How to Build Instant Rapport

Last Updated Jun 12, 2007 10:09 AM EDT

Rapport is the ultimate key to selling. If you've got great rapport with customers, they'll naturally want to buy from you, and every customer meeting tends to be more productive. If rapport is weak, every meeting is awkward and difficult, and making a sale becomes next to impossible.

The foundation of rapport is the first impression. If you're like most sales pros, you use some kind of icebreaker during that initial meeting to overcome the social awkwardness inherent in any face-to-face meeting between strangers. Unfortunately, the two most common icebreakers are ineffective when it comes to moving a sale forward.

WRONG. A common icebreaker is throw out a neutral compliment about something in the prospect's office, such as the family photo, the motivational poster on the wall, the view out the window, etc. That's a dumb move because almost everybody who comes into that office for the first time has made that exact same remark. You just told the customer that you're unimaginative and boring.

WRONG. Another common icebreaker is to make a reference to something in the news, like a big win by a local sports team or a major world event. That's a bit better, because if you truly share the same values and interests as the prospect, you're on the way to building rapport. However, the rapport you're building has nothing to do with the reason for your sales call. When you transition to "selling," there will a jarring disconnect that leaves the customer with the impression that you were only kissing up.

The biggest problem with these two icebreakers is that they suggest you haven't bothered to do any research on the customer and are simply "winging it." (Which -- let's be honest about this -- is probably the case)

RIGHT. Here's a better approach, adapted from some pointers I got a couple of years ago from Dr. Earl Taylor, a master trainer for Dale Carnegie:

  • Step 1. Warm Initial Greeting. Deliver your initial greeting with the same graciousness and warmth that you would use to greet an honored guest in your home. When you welcome guests, you are typically glad to see them and you want them to feel comfortable and appreciated. The trick to delivering a warm greeting is to be truly grateful that you have this opportunity to meet the prospect and to be of service.
  • Step 2. Relevant Opening Line. Open the conversation with a remark that lets the prospect know that you have put some thought into the prospect and the prospect's firm. Needless to say, this requires that you do some research prior to the meeting. At the very least, you should have checked the Internet for an overview of the prospect's business and for any important biographical information about the prospect and prospect's career.
  • Step 3. Natural Follow-Through. Continue with a question about the business or the individual that leads towards a productive conversation that moves the meeting to the next sales step. This is a natural segue because you've already placed the conversation in a business context, while still showing a interest in the customer. What's more, you're not wasting the customer's time with remarks that have no relevance to your business relationship.
Here are some examples:

Customer: IT Manager.

Initial Greeting: "I can't tell you how much I appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation with you."

Opening line: "I was on the web learning more about your company and I came across a keynote speech that you gave at a recent conference. What kind of response did you get?

Follow-through: "I'm not surprised it was well received because my firm has been working in this field for the past ten years and we know how vital these issues are. What progress have you been able to make addressing them inside your own shop?"

Customer: CEO
Initial Greeting: "I'm so glad that we have the opportunity to meet and I'll be brief because we're both busy people.

Opening line: "I noticed from your bio that you used to work in a different industry. What was the biggest challenge that you faced, as an executive, moving into this line of business?"

Follow-through: "That's really interesting. You know, I've often thought that the kind of alliances that are common in that industry would make sense in our industry as well. If we were to forge a strategic alliance between our two firms, how would could we craft it so that both firms achieved their goals more quickly?"

Customer: Warehouse Manager
Initial Greeting: "I really appreciate that you're taking the time to meet with me when things are clearly so hectic."

Opening line: "I'll bet one of the reasons that you're so busy is that you're getting ready for that big reorganization that was announced last week."

Follow-through: "I had an idea of how my company might help you reduce inventory. When the new management looks at your department, how will they determine whether your inventory is running efficiently?"