How to Build Rapport on the Phone.

Last Updated Sep 18, 2007 10:25 AM EDT

For most sales reps, rapport-building is easier in person than on the telephone. The reason is simple. In human-to-human communications, appearance (facial expressions, body language, semiotics) often communicates as much, or more, than the specific words that are spoken. That's why basic sales training always starts with how to dress, how to give a firm handshakes, and "don't forget to SMILE!"

It's only been recently that science has proven that the sales trainers were right in their insistence that appearance counts big time. According to the bestseller "Social Intelligence" by Daniel Goldman, the most primitive parts of the human brain are connected to the ability to read expressions and actions in order to determine whether a person is friend or foe. By having the "right" appearance, a sales rep signals that he or she is a potential friend, which is the key element of rapport building.

However, there's an element of human-to-human communication that's as important as (and perhaps more important than) physical appearance. It's your voice.

In a face-to-face initial customer meeting, the prospect instantly assesses all the different elements of your appearance and how you present yourself, and then unconsciously determines whether you're a potential friend and thus worthy of rapport. In that situation, the qualities of your voice (pitch, tonality, accent, word choice, enunciation, etc.) play an important role, but they're only part of overall package, and often a relatively unimportant one.

For example, I knew a sales rep at the now-defunct Honeywell Information Systems who had one of the most annoying voices I've ever heard in the business world. It wasn't as grating as Fran Drescher's character in the TV show "The Nanny" but it was pretty close. However, she knew how to dress and present herself in a way that was at once extremely professional and also rather glamorous. In face to face meetings with customers -- who were almost exclusively male engineers -- she was dynamite partly because she was knowledgeable and well prepared, but also because she looked like somebody whom they'd definitely want to, uh..., date.

NOTE: That may sound sexist, but it brings out an important truth about rapport, which is that when rapport exists between potential sexual partners, it almost always has an unspoken sexual component. This subject, while largely taboo, is of incredible importance when it comes to rapport building, and I'll be discussing it in a future post.

When that Honeywell rep presented in person, few (if any) customers focused on her voice because the flood of messages that came from the way she presented herself simply overwhelmed the unattractive qualities in her voice. On the phone it was a different story, because her nasally voice and slightly rural accent made her sound uneducated and (frankly) kinda creepy.

The lesson is that, on the telephone, the qualities of your voice assume an exaggerated importance, shouldering the entire burden of rapport-building that in a face-to-face meeting is carried by your appearance, gestures, facial expression, etc. In other words, during a phone meeting (especially a cold call) the prospect decides whether or not you're a potential friend based purely upon the qualities in your voice as you present them to the prospect.
I emphasized that last phrase because the qualities of your voice (pitch, tonality, accent, word choice, enunciation) are as much a personal choice as the qualities of your appearance.

More so, in fact, because changing your physical appearance (even if it only involves changing your outfit) takes time and effort. I know a guy who made a sales call on a high tech firm while wearing a gray business suit, only to find out that the managers at that firm were tattooed gen-Y techno-punks. "I felt really foolish and wished that I had dressed business casual, but it was too late at that point," he later told me.

You don't have that problem on the telephone. With a little practice, you can change the qualities in your voice in an instant to better match those of the prospect, thereby creating the conditions under which rapport can more easily grow.

The key to doing this is similarity. Remember: likability emerges from similarity. We want to be friends with people who are similar to us and share similar interests.

Therefore, to build rapport on the phone, you must practice what I'm calling "reflectioning" -- subtly (but not explicitly) imitating the voice qualities of the person at the other end of the line. Let me explain:

At the simplest level, the rule is that virtually any element of the voice can (and should) be reflected. For example, if the prospect speaks quickly, you speak quickly. If the prospect has a regional accent, you slightly change your pronunciation of vowels so that it sounds as if you might have lived in that part of the country at some time in your life. If the prospect has a gruff tone, you match it. If the prospect uses words and phrases that suggest their age, you use similar or complementary phrases that suggest you're the same age as the prospect.

In actually, the process is somewhat more involved that this, but that's the basic concept. The trick to executing this technique effectively making the changes in a way that's not intrusive or obvious. You're trying to communicate "I'm not a threat but a potential friend and ally" at the visceral level; if the prospect's conscious mind becomes aware of what you're doing, the technique either falls flat or, worse, makes prospects think you're mocking them.

In my next post, I'll explain in more detail and give you a couple of practice exercises.