The secret to a good business relationship? Woo prospects like a first date

The pressure of a new business meeting can be like first date nerves - and if you're desperate to please it can all go wrong. Here are 10 tips for winning them over.

by Robin Kermode
Last Updated: 05 Feb 2015

A first meeting with a new business prospect is just like a first date. Usually, our overriding desire is to put the other person at ease and make them feel special, but the pressure to win them over can mean we actually try too hard. And that makes us look desperate or needy – not ideal.

To cite a real life example, I once asked a good friend over dinner if she thought we should take our relationship to the next level. She assured me that, even if I was the very last man alive on the planet, it would never happen. To make matters worse, I had made this now clearly ludicrous suggestion over the starter, so I had to deal with my humiliation for the rest of the meal. Desperation had made me come on too strong and too quickly and I had to eat humble pie.

It’s the same in business. Come on too far and too fast and you’re likely to appear untrustworthy and incompetent. With that in mind, here are ten top tips that apply equally to a first date or a first business meeting.

1. Don’t drink before

Alcohol and coffee are two drinks best avoided before a first meeting. Alcohol can make us drop our edge and coffee can make us frenetic. Water is good. I leave the celebratory coffee or cognac for after the meeting.

2. Slow down

If you speak too quickly you will lose credibility and look like you’re panicking. Taking a breath between sentences will automatically slow your speech; this also leaves time for the other person to interject and add to the conversation.

3. Do your research

Find out something about them beforehand. For example, if you discover they rowed for Oxford University, just drop it in somewhere (oh so casually) – ‘As a rower, you’d understand …’. This will make them feel that you're interested enough in them to bother to have done some research - just make 100% sure it’s accurate.

4. Compliment them

Right from the word go, say something positive. I had an old friend who used to say, ‘Are you ok? You look tired.’ Hearing that just made me feel tired. Instead ask, ‘Have you just come back from holiday?’ or ‘You look happy.’ By telling someone they look happy, they’ll start to act as if they are, and having a meeting with someone happy is generally more successful.

5. Ask questions

And listen to the answers. This makes whoever you are meeting feel special and shows that you’re interested in them. You can also repeat these back to them at the end (see number 10).

6. Find things you have in common

This always helps the conversation flow. We relax when we talk about things we know and are passionate about. And you want to understand what makes them tick anyway.

7. Smile and look them in the eye

Good eye contact during first dates and first meetings are an absolute must. Looking away at the floor or the ceiling shows disinterest or a lack of confidence. And a relaxed, genuine smile is always warmly received.

8. Don't talk about yourself

How many first dates have you gone on where the conversation seems stilted? Often we just end up talking about ourselves. You don’t want to bore the other person so ensure you introduce broader topics of conversation that invites them to talk too.

9. Don't take yourself too seriously

When we see someone who takes themself too seriously, we can’t wait for them to slip on the proverbial banana skin. As Billy Connolly said, ‘Never trust a man who, when left alone in a room with a tea cosy, doesn't try it on.’ A little self-deprecating humour goes a long way.

10. At the end

Feedback something they’ve told you about earlier. If they’ve told you about their upcoming holiday, say you hope they have a good as you leave and say you look forward to seeing them again. It shows you’ve been listening and that you care. And it also leads nicely to arranging a second meeting and gives you a reason to follow up.

Make your date or new business contact feel special and they will want to see you again. It’s as simple as that.

Robin Kermode is author of 'Speak so your audience will listen’ and founder of coaching company Zone2. He’s also a former actor who appeared in everything from The Iron Lady to The Bill.

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