The art of a business conversation

By Liz Cezat
Owner, Cezat Creative Resources, Inc.

When was the last time you had a great conversation with a client? Did you get greater clarity about the other person’s business objectives? Did you learn new facts about the industry?

With smart phones, it’s routine to text a one-liner to people or send an e-mail instead of picking up the phone to talk. You might find it difficult or even alien to have an in-person conversation about a business matter, where you can respond not only to what your client is saying but also to what their body language is saying. In this age of digital technology, the art of conversation needs a brush-up.

Get facts to back up your opinion
It’s good to state your opinion but having facts to back it up makes an even stronger statement. Come to the conversation prepared. Review industry journals that address the topic you are speaking about, so you can make your viewpoint and perhaps – a selling point – more powerful.

When you need quick information, Google is your best friend. It takes only a few minutes to goggle a subject and get a quick primer. My go-to source when writing business articles is Wikipedia. It also provides a wealth of information for conversations.

When traveling in Alaska for fun, we had a tour guide who was eloquent about the history of Skagway and the gold miners rush. I was so fascinated that I wanted to learn more. When I got back home, I looked on Wikipedia and there, literally word for word, was the history that the tour guide gave us.

To ease into a conversation, ask your clients about a special interest, comment on an item in their office or give a sincere compliment. I mentioned to one of my philanthropy clients that she explained things so well that I knew the key messages by heart when I wrote copy for brochures and case statements. She thanked me and said in her line of work – asking people to make donations– she doesn’t get a lot of positive feedback.

How to converse when in conflict
When you and a client disagree about a matter, choose your words carefully. Tune in to the client’s key points and address them. Be sensitive. If the client’s point of view is at odds with yours, watch for words or phrases that seem to strike at your emotions. Then, breathe deeply, get calm and practice your response in your mind before stating it. Think, “How might the client perceive this?”

For example, if your client just came back from maternity leave, don’t talk about the expensive rate of day care as a way to segue into the value of your services.

If either you or your client is confused about what was said, ask pleasantly, “Let’s make sure we’re on the same page. I heard you say…(then repeat the key points). Allow the client time to confirm what you heard or correct it. You could then ask them to do the same with what you said. Thank them for taking the time to add clarity.

Eye contact is key. Look clients in the eye as you’re making an important point but don’t lock eyes in an uncomfortable stare-down. Break eye contact gracefully by looking at their hands or a close-by object.

Use humor appropriately. Never, ever tell a joke that could be construed as racist or demeaning. Attempts at humor, such as sarcasm, may come across as a negative comment. It becomes even more susceptible if sarcasm is used in an e-mail or text, when you can’t experience verbal feedback or body language.

Female conversation traits that need some work
Women, especially, tend to apologize. Don’t apologize if you’ve done nothing wrong. Change the dialogue from, “I’m sorry that I didn’t send the e-mail” to “I totally forgot to send the e-mail. If you still need it, I’ll do it right away.”

Watch your cadence. When you speak, don’t let your sentences drift off into a question, as if you are seeking affirmation. Finally, this isn’t an in-person point, but one that I come across too often. When on the phone, don’t speak too fast when you are leaving a voice message with your name, e-mail or phone number. Speak slowly – but not too slowly- and enunciate clearly.

As Dale Carnegie said, “Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.” Being open and ready for feedback from a client makes for the start of a solid relationship, the continuation of a good one, or at least an interesting conversation.