June 21, 2015

Do I Really Have to Make Small Talk When My Client Doesn’t?

This post is a clear example, a case study on how making small talk can set a tone for interacting with others. In some ways work conversations and relationships are a lot like real life relationships. What if you had a friend who always came to your house or called you but only asked you for stuff or updates on what they wanted you to do for them? It would feel odd. It would kind of feel like they are using you and you are using them. So, if a disagreement came up or you wanted to negotiate with them on anything (say no or push back), you may feel reluctant to do so, or it may come across as too blunt or too rude. It would cause a lot of stress, right?

I feel a little small talk can go along way to setting a friendly tone. I had a client once who was assigned to me by the manager to learn how to make small talk in emails and phone calls. My client said, “I don’t know why I was asked to improve this when my client doesn’t make small talk with me. Should I really do it?”

Then, in the coaching conversation, I asked two questions:
  1. What prevents you from making small talk?
  2. Does it hurt to try?
In this case, my client said, “I don’t make small talk because I am afraid I may ask the wrong question and offend the client. I don’t think it hurts to try, but my client is very business minded. My American client also doesn’t make small talk.” “Fair enough,” I said, “What about if we discuss some dos and don’ts of professional small talk, and you try it?” Since my client was bound to do some sessions with me, this was our mutual agreement.

After several sessions on dos and don’ts with practice, I left it to the client for two months to try it on their own. In the three-month follow up, when I asked how it was going, my client said:

“Wow it’s going great! I feel so much more relaxed with my client. It’s like we can have conversations about work, even stressful stuff. I feel so much more at ease. We understand each other better.”

So, what did my client do differently? My client only spent two minutes in the beginning and end of each call making small talk – for a grand total of not more than 5 minutes! When I asked how it went, my client said:
Well, at first I was nervous to make small talk because my client never did it. I just asked a few simple questions like “How are you today?", "How was the commute?" or “How was your weekend?” or “How’s your morning?” depending on when I called and the day of the week or time of day. To end the call, I just would say, “Have a nice day.” or “Have a nice weekend.” If I got brave, I’d ask, “So any plans this weekend?” At first she was shy to talk back. I was shocked as she’s older than me, and English is her only language. But, she did make small talk with me. It set a happier tone for the call. We smiled more.
So, I asked my client, “What do you think about this experience? How do you feel?” My client responded by saying, 
Well, I actually am nervous to say this but I think my client was just as nervous as I was to make small talk! Maybe she could have been worried to say the wrong thing just like me, though she’s older than me! It wasn’t easy for me to break the ice, but I am so glad I did. That little bit makes such a big change! I am shocked but happy. Thank you! 

After this interaction, my client’s customer satisfaction scores improved and my client was able to take on more challenging client roles.

Jennifer Kumar provides cross-cultural business communication and business coaching for global, dispersed teams. Learn more about individual coaching or classroom programs on small talk and meeting management with US counterparts.

Related Posts:
Common Questions to Start Small Talk Conversations
Gap Analysis For Coaching Clients
Speaking Clearly on the Phone

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