In the entry or contact phase of the conversation there are mainly two stages:
Arrive and accustom first…
Everything starts with the right warming phase. Although many of my colleagues argue against small talk, I think it's a good way to start becoming accustomed to the situation and the conversational partner. In most cases a few sentences relax the situation and set the tone for what's coming. The only exception are very goal-oriented, impatient clients. With these you go right to the next stage (setting the frame).
If the small talk doesn't start automatically, prepare a topic in advance and start it with a question, e.g. "How long have you worked in this company?" or "Are you planning to go to the XY-fair this year?" Often topics jump right into your face because there is something remarkable around you, for example a very old or very new company-building, a product presentation in the entry hall, or an actual event that is published on the company-website. Don't overcomplicate it. The main thing is to gain some time in order to focus on the following conversation and to get to know each other.
When you are open and interested you use your chance to make a good first impression. To show your interest ask, "What's your experience with that?" or "What do you think about that?" and listen properly.
… then set the frame for the conversation.
Next you set the course with three further questions. In my opinion these are essential and make the difference between professionals and 'greenhorns'… although in this definition there are 'greenhorns' with 30 years of experience in sales :-).
1. Question: "What is your objective today?"
As mentioned in an earlier blogpost, you and your client could talk in circles if you don't match your objectives. Later in the conversation this question helps you if your conversational partner is drifting away all the time. Politely remind them of the mutual target and you are back on track.
2. Question: "How much time have you planned?"
Even if you talked about it when you fixed the appointment, check for yourself: "We agreed on one hour. Is that still ok for you?" If there is less time all of a sudden, you should know in order to adjust your conversation accordingly.
3. Question: "How shall we proceed?"
With this question you make sure that you have permission to lead the conversation your way. Most clients will answer this question in your favor: "I suggest that I tell you something about us and then later on you can present me with your ideas." If it's the other way round and the customer says, "Tell me something about you," react with another proposal: "What if I asked you some questions first? That way I don't waste your time with uninteresting information." Your client will agree to this because they don't want to be bored.
Be sure to try these questions in any case. You will notice that it becomes much easier to control and lead the conversation if you set the frame properly in advance. You will find more questions to this and all following phases of the conversation in my new book "Verkaufen und überzeugen mit Fragen" (Selling and persuasion with questions - sorry, German only!)