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How to master small talk and help your accounting practice

Mary Ellen Biery
July 3, 2014
Read Time: 0 min

Everyone is pressed for time, and accountants are especially so, particularly at certain times of the year. But every time you contact or meet someone, you have an opportunity to cultivate new business, whether it’s with the person with whom you’re speaking or with someone they know. 

That’s why it’s essential to be intentional about every personal interaction – even the part of the interaction that typically involves small talk. Instead of relying on typical “small talk topics” such as the weather and sports, try a couple of questions that can more quickly provide you a better understanding of the person’s challenges and interests. Small talk is important; we use it to begin to build a relationship or to strengthen one. As Tommy Spaulding, a New York Times best-selling author, executive coach and leadership consultant has said, in order to build lifelong, loyal customers, you must go beyond niceties and forge relationships based on credibility, reliability and a selfless orientation. Having meaningful small talk with clients and prospects can advance that goal.

Tuck these questions away for your next client meeting or your next networking opportunity and see if you don’t find out something about the other person that can deepen your relationship and can provide some insight about how your firm might be able to help by being a trusted advisor.

What’s been keeping you busy lately? This is a good one to ask because it can generate responses from either a personal or business perspective – or perhaps both. Your client might mention the upcoming marriage of their child or they might indicate a key manager’s health issue is affecting operations. A new contact at a networking event might mention a hobby that you share or they might indicate business is so strong they’re looking to hire help. Besides being good topics to discuss so that you get to know the person better, these answers may also uncover challenges (succession planning, risk management, strategic planning) for which you are equipped to provide counsel. This is also a good question because you can ask it of people you know and people you don’t. If your mind has gone blank about someone you’ve met before, this opens the door for them to remind you of some details, and if you’ve never met, you can quickly find out what matters most to this person right now.

What’s keeping you up at night? Though similar to the first question, this one is more likely to elicit some hint – however superficial – of a way that you might be able to help the contact. Asking someone, “How have you been?” is likely to be answered with “Pretty good” or some other generic response that really tells you nothing. By asking indirectly about the biggest challenge facing them, you provide an opportunity for someone to be as sincere with you as they’re comfortable being. Even if you’ve just introduced yourself, you can ask this question in a light-hearted way, and it may generate some surprising responses. After asking about the challenges, consider asking the flip side of the question: What’s your favorite thing about your job? You may learn something new about the person’s business that helps you offer services in the future.

How did you come to be in this line of work/How did you decide to start this particular business? Many of our relationships at work and outside of work (at the gym, at church, through volunteer opportunities) are based on what we have in common, and sometimes we forget to ask some basic questions that can tell us a lot about an acquaintance or client. Perhaps your client inherited the business but will lament that their own children don’t want to succeed them. This is an opportunity down the road to discuss succession planning. In any case, you’re likely to learn more about your client or new acquaintance and what makes him or her tick than you would by commenting on the weather.

How to generate quality leads

To get started with this new approach, try using it with friends and people you know well. Once you’re comfortable asking these questions, you will be more likely to use them with prospective or current clients.

To learn more about networking, download the free whitepaper, “Feed your accounting firm: Generate quality leads.” To learn how to move beyond superficial, transaction-based relationships with clients, listen to a free on-demand webinar, “How to transform client relationships in your accounting firm.”  

About the Author

Mary Ellen Biery

Senior Strategist & Content Manager
Mary Ellen Biery is Senior Strategist & Content Manager at Abrigo, where she works with advisors and other experts to develop whitepapers, original research, and other resources that help financial institutions drive growth and manage risk. A former equities reporter for Dow Jones Newswires whose work has been published in

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About Abrigo

Abrigo enables U.S. financial institutions to support their communities through technology that fights financial crime, grows loans and deposits, and optimizes risk. Abrigo's platform centralizes the institution's data, creates a digital user experience, ensures compliance, and delivers efficiency for scale and profitable growth.

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