What’s your typical conversation starter? Does it focus on the weather? A local sports team? House business? I always talk about having a plan for your sales call. And part of that plan includes starting off the conversation in the direction you want it to go.

How do I typically start my conversation? I ask direct questions that help me understand the challenges my prospect faces when trying to obtain new business. Their answer can touch on a variety of things, including what competitors they consider to be a threat, what economic trends are keeping them up at night, or what areas of their operation could use improvement or outright change.

But, most importantly, the answers to this conversation starter let me assess my opportunity to help them immediately—through a referral. With one-to-one networking, the intent is to show interest in the person. But in sales, the focus should always be on the customer and that customer’s business. And this demands that you take the time to learn more about what matters most to them. That often translates into helping them find new business and prospects. After all, is there really any better way to get someone’s attention than offering them business with no strings attached?

Curiously for some, referrals are somewhat of a lost art. Which is rather regrettable since a steady stream of business referrals is what makes many companies enjoy business stability and/or growth year after year. And considering today’s endless platforms to connect with other professionals through social media and robust data mining strategies, the ability to provide referrals is really easier than ever before.

For me, every single one of my prospects and clients make up a network that is uniquely mine. So, as I’m speaking with a prospect or client, my brain is forever scanning my personal contact list to see if there’s a potential to not only recommend business, but to eliminate the obstacle or challenge that the client has expressed.

Another bit of conversation-starter information I always try to elicit is my prospect’s USP, or Unique Selling Proposition. Exactly why do people use their product or service? What sets it apart from all the others? What makes it better? Different? The key is to uncover something that the competition can’t also stake claim to. The USP is particularly critical for small businesses who are forced to compete with other small companies that seem to provide no compelling area of differentiation.

Most businesses consist of 15-20 clients that make up the lion’s share of their revenues. And, when you ask a businessperson why their clients work with them, if you get the right answer, you will have uncovered their distinctive secret. It might be the innovative way they conduct business. Or a service that most clients don’t have the staff to take care of. It could be loyal, trusting relationships that continue to stand the test of time. But whatever sets them apart, once you uncover their USP is, it becomes easier for you to refer relevant, new business to them.

Believe me, no matter what line of work you’re in, this “give to get” approach works. Because it demonstrates that you’re putting your client’s business success before yours. So be sure your conversation starters are designed to give the client something first. You’ll be amazed at the dividends you receive in return.

That’s Q from the street.