Indeed, Sally Field had the right idea. The Oscar voters did “really, really like” her. And her award for Best Actress likely brought in more scripts and more jobs for her.

Put your best foot forward, per se, when greeting visitors.

The first step to closing the sale often has to do with being liked by prospective customers. After all, you are your own best marketing tool. If your business relies heavily upon referrals and upon meeting potential clients, it’s downright crucial that you ‘hit it off’ with your latest prospect.

Some folks are naturals at striking up conversations with strangers. Others may be shy or simply devoid of crucial social skills. These deficits can be a big drawback in attracting new clients. And they can even drive away clients who might otherwise have patronized your business if you make some basic mistakes.

Hone Your Conversational Skills

Yes, it can be tough to walk into a roomful of strangers and just begin introducing yourself. You may feel like you’re being pushy. You just may have the feeling that you’re like the Emperor-with-No-Clothes-On; it’s awkward, but you’ll put on a brave face. In any event, your nerves are unlikely to be visible.

Whatever is holding you back, remember the icebreakers you can use to kick start a conversation:

  • Where did you find that beautiful scarf?
  • Can you believe that storm out there?
  • I had no idea there would be so many folks at this event. Do you know anyone else here?
  • Hi. My name is _____. Are you as lost as I am here?
  • Do you know the host here? I was hoping to get introduced.

There are a million other possible opening lines. Use the ones that are most successful and feel the most comfortable for you.

Ask Open-Ended Questions

Did you notice that every one of those introductory comments included a question? The best ones require more than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply. Whenever possible get the other person talking right away. Ideally you want to be listening. Having great listening skills is the key to great conversation.

The fastest way to get me running in the other direction at a networking event is when I see someone who is a terrible listener headed towards me. (Fortunately, they are few and far inbetween.)

This non-listener is easily marked by coming up to you and making an introduction. At first glance s/he appears to be a good conversationalist – so at ease and comfortable chatting you up. Then you notice you’ve just been dumped upon with a bunch of information about their business, and s/he didn’t ask a single thing about you. No “How was your day?” Or, “Tell me about your specialty?”

Frequently they’ve met you before. But because they are always talking at you instead of conversing with you, they don’t remember you. Now you begin to get a sinking feeling and a sense of being pissed off. Your inner voice begins to pipe up, “Hey! Why didn’t you say something about your own business? Oh, yeah. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise.”

This is no way to start a networking event!

Make Friends with Introducers

One of the fastest ways to gain comfort in a roomful of strangers is to become a pseudo-host yourself. With any luck, as you begin listening to what your new friend is saying a third person will walk up to both of you looking very interested in what is being said.

A key point here is not to use closed-off body language. Spending any time whispering to another, leaning in too close or turning your back to the crowd (as if to say, “Sorry, this is private”) will cause you to lose potential prospects.

Keep your body facing out and open to others to join the conversation. Open body language invites opportunity; the opposite merely reduces it.

At a break in the conversation turn to the newest person who joined the group and introduce the person who was just talking: “This is Sally Dwighton. She was just telling me about ____. And my name is ____.” This will immediately prompt the third person to introduce him- or herself. (And it goes without saying, this should all be accompanied by relaxed hand gestures and handshakes.)

The best part of taking the initiative to introduce the other person is that it reinforces your memory of the other person’s name and business since you’re repeating it out loud. In short order it looks like you are the veteran in the room, introducing folks from one group to the next.

Small Talk vs. Business Talk

Certainly if the event is billed as a networking event, all the attendees are expecting to hear from others about their businesses. But if it’s a social party, neighborhood barbeque or formal dinner, talking business may be considered a no-no.

One method of determining if it’s okay to open the floodgates to business conversation is whether or not anyone else has preceded you on this topic. If so, you may feel safe at dipping into these waters.

However, if the situation clearly shows that business conversation is taboo, AND you’ve just met the perfect contact for securing a big contract, you’ll need to pull out a gracious and respectful comment to achieve your goal.

“Cathy, I’ve been trying to connect with you. I don’t want to get into business here at this lovely party, as it’s not the place. But can I call you on Monday to set an appointment?”

The key is to gain acceptance from the other party. You will begin your relationship on the wrong foot if you try to shove the connection down their throat: “Hey, I know we’re not supposed to talk business here, but I’ve just got to talk with you about the Riserson contract. I’ve got some great tools that’ll save you a lot of time and money…” And Cathy has already turned around to walk the other way!

Have a Cool Name Tag

Many public events provide printed name tags or peel ‘n’ stick labels. At trade shows everyone walks around with their scannable badges. Each has their name and company printed clearly upon it. All of these are great but boring! You’ve just become one of the herd. Do you really want to be like everyone else?

This is one of my secret weapons: I print my own name tags. They’re in color, using my company name and logo. Under my name I print “Creator-in-Chief.” This never fails to start several conversations during an event with strangers. Usually they say, “What is that?” “What do you do?” My icebreaker is hard at work before I say a word!

Make up your own name tag or button, Friend. Use something original that begs the viewer to ask, “What’s that [your button] all about?”

Meeting strangers and making them feel comfortable with you is an essential step to closing the sale. No matter how credible you are, no matter how many degrees, certificates or licenses you hold, it’ll all be moot if your prospect is uncomfortable carrying on a conversation with you. The first sale you want and need to make is the friendship sale. It’s how long-term relationships are built.