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Social & Interpersonal Skills

How To Make Small Talk With Customers And Build Rapport With Them

“I just want to speak to a real human!” Customers dread that long moment of silence as a distant representative tries to solve their problems while they wait. A little small talk may go a long way to building bridges and maintaining customer loyalty. Knowing how to make small talk with customers is a wise business strategy.

WHAT IS SMALL TALK?

Small talk is informal, casual conversation that does not directly relate to the matter at hand. Often dismissed as irrelevant or counterproductive, small talk does serve many useful purposes for front-line employees who interact with customers.

Light rather than intense, small talk allows your employees to keep customers engaged while addressing their needs. Whether done in-person, over the phone, or virtually, understanding how to make small talk with customers builds rapport and keeps everyone searching for the best possible solution.

For some, the skill of engaging in small talk does not happen naturally. You may initially feel uncomfortable talking about things you feel are insignificant. However, a well-developed strategy to include some small talk allows the person you are helping to feel respected.

WHY IS SMALL TALK IMPORTANT?

Small talk lowers barriers and narrows interpersonal distance. In a world with so many technology-driven prompts and events that promote social distancing, a little chit-chat fills the void and allows others to feel less alienated. Too often, customers navigating menu options consider representatives to be faraway faceless figures.

Small talk changes this dynamic in a positive way. A little conversation about the weather, a popular television show, or a sporting event makes customers feel that they are no longer listening to an automated attendant. Even for people who may consider themselves shy or quiet, your warm demeanor and reassuring voice melt the ice.

Done correctly, appreciating how to make small talk with customers improves satisfaction and efficiency. Keeping a satisfied customer is easier and more cost effective than replacing them. Done improperly, however, small talk may cause large problems.

The seven strategies below offer guidance on how to make small talk with customers a powerful and positive part of your routine.

HOW TO MAKE SMALL TALK WITH CUSTOMERS

1. Offer Warm Greetings and Keep It Personal, Rather than Cold

“A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”-Dale Carnegie (1888 – 1955), American writer, editor, and motivator

A warm greeting makes customers feel welcome. Whether entering a store, enjoying a meal at a restaurant, or waiting on a telephone, a greeting and a simple “How are you today?” go a long way. Say more than “hello.” A little small talk and eye contact for in-person or video-based interactions encourages others to ask questions.

The first-person pronoun (“I”) allows the customer to know that you hear them and are there to help: “completely understand why you are concerned.”

2. Have a Few Open-Ended Questions Ready for Those Silent Moments

“And the purpose of small talk is not to be controversial, clever or even interesting. It’s simply to fill the silent void with a small gesture of common humanity. It’s a spoken smile, a verbal handshake.” -Gyles Brandreth (1948 – ), English writer, broadcaster, and retired politician

Have a short list of open-ended questions available for when you have to resolve a problem that may take time. Avoid closed-end questions that require only a “yes” or “no” or simple answer: “What did you think about that game last night?” offers a better conversation starter than, “Did you like that game last night?”

If you are familiar with the general area where the customer lives, ask questions about news or events there. Ask if they have any vacation plans or adventures in their future. Give them a sense that you care about their well-being as you assist them.

Allow people to talk about themselves or share their interests in popular subjects. As you listen to their answers and respond, you affirm that they are being heard. Even small talk about an old family recipe keeps them engaged.

Refrain from small talk that involves controversial topics, such as religion or politics. Avoid overly personal questions that may seem too close to home. If you are a Yankees fan and your customer talks about their love for the Red Sox, never get into a debate!

3. Listen Actively and Respond Politely

Sometimes, you may have a person who has waited a long time for assistance. Due to circumstances you cannot control, they may feel frustrated and ignored. A little small talk lets them know you are paying attention and gives them an opportunity to express their concerns and move forward.

The person on the other side of the desk or phone line may feel they have been ignored. During your interactions with them, give them the impression that you are fully attentive. Injecting a little small talk as you tend to the matters at hand lets them know you are engaged and listening.

4. Respond with Clear and Positive Language

Precise language fosters better communication. The client communicating with you may not be fluent in English or understand slang or technical language. Phrases such as “ought to” and “should have” may give the customer an impression that you and the business you represent are shifting blame.

You may have to rephrase questions and statements when interacting with people who have limited proficiency in English. Even in these instances, a little small talk may be useful in building trust as you interact with them.

For example, you may have a caller or patron who seems frustrated during the conversation because they are Vietnamese and understand little English. If you have a favorite Vietnamese dish or restaurant, talking about those things lets them know that you respect their culture and customs.

Use positive responses whenever possible. Words such as “no”, “can’t”, and “won’t” limit conversation and give the impression of closed doors.

Replacing “I don’t know” with “Let me see if I can find the answer” sends a message that you want to assist them. While seeking a solution, knowing how to make small talk with customers may lead to other questions on their part that allow for a different solution.

5. Let Your Enthusiasm Show

“That’s all small talk is – a quick way to connect on a human level – which is why it is by no means as irrelevant as the people who are bad at it insist. In short, it’s worth making the effort.” -Lynn Coady (1970 – ), Canadian journalist and novelist

Small talk allows you to discover the likes, interests, and dreams of other people. Even if you are not a naturally chatty person, embracing an enthusiastic attitude lets customers know you see them as humans with needs. You may learn something and diffuse the tension that led to the original call or visit.

Your enthusiasm sends a strong message that the customer’s questions matter. Side conversations, perhaps with a little laughter, put smiles on both faces. Even if limitations prevent you from fully resolving the matter at hand, you have shown respect and validated their concerns.

6. Keep Listening Even If You Cannot Solve the Problem

Inevitably, you will have occasions when you cannot solve a customer’s problem. They may express anger and want to place blame on the faceless enterprise that did “this” to “them.” As the company’s ambassador at that moment, you play an important role by listening to them.

Small talk sometimes helps when this happens. In this case, the small talk may originate with the customer rather than you. The time you spend at this juncture may have immense consequences for the customer’s future interest in the business.

If your earlier conversations gave the customer an impression that you care, your listening now reinforces that notion. Although you may want to disconnect and handle the next caller, give them a moment to talk things through. Perhaps they will say something that will lead to a different way of finding a solution.

7. Never Slam the Door

“I’m trying to elevate small talk to medium talk.” -Larry David (1947 – 1947 ), American comedian, actor, and director

Invite the customer to offer suggestions rather than push them away. Instead of showing them the door, show that you–as a representative of the company–do care. Although every minute you spend interacting with the customer has a cost to the company, a few additional moments may resolve the problem and allow the company to retain the customer.

If you know of another representative or employee who may be better suited, transfer them. Avoid the trite and impersonal, “Please hold. Your call is very important to us.” Replace this exchange with an introduction to the next person and thank the customer for their time and any small talk from your conversation.

After ending on a positive note, take a moment to think about your approach. Consider possible strategies for handling a similar circumstance in the future.

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