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As we enter the heart of summer, pleasant weather ramps up the frequency of cookouts and other casual events. We find ourselves spending less time with business contacts and more with family, neighbors and friends. Often that includes people with whom we also wish to do business. This can raise the “social dilemma.” How do you pursue the opportunities that relaxed conversations reveal without seeming to unfairly exploit the friendship or occasion?
The keys are separation and permission. By that, I mean you need to separate the conversations into two distinct interactions. First are the innocuous exchanges about jobs and work, which are welcomed (even expected). Second are any forms of explicit business development, which involve getting permission to proceed.
These five simple steps will allow you to gracefully and reliably initiate business conversations with friends or social acquaintances — without risk to your personal relationship.
1. Show interest, whether it’s someone you know pretty well, or someone you know at least a little about what they do for a living, or someone you’ve just met at the event. For example, if they own a business, ask the standard, “How’s business?” If the person is not an owner, simply ask, “How’s work?”
2. Probe to identify “pain issues” with which you (or a colleague, if you’re not a solo) might be able to help. Demonstrate relevance by asking questions that show you have relevant knowledge about such problems. Most people, particularly those who already know you, will ask your opinion and may even solicit advice.
3. Keep things general. If the discussion shifts to particulars, don’t offer specific advice or possible solutions. Instead, acknowledge that you’ve helped others with similar problems, and suggest categories of solutions or types of approaches.
4. Cut off discussion of specifics by graciously acknowledging that you’re together for social reasons, and that you don’t wish to monopolize the discussion or your guest’s time. Be sure to say you are very interested in helping by talking more about ways to solve the problem.
5. Ask if they’re open to a next step. For example, ask, “Does it make sense for us to [have lunch, meet at your/their office, or connect by phone] to explore the problem some more?” Never offer a specific step without first confirming that they welcome any next step at all. If they do, explore possible dates, to be confirmed by telephone or email the next (business) day.
Bonus tip: Always honor your commitment and contact them the next day to get a specific appointment!
Mike O’Horo is a serial innovator in lawyer training. Over 20 years he has trained more than 6,000 lawyers in simplified sales processes by which they have generated $1.5 billion in new business. His current venture, RainmakerVT, is an interactive virtual business development training tool for lawyers. Earlier, he developed ResultsPath, an integrated sales training program, and TeamPath, a litigation-analogous people-process program. Mike can be reached at email@example.com and @TrainRainmakers on Twitter.
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