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How to Handle Yourself in a Chance Encounter

The Opportunity: A chance encounter is when you unexpectedly cross paths with clients or
colleagues in or out of the office.

The Reward: By being prepared for the unexpected, you can help yourself by knowing what to
say when you run into someone whose help you need, someone who can be a good contact or
someone whose opinion of you has impact. At the very least, you can make a good impression
with the right people while training yourself to think opportunistically in a positive way.


See below for proven tactics that can help you take advantage of the chance encounter.

1. Getting Ready

• Have a plan. Before the start of every work week, make it a habit to step back and think through your goals for the week. They can be a mix of short- and medium-term objectives relating to your current responsibilities and more broadly to your career path. By having a set of priorities with a timeline, you can see more clearly what you want or need to communicate to different parties and thus be more strategic in your approach.

• Know your audience. You should have both a “macro” and “micro” understanding of your clients and colleagues. If your clients are other companies, your macro knowledge base should include an overview of their business, industry, positioning within their industry, leadership team and competitors, while your micro knowledge base should include an understanding of your company’s history and relationship with them. If your clients are individuals, you should have a macro understanding of their demographics as a group, with a micro understanding that includes their history with and importance to your company and other insights.

Regarding colleagues, you should have a similar understanding of where you all work, including a macro overview of your company’s lines of business, industry, positioning within the industry, leadership team and competitors. Your micro knowledge base should include a business overview of your group, its make-up and reporting structure and its positioning within the company. If you work closely with other groups at your company, you should research them as well, so that you know at least who’s who and how you are expected to work together.

• Develop your elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a clear and concise description, usually one or two sentences long, that you can use to quickly introduce yourself. You can have one that you use externally and another internally. For example, your external pitch can explain to clients what your company does and what you do, while your internal pitch identifies your group and your position for colleagues.

• Have your key messages ready. Key messages are the two or three points that you would like to convey in a conversation. You should have different sets of key messages for different audiences that align with your priorities. For example, you can have one set of messages addressing a specific project that you are working on and another set about your career goals. You can also have external and internal versions of these messages that you can use with clients and colleagues, respectively.

Jot these messages down so that you can memorize them and refer to them later. These messages can become your go-to talking points for different situations, helping you get your point across effectively when given the opportunity.

• Think through possible questions. Jot down questions that people might ask you, based on your relationship with them. Then think through how you would respond to them in an appropriate, professional way. These questions can be as general as “How do you like working here?” and as specific as “What results can we expect this month?” By the same token, jot down questions that you would like to ask different people under the appropriate circumstances. If you run into the right person but at the wrong time, you can consider inquiring along the lines of “Do you have time for a quick call? I have some questions that I’d like to run by you.”

• Know how to respond to questions that you cannot answer. If you are asked a question that you are unable to answer, you can respond along the lines of “That’s a good question. As soon as I get back to the office, I’ll find out and let you know.” The point is to be responsive with clients and colleagues but also avoid speculating or talking out of turn.

• Stay informed. Make sure that you read at least one source of daily business news to keep up with current events. You can also read the major trade publications that cover your industry and your client’s industry. At the very least, being well-read and generally informed can improve your ability to participate in various discussions by broadening your understanding of different business issues and terminology.

• Dress appropriately for business. Look professional and polished when you are at the office as you never know who will see you there or when you might run into someone important. Plus, you could be pulled into a meeting unexpectedly. Dress for success, as the saying goes.​

2. Making the Most of It

• Read the situation. When you run into colleagues or clients, take note of what they are doing, where you are and who is within earshot. These factors will help determine the type of conversation you will be able to have, if any.

Adjust your tone when greeting and speaking with others to be respectful of your surroundings. If you have something sensitive to discuss, be discreet and consider suggesting a call or meeting instead.

Also, follow people’s lead. If someone seems pressed for time or reluctant to have a discussion beyond quick small talk, be considerate and have a brief but pleasant exchange. Not every encounter will be the right time to talk business, but you can at least make a good impression.

• Be present. If there is time for conversation, put your phone away and be attentive. Give people time to collect their thoughts and speak without interruption.

• Be confident, but humble. You can be confident and humble at the same time. You can exude confidence through your body language (e.g., not slouching), facial expressions (e.g., making direct eye contact), gestures (e.g., a strong handshake) and speech (e.g., speaking in a clear voice). You can show humility by being respectful (e.g., treating everyone courteously) and deferential (e.g., being a good listener).

• Don’t get rattled. Keep your composure at all times, even if someone has a complaint or criticism. Express your concern by saying something along the lines of “I am sorry to hear that” or “I appreciate the feedback” and show a sense of urgency with “As soon as I get back to the office, I’ll get on it.”

In the meantime, be a patient listener and let the person vent, which can often have a calming effect. Do not get defensive by making excuses or blaming others. Instead, be reassuring that you will do everything possible to make things right.

If you made a mistake, come up with a plan for taking corrective action and ensuring that the mistake will never happen again – and tell your boss about it. Apologize for your mistake and show that you are accountable for your actions. Mistakes happen, and the important thing is that you learn what you need to do differently.

• Jot down key takeaways. When you get back to the office, make notes on anything relevant from the encounter. This can include information that might be helpful in your relationship-building, such as your client’s preference for meetings over email or favorite cuisine. You can use your smartphone to save this information in your contact list for easy reference.

• Follow through on any promises made. Coordinate with your boss to follow through on any action items arising from your run-in, as appropriate. Handled correctly, this can be a good opportunity to demonstrate your ability to deliver quickly and effectively.

• Send a follow-up email. Under the appropriate circumstances, an email is an effective way to summarize key takeaways, confirm or suggest next steps and thank people for their time. It can also be the start of a productive email correspondence with an important contact.

• Learn from the experience. If you think that you could have handled the encounter better, learn from it and keep at it. Don’t shy away from opportunities to build relationships with clients and colleagues. Instead, find ways to get better at them, such as gaining a deeper understanding of your business or speaking with more confidence.


One More Thing: All of this preparation may seem like a lot of effort, but it can help you take advantage of being in the right place at the right time. Doing your own research can help you get up to speed on clients and developing elevator pitches and key messages can help organize your thoughts. With practice and experience, this type of prep work can become second nature and a process that serves you well throughout your career.

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