Online communication is often harder than it needs to be. Understanding human motivation on a site like LinkedIn invariably comes down to examining why people connect and gauging what the new relationship will allow. Whereas advancing toward a mutually beneficial outcome is at the heart of our interactions on LinkedIn, there are many people that choose to remain silent, refusing to engage even on a superficial level. Perhaps it is because they do not know how to get a business conversation going. Sometimes, all it takes is a simple question.
The open-ended question is a concept that borrows freely from the playbook of classical sales training and has stood the test of time in commerce. One of the most powerful ways to initiate an online conversation is to end your outgoing message with a question that cannot be answered by a simple “yes” or “no.” The wide range of response that follows is designed to get a dialog flowing. Naturally, this will work in the real world, too.
When strategically posed, an open-ended question catalyzes meaningful business conversations. It facilitates forward movement in a professional relationship, builds social capital, enables the exchange of ideas, and generates leads. It stands to reason: if you can get a person talking about themselves, their companies, their kids, or whatever, then you are in the game. As the conversation expands, trust develops.
The Fine Art of Capitalizing on Business Conversations
If you are to achieve a professional goal using LinkedIn, then agility in interacting with others is required. Performance on the site is measured in terms of communication effectiveness. You need to make a dramatic impact with your words. LinkedIn users who perform well on the site get remembered for what they say and how they say it.
During the course of active LinkedIn use, many opportunities to initiate conversations will present. As you organize and prioritize your interactions, certain conversations will have more weight, and bear greater potential for financial gain or career advancement than others. Converting meaningful conversations into economic opportunities is at the heart of successful LinkedIn use.
Professional relationships follow the basic laws of equity. An investment of time and effort is required to gain trust, develop rapport, and earn the right to ask a prospect for the order or the advisor for the introduction. The more you put into developing the relationship, the greater return you can expect. Converting online conversations into real world opportunity also means extending yourself to a level of comfort that may be above your personal threshold. When it comes to social networking, the extent to which you balance risk with reward will either drive a desired outcome or keep it in neutral.
Early into my LinkedIn work, I adopted the practice of closing my “thank you for connecting” or “touching base” messages with the simple question: “How’s business?” A seemingly innocuous inquiry, I found that it can draw the honesty right out of people.
There is that period after the LinkedIn connection is made—or after an email volley has stalled—where one of the parties has to make a move. Otherwise, an unsettling silence will prevail and the relationship will die on the vine. Here is where good open-ended communication can help a relationship gain traction and create a valuable marketing inroad.
“How’s business?” is an excellent example of an open-ended question. Nowadays, I ask it frequently, whether I am online looking to engage beyond the bond of a new or existing LinkedIn connection, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with someone at an event.
Businesspeople run the gamut in their range of responses in business conversations. Many are guarded and refrain from disclosing much of any detail. Others are naturally more open and will bend your ear considerably. But people do want to talk about their businesses; this, I know. At first, they shun the notion of going into details, and default to their usual response:
“Pretty good, JD. How’s business with you?”
Occasionally, the question will act like truth serum and open the floodgates. Once there is that level of comfort, the conversation flows. Some folks may even vent their innermost concerns:
“Well, JD, earnings were down in Q3, and the shareholders are pissed. We mishandled a few key accounts, and are now operating out of crisis mode. Our East Coast plant is operating in the red, our supply chain is in shambles, and we had to close down one of our major distribution centers. Several of our heavy-hitter salespeople unceremoniously left us to go work at competing firms. And the icing on the cake: we just fired our CFO. How’s business with you?”
Often, when people express vulnerability in business, there is a natural inclination to listen with one ear. Hey man, better you, not me. Hearing this kind of pain activates my social networking verve. Here is where I could truly be a professional resource. Perhaps I can make quality introductions to people in my LinkedIn network who could address his company’s operational inefficiencies, vacancies in sales, and leadership need.
To get to a point where I could be a resource, I would continue to ask open-ended questions, gathering more information, building trust at every turn. Maybe, just maybe, I could solve the problem.
1). “How do you traditionally recruit for salespeople?”
2). “What is your most pressing organizational need?”
3). “From which industries and markets will you source your next CFO?”
The reality today is that this type of networking exchange is how many professionals in career transition are getting to their next gig. The cherry positions are held close to the vest and securing an introduction to the decision maker requires some moxie. You can also clearly see how staggering open-ended questions in conversation will enable you to cultivate potential business opportunities. As the dialog proceeds, you may discover that there is a need for your particular talent, product, or service.
♦ As I oft state, the endgame of LinkedIn work is generating meaningful conversations. In turn, the art and science of transferring that dialog offline is what separates high performers from the also-rans. Whether you are looking to advance to a business dialog with a qualified prospect, existing client, strategic alliance, or brand new first-degree connection, the goal is to first establish conversation equilibrium.
♦ LinkedIn users who cross the chasm and begin to perform on the site have made the commitment to excellence in communicating with those internal and external to their network. They are not interested in merely accruing connections or blindly sending out emails to names on targeted lists. They are taking the time to build equity into relationships, engaging in a manner that intends to extract real human sentiment.
♦ The need for open-ended questions also manifests in the unrest we feel when someone does not return our emails, act on our suggestions, or take quick action on our proposals. A well-phrased question at the end of a message keeps the conversation in play and increases the probability of a reply. If you want to get businesspeople talking, ask them, “How’s business?” Try it. It works!
JD Gershbein, CEO of Owlish Communications, has helped advance the collective awareness of LinkedIn and inspired opportunity-oriented professionals in all walks of business to step up and achieve on the site. His ability to spark others to action has earned him the moniker of “The LinkedIn Catalyst.” JD is considered one of the world’s top thought leaders on LinkedIn, and a pioneer in the design and delivery of LinkedIn education. He is also a globally acclaimed social business psychologist, keynote speaker, and frequent broadcast media expert on LinkedIn for business. Additionally, JD is adjunct professor of marketing communications at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Stuart School of Business, where he is advancing social media marketing as an academic discipline. In addition to his blog, The Wisdom Zone, JD is a contributing writer for the Huffington Post and Forbes.
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