In which we are reminded, focus first on people and relationships before moving to task and business. "Don't talk business until the spoon hits the ice cream." This single, crisp sentence stands out from a six hour  seminar through which Somers White led me and other consultants ... 25 years ago. Why, that's ... an eternity.

[Not the 25 years. The pre-ice cream time!]  It could be 45 minutes or an hour.

Look: Life is fast. We have so much we NEED to talk about.  We have so little discretionary time.  Besides: Who has lunch, anymore?  For that matter: Who has ice cream?

So, OK, it could be, “… until coffee arrives.”  Picky, picky, picky.

Don’t talk business until the spoon hits the ice cream.”  Suppose we’re having lunch with a prospective client.  Early in our relationship, still at the exploration stage.  What would we talk about?

Well, housing prices, banks, stock markets, and the economy.  Lots to cluck and gossip about.

What else?  Let’s see…… Children.  If our client or prospect has children, we can ask about them. The closer in age to ours, the better. More clucking.

What next?  A gentle transition into our prospect’s business activities — goals, recent successes, challenges — being careful not close in on “the deal” or a specific opportunity.  Good stuff.

Don’t talk business until the spoon hits the ice cream.”   And all this has all been wonderful, safe, predictable conversation.  Important, to help us connect and align.  But we’ve not done ANYTHING remarkable, differentiating, or even fun.

Three ideas:

  1. Hot topic questions on current events in the economy or an industry, like,  “How do you think the new _____  will affect your firm and others in your industry?”   The new stimulus package. The new accounting rules. The new nano discovery. Whatever.
  2. Hypothetical (“If…”) questions, like, “If you could hire any person in the world to work in your company, who would you choose and why?”  Or “If you could make one change in your company instantly, what would it be?” followed by “What other changes did you consider?” and “How did you pick this one change?”
  3. Reflective questions looking forward (“What’s the most important idea that’s developing in your business or industry at this point?”) or backward (“If you could have a do-over on any decision or decisions you’ve made in the last few years, what would you want to do over?”).

These questions (particularly the “hypothetical” and the “reflective”) are less frequently asked in business conversation than the “how’s business, tell me about your kids, and what’s your house worth now?” questions. They show patience, interest, and confidence.  They stimulate creative thinking.  They can relax both you and your prospect. They  help you build new bridges and demonstrate the value of investing time with you.

When the spoon hits the ice cream or coffee is served (or, at the earliest, when the main course arrives),  THEN shift the conversation to a specific, if it were on the agenda or if you see an issue worth pursuing.  The transition sounds something like, “I’ve really enjoyed this discussion, thank you.  And, I’d like to ask you about something specific…” or “I’ve enjoyed hearing your views on this, and I’d like to continue when we meet again. Meanwhile, shall we focus on the contract for a few minutes?”

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