We can all attest to the importance of good rapport in a selling situation. It can help open doors, hold a client's interest, differentiate us from competitors or give us a right to ask the difficult questions. It can even be the reason we get the flexibility we need from a client when our product or service delivery occasionally goes awry, despite our best efforts.
So, if building, maintaining and repairing rapport is key to selling, what's the key to rapport?
We all have our favourite answers: asking about the kids; talking about a client's favourite sport; a restaurant recommendation; showing an interest in their vacation destination . . . But what happens when we know less than we'd like to about the prospect or when a prospect is not receptive to our usual "non-business" themes?
The idea to keep in mind when trying to build rapport with someone is this: rapport is what the other person thinks it is. It can be business related or non business in nature. And, it can be achieved on a lot of different levels and in a lot of different ways.
Generally, people like to relate to those who 1) are like them, 2) are like they want to be, or 3) play the role the client expects them to play.
How people receive the message that you are "like them" happens on both a verbal and non-verbal level and may or may not have a lot to do with what you say.
Physically, dressing similarly, matching the pace of the other person's voice, emulating someone's physical attitude and posture, as well as using similar phrasing when you speak, are signals to the other party that you could probably work well together. Following the other person's lead in terms of how quickly they get to the point, or to what degree they speak descriptively, emotionally or in detail, can also help you to establish rapport.
Being conscious of such patterns can help establish a connection very quickly - even if you're meeting someone for the first time.
Of course, to be effective, all of this needs to be done in the context of sincere attentiveness and non-judgmental listening. You need to communicate your interest level to the other person. You can do this through good eye contact and open-ended questions that allow the other person to talk for the majority of the time.
Developing rapport with a client on an aspirational level - being who they want to be or whom they approve of - also implies a connection on a deeper value level. You may not know such information when you walk in the door, but listening for clues will help. For example, what or whom a person holds in high/low regard and what they consider worthwhile or productive, can help you to connect with them, even if your life experience has been very different.
Finally, looking the part or meeting the client's expectations as someone who can fulfil his/her needs is where you may, for strategic reasons, choose to deviate from emulating the client. For example, a prospect may base her decision on whether or not she feels you can effectively work with other members of the organisation who work differently to her. She may be looking for you to demonstrate an ability to get into the details or understand the big picture; being sympathetic to situations; or being decisive.
So, the next time you run into a client or prospect unexpectedly, or find yourself grasping for small talk, remember to refocus and take your cues from the other person. Start by emulating the physical as well as the verbal signals. Then, ask a few questions and sit back and follow their lead. When you do, you may be surprised to see where the conversation goes. Rather than having to work at rapport, you'll find it starts happening more naturally.
Anna Raine is senior consultant at Rogen International. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org