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Starting relationships and sales have a lot in common: Don't forget to smile

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 2010; E10

Jess McCann was just out of college when she interviewed for her first sales position. Rather than have her sit across the desk from a hiring manager, the company sent her out on a sales call with an experienced associate who closed three deals that day.

"And I was just very impressed, just with the way she was," McCann recalls. "She was so confident, she presented herself so well, she got people to do what she wanted. . . . I wanted to learn to be her."

Soon after, McCann found herself training other young sales professionals, so she read every book on sales techniques she could find. In her morning pep talks, she would often echo the dating analogies sales experts used in describing their professional strategies.

"Okay," she would start, "you're going to go to an office today, and you don't know this person you're going to talk to, right? So it's like a first date. And when you walk in on a first date, what do you want to do? Smile, have good eye contact, exude positive energy."

Actually, that wasn't what McCann had always done in her own dating life, but after frequently employing the tactic in her day job, it began to influence her approach to socializing. "And some of the people in my office would come up to me and say, 'You know, since I started working here, I have gotten a lot more dates.' "

McCann seized on the idea that sales techniques can inform dating strategies -- not just the reverse -- and, at 29, she quit her medical sales position to write an advice book ("You Lost Him at Hello") and establish a coaching service.

The premise, she says, is this: "You make love happen. You make your relationships possible."

McCann says the mistake many people -- and women in particular -- often make is that they think: "It will happen when I least expect it. He'll find me. He'll approach me. He'll call me." That, she says, is "very disempowering. It's passive."

In coaching women, McCann often takes her clients to a bar or another social setting and asks them to look a stranger in the eyes and smile.

"I might as well be asking them to bungee jump. And I think they'd actually do that before they'd smile at a guy they think is cute. They're terrified," she says. "People think that when you look at them and smile the person is seeing into your soul for some reason. . . . And it's ridiculous. Because everybody likes to be liked. That's what I have to remind people: It's okay to smile. It's okay for people to know that you like them."

To ease into the strategy, McCann suggests clients use it on everyone, smiling "at the cashier and the old man in the chair," just to get in the habit of giving off warmth.

She's a proponent of women starting conversations with men, but she advises them not to overinvest themselves in each date, getting their hopes up that "this could be it." She also warns clients against spending too much time too soon with someone they've just begun to date or precluding themselves from seeing other people in the hopes that a relationship will turn exclusive.

And if none of this strategy talk sounds very romantic, well, too bad. "Romance is for the movies," she says. "This is real life. You need a strategy if you want to get a job. You need a strategy if you want to buy a house or start a business. You need a strategy to get anywhere in life, and dating is no different, unfortunately."

McCann was happily playing the field when she wrote the book, but sometime during her 30th year, she began to feel ready to settle down. "I wanted to find not just a guy to get married to, but the love of my life," she says. "And if I couldn't do it with my own strategies, well, you know, that was going to be bad."

For nine months, she followed her own advice, "prospecting" or putting herself in situations to meet new guys, smiling at them, breaking the ice and taking things slowly in new relationships. On a night she didn't feel like going out, she reluctantly went to a bar to meet two friends and started making conversation with a guy who'd caught her eye. He would tell her later that he noticed her right when she walked in. But would he have come to talk to her if she hadn't made the first move? "No. He said, 'You looked like you were either taken or you were in a bad mood,' " recalls McCann, now 32.

No matter. The two began dating and got engaged over the holidays.

"He was who I found when I was looking for him, when I was most expecting it," she says. "And I think I got what I was looking for because I was looking for it."

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