This is quite an interesting question which requires perhaps a little consideration to actually answer. The key related question here would be “where are the clents from?” Then, once you have the nationality of all the clients, you should proceed to do some cultural research on how nationals from that particular country would approach small talk before business.
From my own nationality, I can say that the British are extremely fond of small talk topics and yes, we really do talk about the weather. It seems to be a worldwide joke that the British always talk about the weather, but in fact we rather cleverly use it as a language tool, either as an ice-breaker or as a filler when there is nothing else to say. And believe me, sometimes it is absolutely a great opener to an awkward situation.
Of course we also use other small talk topics as ice-breakers such as “How was your trip over here?” or “Have you been to this country (city) before?” or “Interesting financial situation in the world at the moment, isn’t it?” We normally do stick with safe topics though; that means impersonal, nothing to close and definitely nothing tabu.
The Germans on the contrary are totally unused to small talk topics and they will often meet and want to get straight down to business. They are often confused with the English relaxed approach with small talk and frustrated because they do not want to get engaged in such talk. I also think that Russians and Eastern Europeans follow this trend.
Western Europeans, like the Spanish and Italians are normally used to some type of small talk to get familiar and often this may also start with some comment about the weather, a recent football match or some actual news story known to all.
Let us just take a moment to make a list of safe, acceptable small talk topics for those that like to engage in small talk:
- the weather — especially if it is extreme
- the client’s journey (plane trip, the drive and the traffic, train trip, etc.)
- previous visits to the city/country and talking about the city/country
- sports especially football matches & Olympic games
- current news events ie. financial situation
- unusual events ie. Pope visit
I would certainly advise anyone to research the client well and be sensitive to how the client himself or herself reacts. You may have an instant warm reaction from the client who then replies to your small talk comment and joins in heartily developing an ongoing conversation with you. He or she may respond cooly and, at that point, you should be sensitive enough to ask the client if he or she would like to get straight down to business.