The Sales Technique You’ve Already Mastered Without Realizing It

Today, I want to introduce you to an important sales technique. Well… technically… you already know it. You’ve deployed it — or a version of it — countless times in conversations with everyone from your mom to your spouse to your best friend to strangers on the street. But, until today, you might not have thought about how truly powerful the technique is, and I want to change that. Do you know what technique I’m referring to?

It’s a technique I guarantee you’ve used at some point on an elevator. As you were standing inside a cramped metal box, feeling the discomfort of being alone in a small space with someone who, for all you know, could be a billionaire or a serial killer (or both!), you awkwardly asked:

“Can you believe the weather we’re having today?”

As soon as the person began answering, you mentally congratulated yourself for breaking the uncomfortable silence. “Conversation with a complete stranger successfully started!” you told yourself. And that’s the beauty of asking about the weather. It’s one thing in this world — perhaps the only thing — we all experience together. No matter our gender, race, social class, profession, age, sexual preference, or any of the other ridiculous things that seem to divide us as people, we all experience the weather.

Why we talk with strangers about the weather

Whether you realize it or not, your occasional conversations with strangers about shared meteorological experiences are pointing to an important phenomenon for being successful in sales. Specifically, talking with a stranger about the weather is a manifestation of the human need to build community. Take a look around you and you’ll see what I mean.

Humans, as a species, rely on community in order to thrive. For example, the building you’re sitting in presumably wasn’t built by you. The device you’re reading this article on was similarly produced by other people. Indeed, everything from the clothes you’re (hopefully) wearing to the laws (hopefully) keeping you safe are a byproduct of community structures that can be traced back thousands of years to our hunter-gatherer days when some people in the tribe went out and hunted while other people cared for the tiny humans that would one day grow up to be hunters and caretakers.

But the communities we create don’t just exist simply because we’re all humans. If it were that easy, maybe the world would be a more tolerant place. Instead, we build our communities around shared ways of seeing the world. Those shared beliefs about the world come from our environment. That’s why the community of people living in Vancouver is different than the community of people living in Pyongyang. Different environments lead to different beliefs. Simple enough, right?

Now, back to the weather. Asking a stranger about the weather is a way of establishing shared beliefs about the world that can serve as a foundation for building stronger communities. In other words, when I say, “Can you believe how hot it is today?” and you exasperatedly reply, “I can’t stop sweating!” we both get to enjoy the feeling of knowing we have something in common, and, if we choose, we can build on that.

In contrast, if I say, “It sure is hot out there!” and you respond by putting on a sweater, then I’ll know we don’t see the world in a similar way, and there’s little chance of us moving forward in our conversation.

The importance of community building before a sale

Although we don’t use the phrase “building community” to describe the creation of sales relationships, that’s what happens. For example, when one company sells a product to another company, it’s not really two soulless entities exchanging money for value. Behind both of those companies are people that have to trust each other in order for the business deal to happen.

When we understand the importance of community building in relation to selling, the value of being able to quickly establish shared experiences becomes more apparent. The quicker people can recognize that they see the world in similar enough ways to make business possible, the quicker they can move to actually doing business.

The example of talking about the weather with a stranger tells us most of what we need to know about how to establish community at the start of a sales relationship. When we talk with strangers about the weather, what we’re really doing is identifying one thing we have in common, and that serves as a gateway into more conversation. While talking about the weather might not seem sophisticated, think about all the important things you’re validating:

  • Are you willing to talk to me? Check!

While the universality of weather makes it an efficient conversation starter in almost any situation, its genericness makes the weather a poor topic for establishing community at the start of a sales process because it’s not specific enough to create a meaningful bond.

I don’t know about you, but for me, someone has to be more than just an English-speaking human with basic abilities to engage in conversation in order for me to want to buy something from them. I have to feel like I can trust them.

How to establish meaningful community for doing business

Good sales people don’t initiate conversations with prospects by trying to sell something. Good sales people start their conversations by attempting to find topics of shared interest. Doing so allows them to establish a sense of community which, in turn, enables the kind of trust necessary for successful selling. Only after they’ve created trust do they begin trying to make sales.

Unfortunately, the genericness of the weather makes it a difficult topic for establishing a sense of trustworthy community, so good sales people look for other commonalities with their prospects. The best way to do this is by researching sales prospects before meetings. LinkedIn is a great place to start. And, of course, Google knows plenty, too. In the event sales people don’t know their prospects prior to a meeting, a combination of observation and casual but probing “small talk” can provide everything you need to know.

While all sales people have their own “sweet spots” for conversation topics they can personally relate to, in my experience, the best opportunities for finding shared interests that aren’t too volatile to prevent a sale (e.g. politics, religion), are the following:

Sports — With the exception of a certain college basketball team, I couldn’t care less about sports. And yet, I read the sports news every day. Why? Because as soon as I know where someone is from, talking about their local sports team is an easy way to connect.

Colleges — Similar to sports, lots of people have college affinities they use to define themselves and their interests. If you can speak intelligently about most major colleges (sometimes through a lens of sports), you’ll be able to establish enough community to begin a sale.

Cities/Hometowns — Good or bad, everyone has an opinion about their hometown. As soon as you ask someone where they’re from, they’ll start telling you about where they used to live or where they live now and how much they prefer it. Either way, if you know anything about the place they’re discussing, you’ll have an instant bond.

Clothing/Accessories — When speaking with people in-person, choose an interesting article of clothes (shoes, color of a jacket, etc.) or a unique accessory (watch, jewelry, hat) they’re wearing and ask about it. The person will likely have a story you can build on.

Children — I was 10 years into my career before I understood the value of talking about kids during sales meetings. Once I did, it was a game changer. Every parent loves talking with other parents about the ridiculous things our children do. Sharing the stories of our children creates the kinds of bonds that lead to easy sales.

Health — After the weather, sickness is probably the one thing everyone can relate to. That’s not to suggest you should begin every meeting by talking about a battle with lung cancer, but minor ailments, aches, and pains can be a good way of building trust and empathy. If, for example, you’re struggling with allergies, start your meeting with a sneeze and then say: “Sorry… the pollen this year is really killing me.” As soon as the person you’re trying to sell to replies, “I know exactly what you mean… I’ve had a runny nose for ages!” you’ll have the sale as good as won.

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @

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