“All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.”
― Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason

As a small business owner on the top of your game you need to take advantage wherever you can—and that includes putting your senses to work for you (as well as using your common sense) to gain a competitive advantage. The following sense-based tips will help you hone your game by perfecting the art of eye contact, improving your listening skills, employing touch strategically (and appropriately), currying customer favor with brand building treats, and keeping your company secure by fine-tuning your phishy smell detector.



Everyone knows that eye contact is critical for effective business communications. Everyone also knows that being intently stared at by unblinking eyes is both unsettling and just plain creepy. So, what is the happy medium?

According to this post, 3.3 seconds; less seems shifty and more seems weird. Watch and see what you think (pun intended).

Why do some people have so much trouble making effective eye contact? According to one study, it is because it requires brain power and concentration to do, and exerting that effort limits the amount of brain power you have left for other things—like responding intelligently to the person with whom you are conversing. Here’s the science behind why it’s so hard to maintain eye contact when you’re having a complex conversation, and why it is far simpler when the conversation requires little thought.

Of course, it you can manage it, effective eye contact can help you be a more effective leader, sales person, and even friend. The Psychology of Eye Contact, Digested provides a good overview of the psychological reactions different type of eye contact (and lack thereof) typically elicits. For example, the post notes that, “when a person or human-like entity (such as a human face morphed with a doll) makes eye contact with us, we assume that he/she/it has a more sophisticated mind and a greater ability to act in the world, such as to show self-control and act morally, and a greater desire for social contact.”

As for using eye contact effectively in business situations, How To Make Engaging Eye Contact For A Great First Impression teaches you how to use the triangle method to sustain effective eye contact without creepy staring and provides a technique for practicing eye contact while watching television. Make eye contact to boost your influence provides tips for using eye contact to connect with and persuade your audience. For example, the post notes that direct eye contact is not only useless as a persuasion method, it is counterproductive. It also provides an overview of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which posits that you can watch the direction of a person’s gaze and determine how they are processing what you say to them. The NLP map looks like this:



Effective listening is about more than sound, more than hearing, and even more than comprehending. It is about being an effective conversation partner and an effective partner in general. A recent study of listeners and listening is covered in the Harvard Business Review post What Great Listeners Actually Do, and the study conclusions may surprise you. For example, traditionally good listening skills were thought to include not interrupting the speaker, signaling attention (for example via head nods), and being able to repeat back what was said verbatim. The study found that, “Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog, rather than a one-way ‘speaker versus hearer’ interaction. The best conversations were active.” These active conversations included the listener interjecting with constructive questions, making the conversation a good experience for the speaker, making suggestions that move the conversation forward, and being a good conversation “partner” rather than an opposition listener.

In addition, it is important to know that much of your listening behavior is controlled by the way your brain works and the assumptions it automatically makes about the people speaking to you. This Fast Company post helps identify many of the irrational things your brain does while processing words spoken to it, and how you can use that knowledge to help yourself listen more rationally.

5 Ways to Improve Your Listening Skills, also from Fast Company, provides several techniques you can use to train yourself to be a better listener. For example, it suggests that while listening you should attempt to focus on what the speaker is saying rather than using the time to think through and formulate your response for your next opportunity to speak.

And finally, we return to Harvard for tips on how to effectively negotiate with difficult people by leveraging your listening skills. The tips focus on how to prepare for negotiations by focusing on what the other party wants, rather than what you want to cover. By asking questions to fully understand another person’s views, needs, and goals, and showing them you truly understand them, you can actually better convince them of your point of view.



Touching in the workplace is always a touchy subject. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.) However, making your office a touch-free environment can be even more counter-productive than making it an overly touchy-feely one. Touch The People You Work With (Not In A Creepy Way) , notes that studies have shown that touch among colleagues actually fosters trust and productivity. The post also cites other research suggesting that touch at work is a way to combat stress. “At work, where stress is a constant threat to success, communicating with co-workers through touch might free up our brains—specifically our prefrontal cortexes—to worry about other things we tackle in the course of a day, like decision-making, planning, and finances” it notes.

Research aside, touching is a personal matter and you need to know something about your co-workers preferences. Just as you wouldn’t indiscriminately force peanut butter cookies on a co-worker (as peanut allergies can be common and severe) you shouldn’t indiscriminately pat, grab, or hug. My personal reaction to workplace (or really anyplace hugging, with someone other than my husband) lies with Evil Skippy, “Stay away from me and go find a tree or something else to hug.” And, while that may be extreme, a recent court ruling found that even fairly innocuous workplace hugging is grounds for taking a sexual harassment suit to trial. So, the best advice on hugs is like the best advice for all small business situations: know your audience.

While you do need to be wary of hugs, pats, and kisses (even air ones), you’re typically safe with a confident, firm, handshake (while making eye contact of course—see above (sorry, couldn’t resist that one either)). A recent smallbiztrends.com post, Apply These 10 Techniques to Improve Your Business Handshake, suggests reinforcing your shake by “going web to web” with proper thumb placement, pumping from the elbow, making direct eye contact (see above), and smiling.

In the US you are indeed always safe with a handshake—but once you leave the country all bets are off and appropriate, respectful, business greetings range from air kisses (number of pecks and pecking order vary by country) and bows to sticking out your tongue (yes that is real). A Traveler’s Guide to Customs: When to Shake Hands, Hug or Kiss, provides all the details an international traveler needs.



As a small business owner you always want to leave your customers with a good taste in their mouths and a good feeling about your company. These sources (all of which I personally use regularly) will help you do just that.

eCreamery is a mail-order ice cream shop that enables you to put custom messages or logos on pints or cups of ice cream. You can pick 4 or 8 packs of pints in any of their current flavors of ice cream, gelato or sorbet and personalize the label on each one (i.e. Sweet Regards from MyCompany), add your logo and message to single-serve size cups, or create your very own ice cream flavor. For the create-your-own option, you start with a base type; pick one of their 47 flavor bases from simple vanilla or chocolate to festive peppermint stick, exotic rosewater, spicy chocolate habanero, and everything in between; pick up to three fruit, nut, candy, and bakery mix-ins, then pick packaging type (4 pints, 8 pints, or 25 cups). Finally, pick a packaging style and enter 2 lines of custom text for your containers. Whether a completely custom flavor, or just a personalized package, the frozen treats are a perfect idea for an office party, and an impressive package to send to a customer. The minimum order for custom flavors is 4 pints which list at $90, 8 pints are a better deal at $140, and 24 cups at $130. Shipping in dry ice starts at $14. However, sales abound and between site offers and coupon codes you’ll likely save 25-35% off list. For large orders with your logo, contact the eCreamery Gift Concierge.

Chocomize is a gourmet chocolate shop that will put your logo, image, and/or message on any of a wide variety of candy treats. When I first wrote about them last December, they had a consumer channel where you could purchase in small quantities. They have since discontinued that, and now offer large quantity business packages only (starting at 100 piece orders). However, the product quality is still a notch above your typical choice (where the item is all about the logo and the candy is incidental). Your choices run from full size customizable chocolate bars, to packages of small chocolate squares, to truffle boxes with a chocolate logo centerpiece, to boxes of caramels and toffees. You can put your logo/message on the packaging and/or on the chocolate itself. While not cheap, these are definitely chocolate that will be eaten not tasted and tossed.

Goldbely does not offer customized packaging, but it is the perfect place to pick a unique food gift that is perfectly suited to the recipient. The site is a single ordering source for gourmet food artisans from all over the United States, and the choices are as wide ranging as your customer base personalities. Did your top sales person land a big fish? Peruse the Seafood section and perhaps make a choice from the Honolulu Fish Company. Want to send your best customers a thank you breakfast treat? How about a dozen from New York City’s Underwest Donuts, or choose bagels from favorites ranging from world famous Zabars to James Beard nominated wood-fired Black Seed Bagels. Meat more your thing? No problem. Choose from legendary BBQ from across the USA, Sausages, Charcuterie, and of course bacon. And, if you happen to be a displaced New Yorker, Chicagoan, or Detroiter (or if you know a customer who is), Goldbely has your pizza. The selections do tend to be pricy, but you can find some bargains. Look for the free shipping symbol when making your selections—as additional shipping costs can add up. And, use this link (or my personal referral code: chocolatecheesecake1234) to get $25 off your first order.

Mymms is your source for real M&Ms that can be customized with your company name, your logo, any picture or phrase, and in any color combination you choose. The online design tool is simple to use and you’ll be turning out custom creations in minutes. You can order in bulk (2lb bags start at $35 + shipping), or select individual packaging options. Check the Sweet Deals section for sales, and look for coupon codes on the site. There are also tons of coupons floating around online. Start with Groupon and RetailmeNot.



Workaholic entrepreneurs are often told to stop to smell the roses; deals that are too good to be true typically don’t pass the smell test; and many a small business owner succeeds because they are able to sniff out an underserved market niche or a profitable sales opportunity.

But, we’re not going to talk about any of that here. The smell we’re interested in is one that often wafts its way into posts: phishing emails. These stinking pests continue to plague small businesses in the form of untargeted artless blasts as well as highly sophisticated spear phishing attacks that are specifically designed to fool you and your employees.

Basic advice for sniffing out these phish include never opening attachments you were not expecting (even if they are from someone you know), never entering personal information into forms embedded in an email, always checking the destination of any link in an email before clicking (and even better—never clicking links in email at all), and if you do click a link that brings you to a login page, looking very closely at the browser bar to make sure that you are on the official, secure page, for the company you think you are accessing.

For more specific advice, check out these previous Tip posts:

Finally, watch this video for detailed examples of dissecting phishing email. I created it in 2011, and it is truly amazing is that the types of fraud it teaches you how to identify and defend against are still being used today.

So, the more things change the more they stay the same—always pay attention to that phishy smell and be sure to send anything even slightly stinky directly to the trash.


See no evil, hear no evil, taste no evil, smell no evil, touch not evilly, and sign up for our Small Business Smarts newsletter for common sense tips that will help you run and grow your small business.

Lisa Hephner

Lisa Hephner

My name is Lisa, and I'm the Vice President of Knowledge, responsible for the management of corporate, product, competitor, marketplace, legal, and regulatory knowledge, and creation and dissemination of knowledge tools using these assets to PaySimple prospects, customers, employees, and partners.

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