothing.
"Where did you get that tie?" or "What a lovely necklace!" are almost always good ways to start a conversation with someone. You're praising them, making them feel good about themselves, proving that you're paying attention, and putting the focus away from you.
8. Ask for help.
It almost doesn't matter what kind of help. Anything from, "Can you help me lift this?" to "Can you help me figure out how my monitor plugs in," will get someone engaged and connected with you, and owing someone a favor is one of the strongest ways you can build a bond. Just make sure your prospective customer isn't in a hurry to be someplace else before you ask for his or her time to help you.
9. Offer something.
This is one reason so many vendors bring bowls of candy, pens, and other schwag to trade shows. Ask prospective customers if they would like a free item, especially if it's an unusual item, or something timely such as a mid-afternoon cup of coffee.whether they say yes or no thank you, you've established a connection in a positive way.
10. Ask what they are looking for.
If you just can't start a conversation that's not related to selling, then put the focus on them, rather than you, by asking a question about what they want or need. You may encounter resistance if they assume your question is just intended as a segue toward your sales pitch. But if you genuinely listen to what they need or desire and resist the temptation to break in with information about your product, you will likely win them over.
11. Ask about their plans.
This could be short term as in, "Are you coming to the conference tomorrow?" Or long term as in, "Is your company planning on expanding into this region?" Once again, you've put the focus on them, and you've taken an interest in their future. Which is a pretty good way to start a new relationship.