In my first job, my boss assigned me to a difficult client. For whatever reason, they weren’t thrilled to be working with us, so our relationship started out pretty rocky. But, one day, as we waited for others to arrive, one of them pulled out her phone and started beaming.
“Oh my gosh,” she said. “That’s my son!” She showed us a video of him at a gymnastics competition. He did a bunch of fancy flips and nailed his performance. As I watched her face light up, it hit me.
Oh, wow—She’s a human, too! Don’t worry—I always knew we were the same species. But, sometimes, it’s easy to forget this one simple fact: At the core of it all, you and your client have more in common than you think. You both have hopes, dreams, and fears. You’ve likely felt sadness, happiness, and pain. And, just like you, your clients have loved ones, too.
To put it simply, neither of you are one dimensional. When you realize that, when you connect with them about something other than work, it’ll likely make things at least a tiny bit easier. And, if you’re not sure how to start (since typical small talk just won’t cut it), have no fear—below, I’ve outlined three surefire suggestions for you to try.
Ask Better Questions
“So, uh, how’s the weather out there?” “Gee, the sky’s so blue today, isn’t it?” Maybe it’s because we all experience it, but, somehow, weather’s become the go-to conversation starter. Snore.
While it’s perfectly fine to fill uncomfortable silence with your view on the current atmospheric conditions sometimes, it shouldn’t be the basis of every conversation. Because it doesn’t really have any substance and won’t get you very far.
Instead, dive a little deeper. At my job, some of our meetings start with everyone answering, “What’s your ‘high’ (or ‘low’) of the week so far?” Because of this, I now know that one co-worker’s really into alternative medicine (like acupuncture and essential oils) and another has a dog with separation anxiety.
And asking deeper questions works with clients too. Some other questions you could ask? Anything you’re looking forward to this weekend? Have you eaten anywhere new lately? What’s something you’ve read recently that really stuck with you?
Listen Well (and Follow Up)
These more meaningful questions will mean diddly-squat if you aren’t engaged in the discussion. You need to show that you care about what’s being said. So, put away your phone. Close your laptop. Make eye contact. Respond appropriately, add your own related anecdotes, ask for more details, or simply react to the story.
Also, take notes (on paper or in your head). Following up—showing you heard them and want to know more—will help maintain that connection. How’d your daughter’s lacrosse tournament go last weekend? Did you try making that chocolate soufflé again? Questions like this show the client you were paying attention and that you care.
And, a quick tip: Listening isn’t just for when you ask a question. Keep your ears open throughout the entire meeting—you never know when a personal detail will slip out. Hold onto those precious nuggets of information and, when you get the chance, ask about them.
Be Willing to Share
Look, this is a two-way street. If you don’t offer up anything about yourself, that prospective client probably won’t want to keep revealing parts of their lives to you. You have to do some sharing, too.
No, you don’t have to disclose your deepest, darkest, most shame-inducing secrets. I’m sure you have friends and family to help you carry those burdens. But you can talk about what makes you, you (because you’re much more than [Insert Title] at [Insert Company]). For example, I love grilled cheese. And cats. I could chat all day about Harry Potter (all seven books and the movies), and I’m super claustrophobic. To connect, you have to open up. You have to be a little bit vulnerable. It will be OK. I promise.
The goal isn’t to become the best of friends (although, if that happens, it’s cool). Rather, the goal is to find some common ground, to form and strengthen your connections so that you and your clients can be more successful together. (And, hopefully, enjoy collaborating with each other, too.)
Photo of people talking over coffee courtesy of Eva Katalin Kondoros/Getty Images.
Abby is a writer, career coach, and health educator living in Portland, Maine. When she’s not trying to make the world a happier and healthier place, you can find her cuddling with her cats, hunting down the city's best coffee and grilled cheese, or dipping her toes in the Atlantic. Say hi on Twitter .More from this Author
Sponsored by IgnitionOne
IgnitionOne is a global leader in cloud-based digital marketing technology. The company’s Digital Marketing Suite provides an integrated set of solutions that significantly improve digital marketing performance across all devices. With a global footprint of over 450 employees in 17 offices across 10 countries, IgnitionOne is one of the largest independent marketing technology companies.