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Rains: Talk to Strangers

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Illustrated people working together to put assemble a puzzle.

I’m going to go against the grain of some of the earliest advice you may have gotten from your mother: “Don’t talk to strangers!” Now, this is excellent advice for vulnerable children. However, for those of us charged with growing our shops, acquiring new customers, or providing service to the public, this is literally the worst advice possible! Like it or not, we have to talk to strangers. And deep down, I want to admit to you: I don’t really like it. 

Why? The short answer: I am an introvert. Sometimes people think that introverts are people without any desire or skill in talking to others. Not true. To discover if someone is an introvert or extrovert, simply ask them how they emotionally refuel. Do you feel energized after going to a party? Does being around a lot of people light you up? You’re likely an extrovert. If that sounds draining and you’d prefer to watch a movie alone, you might be an introvert (as an aside, I recently saw a T-shirt that resonated with me. It said, “Introverts unite! Quietly and in our own rooms.”). 

We’ve all heard the phrase, “Don’t be a stranger.” It’s a common plea to keep in touch at regular intervals with the people we care about or need. It’s a concerning reality that people who are important to us can literally move from healthy relationships to strangers. This is why in business the skills of talking to strangers and keeping up with relationships are necessary. Relationships are like muscles. Without effort, they will atrophy. And let’s be honest, in this time of COVID, many of us have had some atrophy in our relationships and the skills that foster them.

Being Likeable

So, let’s get into three things you can do to close the gap on making and maintaining solid relationships. These are core practices and skills that will, over time, grow your business. And before we get started on this list I want to note what is not on the list: going to networking events and seeing how many business cards you can pass out in an hour. Yuck. 

First, be interested. Our temptation here is to try to be interesting. But you know what most people are interested in more than anything else? Themselves. And this is great news for introverts. Right after meeting someone and running through the basics—name, occupation, family—it’s time to be curious. Follow up with questions that let the person know you’re interested in them and want to hear more. “Oh, that’s interesting! You said your son just graduated from high school. Is he planning to join the family business or going a different direction?” Let one question lead to the next. Plumb down into the answers. Keep mining with open-ended, follow-up questions. Do you know what an open-ended question is? Well, that wasn’t one! Open-ended questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. 

Second, be likable. One of my marketing mentors is the author John Jantsch. He has taught for many years that marketing boils down to relationships. He says over and over: We do business with people we know, like, and trust. Being known happens in all kinds of ways, both online and off. It’s simply being visible so that when your customer has a need, they turn to you. And being trustworthy, we all know, is having integrity—doing what you say you will, doing quality repairs, owning mistakes. Essentially, be a good human! But that middle one—being likable—that takes practice. 

Can you increase your LQ, your “likability quotient”? Yes, and there are scientifically proven ways. In Robert Cialdini’s classic book, Influence, he discusses several ways to increase our likability, all backed by scientific research. In the chapter “Liking, The Friendly Thief,” he discusses the roles of physical appearance, similarities, and complimenting. Focusing on these three things will have a massive impact on how people perceive you and whether or not they will like you. Here’s a starting point that ties all of these together: Clothing. 

We can’t necessarily improve our looks. Trust me! As a man squarely in his 50s now, with the hair I have left graying, I’m not going to win any beauty contests. However, something I do have control over is how I dress. Likewise, I want to dress in a way that is professional but similar to those with which I’m trying to relate. This means that the staff of a shop right next to a retirement community will dress differently than one next to a college campus. Ditto for urban vs. suburban shops. We always want to dress professionally, yet appropriately matching as much as possible how the majority of our customers dress. Lastly, complementing. This is not something that men typically do as well as women, but authentically complimenting someone on something they’re wearing will certainly make you more likable. This assumes that it’s honest and not overdone. If not it could come across as creepy or smarmy. Don’t be that guy!

Farming vs. Hunting

Finally, in an effort to build authentic relationships, be patient. This type of connection is more like farming than hunting. Hunting is going to networking events hoping to “bag” a customer or two. What I’m advocating for is a more deliberate, more authentic approach to building and maintaining long-term relationships. Remember, you’re sowing seeds. Many of these seeds will not even grow. But others will. 

In his book, Don’t Be a Stranger: Create Your Own Luck in Business through Strategic Relationship Building, Lawrence R. Perkins reminds us that businesses are built on and through authentic relationships. And those relationships are what make some businesses successful while others wonder how they do it.

“Just by strategic relationship building, you can stop depending on other people for your business success and sow your own seeds for business luck,” Perkins writes. “Just remember to bring skills and intentionality that both attract relationships and prove that your business is worth their time. From there, just sow your seeds and be patient, always remembering that businesses are built on relationships.”


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