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Sales Quiz: What's The Best Icebreaker?

SCENARIO: You're meeting a prospect in person for the first time. You've researched the firm and the individual and a fairly certain that your offering is a good match. You greet him warmly as you enter the room, but you can sense that the prospect is extremely busy today and seems a bit cold to the idea of meeting with you. As you sit down on the other side of the desk, you need to break the ice and build a little rapport. Here are your choices:

  • Choice #1: Say something about the office. Everyone likes to be acknowledged as an individual. Therefore, you should make a neutral compliment about the prospect's office, such as the family photo, the motivational poster, the view out the window, etc.
  • Choice #2: Mention a shared cultural event. Most people are naturally attracted to others who share the same interests. Therefore, you should make a reference to something in the news, like a big win by a local sports team, a major world event, etc..
  • Choice #3: Surface the prospect's business history. The purpose of your visit is business, so best to get right to business. Therefore, you should make an intriguing remark about the prospect's role which shows you are ready to for a more substantive discussion.

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The correct answer in most cases is
  • Choice #3: Surface the prospect's business history. This opening tells the prospect know that you have put thought into the meeting. Needless to say, you'll do some research prior to the meeting in order to make a relevant remark. Ideally, you'll want to locate some kind of important and relevant biographical information about the prospect and his career.
Once you've made the remark, and perhaps had a brief conversation, it's an easy transition to move the meeting to the next stage. It's a natural segue because you've already placed the conversation in a business context, while still showing a interest in the prospect. What's more, you're not wasting the customer's time with remarks that have no relevance to your business relationship.

By contrast, the other two icebreakers share a similar problem -- they strongly suggest you haven't bothered to do any research on the customer and are simply "winging it." Beyond that, they both have additional weaknesses:

  • Choice #1: Say something about the office. This is a weak opening line because almost everybody who comes into that office for the first time has made that exact same remark. By making that remark, you just told the customer that you're unimaginative and boring. You also wasted a few seconds of the prospect's time.
  • Choice #2: Mention a share cultural event. This is a weak opening because it assumes that you share the same values and interests as the prospect. And even if the remark sparks interest, the subject matter has nothing to do with the reason for your sales call. When you transition to "selling," there will a jarring disconnect.
I'm well aware that there are some cultural variations here. For example, in Japan, there's often a ritual trading of business cards, with remarks made about the card. That ritual, however, is more likely to be productive if sales professional has researched the prospect and can thus make a relevant comment about the card.

BTW: The above technique is based upon a conversation with Dr. Earl Taylor, a master trainer for Dale Carnegie.

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