It Isn’t “Small” Talk (Issue 890)

In which we are reminded to dig in, behind the surface chit chat, to learn more about our clients.

A long time ago, as a conference call wrapped up and participants were pinging off, I heard him speak to one of the newer members of the client team: “You know, I think this is the first time we’ve met.”

“Yes, I think so,” she replied, “although we may have passed each other and waved in earlier meetings.”

“Well, if can you stay on the line for a few minutes, I’d love to hear a bit about you and how you arrived in your current position, and I’d be happy to share the same about me.”

So, she started. She shared that she had been 23 years with the company, joined right out of college, 4 years in a sales role, then 19 years in various staff roles including operations and training – 15 years in the training role. She had a pre-teen daughter who was deep into sports, so she and he husband spent a lot of weekend time at tournaments. [She wasn’t crazy about that but she was the ‘mom,’ so she went.] She grew up in Illinois, went to college in Illinois, still lived in Illinois.

He asked, “What did you like to do before you were spending every weekend in gyms or on sidelines?”

“I liked to bake,” she replied. “Loved to bake.”

“What did you like to make, as in cakes, pies, cookies, savories?”

“Cakes and cookies,” she replied. “At Christmas time, I used to bake cookies, hundreds of cookies, and give them away. Now… .no time for that. I make cakes from time to time, for friends.”

When it was his turn, he mentioned, among other things, that he liked to sail; it turned out that she did, too, didn’t any more, and missed it.

Small talk, right? Getting to know your client team member a bit. Finding common ground. Establishing connections. Social bonding. Establishing rapport.

“So,” I thought, “all good. We have nice-nice here, let’s wrap this up.”

And, then I heard, “So, tell me more about your baking. When I watched my mother bake, I think she did it out of a sense of obligation; I’m not sure she took much pleasure from it. But you do, or did. Where did that pleasure come from? At what points during the baking did you experience joy or a rush?”

Wow….I thought, and I said to him, later, “I like the way you set up the question about her ‘joy in baking’, that blunted the question a bit, and why did you ask that question just then?”

“Because,” he said, “Here we have someone who never strayed far from home. One state. One school. One employer. One kid. Likely values stability. Not a big risk-taker. But I could hear the excitement in her voice when she talked about the baking, particularly the ‘hundreds of Christmas cookies.’ That’s a lot of cookies!

So, I wanted to know where that excitement lived in her. How did it fit with the “stability’ pattern? Was it designing the cookies or the cakes – the creative process? Was it fiddling with the recipe and the ovens so they were just right – the engineering functions? Was it the rush and rhythm of production? Was it the giving of the cookies once they were baked? Was she tapping in to an experience she had with her mother or grandmother or aunt or father?”

“None of those insights, by themselves, tell the whole story. But, as I’m positioning things with her in the future, when we need her influence on a decision, it’s helpful to know something about what she personally values and finds exciting – investment in design, precision in production, the recognition of the final delivery. Each little clue helps.”

Thus, an early lesson: In supple hands, there’s no such thing as “small talk.”

Nick Miller is President of Clarity Advantage based in Concord, MA. He assists banks and credit unions to generate more and more profitable relationships, faster, with business clients, their owners, and their employees. Additional articles on Clarity’s web site.

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