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Why Small Talk Is a Big Deal -- And What to Do If You Hate It

Not everyone likes to chitchat in business, but here's why small talk is important, and what to do if you hate talking about traffic, weather and kids.

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We’ve all heard it a thousand times: “People buy from people they like!” “Engage your customer!” “Ask questions about their family and hobbies!” “Become their friend!” And deep down you may even believe that small talk leads to relationship building, which is of course, important to your business. But, what if on the surface you feel that chitchat about weather, sports or your prospect’s family is a waste of time and you would just rather get right down to business?

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Related: That Potential Client Is Judging You So Focus on Making a Good First Impression

Well there is hope for you my friend! Once you understand why small talk is important to your sales and business success, you'll be more motivated to engage in it and even get better at it. 

Small talk buys you precious time with your prospective customer, time that can lead to prospects trusting you, which leads to prospects liking you, which leads to prospects buying from you. In fact, a recent report from Salesforce found that 79 percent of business buyers say "it’s absolutely critical or very important to interact with a salesperson who is a trusted advisor -- not just a sales rep." You see, trust will always be a critical element in sales that will set you apart from your competitiors, no matter what your price point. 

To understand how small talk leads to trust, it’s helpful to understand the simple idea that we tend to like people we trust and dislike people we don’t trust. Think about a friend or coworker you trust. Most likely you also like that person. Think about a person you don’t trust and you’ll probably concede you don’t like that person very much.

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that we tend to "like those who are similar to us, and as a result, we find them more trustworthy." The best way to build rapport and uncover things you have in common with a prospect is small talk, genuine small talk. The simple truth is that this chitchat can lead to trust by giving the prospect enough time to find similarities in us, and then grow to trust us.

Related: Master Your Customer Relationships With This 'HACK' Borrowed From Doctors and Dentists

Let me give you an example. Recently, I was working with a client that has about $50 million in annual sales and was looking to increase that number, while at the same time raise prices to improve operating margins. I was hired to make these two things happen.

The owner’s concern was the anticipated wailing and gnashing of teeth from the sales team who already feet like they were more expensive than the competition.

At the outset of the project I met with the sales team of about 15 professionals for a few hours, just to get a vibe on the group. They were all genuinely nice people with tons of talent. Without exception, everyone in the group was a stone-cold professional.

As the conversation unfolded and the usual jokesters began ribbing each other, several lighthearted comments were made about one person on the team named Sarah. The group joked about how often she would spend two or three hours on a call that the others would have completed in an hour or so.

I glanced down at the sales numbers I had collected earlier and noticed that Sarah had a close rate and average sale that was 20 percent higher that the average of the group. This came as no surprise to me.

Related: 5 Ways to Immediately Make Your Business More Personable

I spent the next two weeks going on sales calls with most everyone in the group and what I found verified my suspicions. At the beginning of the call, the underperformers spent an average of four minutes on small talk and a survey the company used to identify potential customer problems.

The high performer? Well, she spent nearly 10 times longer than the group average in the initial stage of the sales call getting to know her prospects through small talk and reviewing the survey.

On one call in particular, I watched her transform a very skeptical, disinterested prospect into an engaged prospect with lots of questions about potential solutions -- all in the span of a 30-minute casual conversation where she expertly weaved questions about the prospect’s problems with questions about his family, personal interests and hobbies.

The next week I met with the entire team and transposed Sarah’s sales numbers over the time she spent, and compared that with the average sales numbers of the team over the average amount of time they spent in the same part of their presentation. 

Related: Want to Keep Your Clients Happy? Listen Closely.

No one was laughing at that point. In fact, we spent the next two hours having Sarah role-play her “chitchat” and answering questions from the team.

Now, if you absolutely hate small talk and just can’t bring yourself to engage in it, consider weaving in some questions that are a blend of small talk and "not-so-small" talk.

For example, suppose you learned on LinkedIn that your prospect was recently promoted. This is an issue that is not directly related to your business transaction, but you can be sure it’s an important issue to your prospect.

You could ask, “So, I heard you just got a new promotion. How will that affect strategy in your business development plans?” This could satisfy the need to engage in some personal conversation without violating your disdain for small talk. Again, it may seem small but it’s likely not-so-small-at-all to your prospect.

Small talk in sales and business gives your prospect the time to get to know and trust you. If you rush through the personal (messy) relationship stuff and focus solely on getting down to business, your customer’s experience will be transactional in nature. According to this year's "State of the Connected Customer" report, 80 percent of customers say that the experience a company provides is as important as its products or services. Skipping the small talk relationship-building experience with your customers will make you more of a commodity in their eyes and the decision will come down to price rather than who the prospect trusts -- you or the other guy who also thought small talk was a waste of time. 

So, if you’re OK with your customers having a transactional experience with you and making the purchasing decision based on price rather than trust, then I strongly recommend just getting down to business and dispense with the small talk. But, do so at your own peril, because investing in the time to get to know your customers will result in improved sales and business results.

Weldon Long

Written By

A sales professional and corporate consultant, Weldon Long, MBA, trains the sales teams at major Fortune 500 companies including FedEx, Farmers and Home Depot. He built a multimillion-dollar business and is a New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestselling author.