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How to Build Rapport with Any Customer

Orvin Kimbrough joined United Way of Greater St. Louis in
January 2007 — just in time to battle the effects of the looming
economic crisis. Kimbrough, 35, is the senior vice president of major and
planned gifts, handling relationship management for United Way's
200,000 donors in his region. While 2008 charitable giving across organizations
declined by 2.4 percent, according to a study by
Giving USA Foundation, Kimbrough's numbers rose, from the $22.44
million he helped raise in 2007 (up from $20.98 million in 2006) to $22.92
million in 2008. Last year's numbers are not yet final. But Kimbrough
is responsible for bringing in roughly one-third of the $67 million that United
Way of Greater St. Louis has recorded so far. Here's how he does it.

Orvin Kimbrough

Orvin Kimbrough, senior VP of major and planned gifts for United Way


I believe in what I'm selling. I just need to tell the story, which is that we help people. I personally connect with the services we support because I grew up in the foster care system and benefited from United Way funds. It gives me a different perspective. When I stand before donors and prospective donors, I speak from a position of strength.

Where it makes sense to do so, I'll disclose my story. You have to be relatable. One thing we all have in common as human beings is that we were once kids. We learn through stories and love hearing about people who struggled and made it through.

Meet people where they are

The economic climate was tough this year. I was at my desk when I got a call from a family member who wanted to know if he could use my house for storage. I asked why he wanted to do that when he had his own. Turns out he was about to lose his house. Later that day, I was speaking to a group of African American executives — donors and potential donors. Research suggests that African Americans have been disproportionately affected by unemployment. Community and extended family are important to them. When I walked into the room to speak, I heard someone describing an experience similar to the one I'd had with my relative. I decided to tell the group about the phone call I'd just gotten. Your message depends on the audience and the vibe you're getting. Meet people where they are. Go in with the mindset that no matter what the client's need is, you're going to meet it. You want to identify with your audience. Keep your antennae up.

People are entitled to their opinions. If someone isn't interested in what you're offering, you can't expect to change a set belief. But you can ensure that that belief is based on fact. For example, I often hear, "So few resources actually get to the people." But the United Way of Greater St. Louis has the lowest overhead cost in the U.S. When I demonstrate that we spend just 10 cents of every dollar on overhead, as opposed to the national average of 20 to 40 cents on the dollar, that information is transformative.

It's about the relationship, not the transaction

Sometimes salespeople don't seem natural, and people pick up on that lack of authenticity. You've got to be guided by the best interests of the people you're selling to. I've had situations where potential donors want to specify a particular charity to receive their donation. I explain that we don't do that. United Way covers all the bases, funding organizations that people know about and those they don't. Just because you support one cause, doesn't make the others less important. I've gone on to say that if they are truly that passionate about a single cause, then they should support it instead. And often I've had people who appreciate the honesty so much that they'll choose to donate to United Way in the end. What looks like a missed opportunity turns into a lifelong relationship.

It's about building rapport. It's not about the transaction. That's what gets most of us in trouble.

-As told to Adriana Gardella

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