Basics of Sales: Building Rapport

The ability to build rapport with a customer is an essential component to the sales conversation. Rapport is a mutual bond and understanding between ourselves and the customer. It is paramount for a number of reasons. Chiefly, it helps customers to trust us in our recommendations to them and that trust lays the foundation for a successful sales conversation. It also makes them more inclined to focus on what we’re presenting them and to listen with attentiveness. Finally, it allows us to show the customer that what we’re doing is in their best interest and the customer is more inclined to believe that if we’ve established rapport. Here, we will examine the many ways in which rapport can be built and give consideration to special circumstances (such as building rapport with angry customers).

Across the board, communicating that we care for the customer is essential to the process of building rapport. When we show that we care for the customer, it is natural for the customer to trust us more (we’re looking out for them) and to also care about us in return (including caring about what we’re saying). As such, we should always be looking to show the customer that we care, that we’re empathetic, and that we’re willing to help in all of our interactions. One of the more basic ways to demonstrate this care is to ask questions about their wellness, such as asking them about their day, about their weekend, or any other aspect that shows an interest in how they’re doing. It is important not to stress this too much as it can distract from the deeper or more effective ways we can show this care and also because these questions are used so frequently that their true capacity to show empathy is heavily stifled. Thus, it’s much more preferable to listen actively, provide personal testimonies of our desire to help, to show an interest in them as an individual, and to provide relevant solutions.

On the matter of active listening, we’re able to demonstrate that we’re genuinely focused on and concerned about what the customer is saying: this goes a long way to showing that we care. A few of the essential techniques of active listening are in asking good questions, parroting back information, displaying empathy, providing additional commentary, and of course by listening. Oftentimes, it is important to ask good, meaningful questions to the customer to help us understanding more deeply their underlying needs and motivations. By doing this, not only will we gain a more comprehensive understanding but we’re showing the customer that we’re interested in what they’re saying because we’re actively engaging with them. It also helps to parrot back what they say to reassure them that we’ve been paying attention. As an example, when a customer exclaims that they’re sick of high bills we may well say that we can see why they’re sick of high bills or that they don’t deserve those high bills. This ventures into the territory of displaying empathy and in providing additional commentary. More than just parroting, we can build onto the comments they have made and say that we just dealt with rate hikes too on our own bills so we can appreciate how frustrated they are (showing empathy) or perhaps that it’s quite common for rate-hikes to occur but that they deserve much better than that (additional commentary). Through our meaningful questioning, parroting, empathy, and additional commentary, we are able to create a more dynamic and engaged conversation that shows the customer we truly care. 

Beyond active listening, we can demonstrate such care through our personal testimonies about helping, our interest in them, and in providing relevant solutions to their needs. Personal testimonies are statements about ourselves and particularly why we’re here to help them. A useful line I’ve frequently used is, “the reason I turn into work every morning is to make people happy. It’s not just a job for me but it’s about taking what you’ve told me and making your life better.” It may sound corny but in making statements about our personal character to people, it helps to show our customers that we really are intrinsically motivated to help them and that we’re happy to do it–all very important things to get across when we’re trying to show that care. It will additionally help with the building of rapport to take an interest in them as an individual. People generally enjoy talking about themselves and so giving them the opportunity to do that goes a long way to building that mutual bond. Furthermore, if we’re mindful of the questions we ask, we can gather useful information about the customer’s wants and needs while also showing that interest in them. It is worth considering, too, that we don’t what our questioning to come off as an interrogation. Thus, it’s important that we comment on what the customer has said before going further. I’ve found it most effective to provide my own personal statement or reflection in response to make it feel more like a conversation. For example, if my customer tells me that they have an interest in art, I may tell them that a family member of mine is an artist as well. It’s important to provide some kind of feedback so as to not overwhelm them with constant questioning. Finally, in the same vein as active listening, provide the customer with relevant solutions. If we’re selling a television package to the customer and they have expressed that they are extremely disinterested in sports, it makes little sense to attempt to close them on a sports-based television package. Instead, make the offers and solutions relevant to what they have said to show that what you’re presenting really is catered to them, not to yourself. With our inquiries into their wellness, active listening, personal testimonies, interest in them, and relevant solutions, we can tackle one of the biggest components to building rapport: showing that we care.

Showing that we care is not the only consideration in building rapport however: we need to be likeable as well. The most effective ways to be likeable are to be humorous, to show that we’re knowledgeable and professional, and to show that we’re similar to our customer. Humor is a great tool to use in sales as it opens the customer up to us and it makes them enjoy the conversation more. Both of these effects help the customer to like us and enjoy our presence more. Though this essay will not venture into the methods of being humorous, it cannot be stressed enough that humor is an incredibly important tool to this end. Beyond humor, however, is our knowledge and professionalism. It is no coincidence that when we are looking to purchase a product or receive help on some matter, we like those individuals more who are competent, knowledgeable, and professional in the applicable line of work. We’re more likely to trust them because they know what they’re doing and we like them more because what they say to us is bound to be useful and pertinent. Thus, demonstrating that we’re knowledgeable and professional is a useful aspect to building that rapport. Certainly having knowledge of the product and the way it can benefit the customer is indispensable but we can also show our knowledge by personally testifying our experience in the industry or by venturing, for the sake of demonstration, into some more technical details or little-known-facts about the product at hand. Personal testimonies act as a kind of reassurance to the customer of our expertise and venturing into technical details demonstrates to the customer that, though they may not see the behind-the-scenes work we put into our recommendation, our recommendation is founded upon a wealth of experience. Professionalism, on the other hand, really is more about being courteous to the customer, caring about them, being accommodating, and exemplifying the methods of care earlier discussed. Furthermore, it is having the ability to focus on the task at hand and to do so with competence. Humor and the demonstration of knowledge and professionalism are essential tools to the building of rapport but showing that we’re similar to the customer is another key components.

Demonstrating similarity is essential because we’re more inclined to trust what is familiar. More to the point, we generally trust and like ourselves, so the more someone is similar to us, the more we’re able to trust them and like them as a result. It also makes way for the possibility of discussing mutually-interesting matters which also helps to bolster that bond. For this reason, showing that we’re similar to the customer is instrumental in our ability to build rapport with them. For this, my personal approach is to use the FORD method (Lloyd 2012). This approach has a great potential for finding common-ground between ourselves and the customer. FORD stands for family, occupation, recreation, and dreams. They are among the four most essential topics that comprise a person and are a great way to focus your questions to find those common points. When we ask questions pertaining to those topics, it helps us to latch onto things the customer says and to show that we too are similar in whatever manner they’ve discussed. We can add our own commentary then to build upon the information they give us. This also tends to be a great way to discover the interests and needs of customers. All in all, finding similarities between ourselves and the customer is a great way to be likable and using the FORD method is an excellent tool for finding those similarities.

Special consideration must be given to angry customers as they often have a one-track mind. In most instances, customers who are angry are frustrated with whatever the situation is, they expect that their frustration is going to be met negatively, and they plan to become more frustrated when they are met with a negative response. In this situation, the most important thing to do is to derail the customer’s expectations so that we can reframe their perspective to something more positive or constructive. Showing care, active listening, and expressing empathy are crucial aspects to the process of deescalation and this will be effective in calming those customers whose anger is more mild. Given that time has been spent on those topics, the focus here will be in advanced cases of stubborn anger and the breaking of expectations. One of the main expectations these angry customers have is to engage in a combative conversation and so one of the main ways to break this expectation is to respond in a non-combative manner. We can do this through the use of compliments, agreement with the customer, personal testimony, putting forward questions that require a response, and using their name.

Compliments and agreement with the angry customer are effective in breaking their expectation because it does not give them fuel to fight back: we are not fighting the customer. When the customer expresses their outrage at high bills, we may choose to compliment them on how observant they are or diligent they are, remarking that some other customers are oblivious to their finances and so this is very positive. When the customer expresses their outrage at having to provide personal information to see if they qualify for a product, we may express admiration at how conscious they are of personal security. This tends to baffle the customer at first and it makes it difficult to proceed with their combative state as they have to respond to this positive influence. This also gives us more control over the conversation. Agreement with the customer is similarly effective. Usually a customer becomes angry because they feel like their frustrations have not been heard or recognized. Thus, when we plainly tell the customer that they’re right or that we agree with them, this goes a long way to defusing the situation. If we agree with the customer then there’s nothing to fight about: time can instead be spent on the solution. As such, compliments and agreement are both useful tools in breaking expectations, defusing anger, and gaining control over the conversation.

Personal testimony can also be a useful technique and, perhaps the most effective, so can putting forward questions that require a response and using the customer’s name. When we use personal testimony, we’re looking to make a statement about why we’re in the conversation with the hope that we’ll communicate our good intentions. Expressing that we’re in the customer service industry because we personally enjoy making people’s days better is a great way to defuse a customer’s anger because it demonstrates that we’re genuinely here to make a positive difference in the customer’s life. This technique may not be effective in starting the deescalation process, though, so it should generally be used as complementary to the other methods. For taking customer anger head-on, the ideal approach beyond compliments and agreement is to tastefully use questions and the customer’s name to break them from their train of thought and behavior. As mentioned, the customer will be set on arguing and regurgitating the same information over ad nauseum. As such, forcing the customer to respond to a question is a great way of breaking them away from this and regaining control. Typically, and this must be said with great consideration of tone (insofar as it is calm and friendly), asking the customer if they’re aware that you want to help them is a great way to catch them off-guard and make them respond to something positive. The general approach I’ve used is, “It’s really important to me that you know this, so I have to ask, do you understand that I’m on your side and that I want to help you?” Either way they answer, it gives you room to have a productive conversation and stops them from arguing. If there’s very little room for actually getting a question in, repeating their name calmly until they acknowledge your presence in the conversation tends to be helpful as well. People tend to be very receptive to hearing their names and so when we use it with them, it’s a brief way of both pushing them for a response as well as making them more receptive to a constructive conversation. The main theoretical bullet-point to take away from this is that expectations are broken by doing something which forces customers to respond to us. They must give us something in order to move the conversation along and that gives us the ability to turn the conversation into something positive and constructive. Finally, though questions and name-using are vital tools, it cannot be said enough that maintaining a calm and friendly tone throughout our interaction is fundamental.

In this essay, we’ve explored the process of building rapport through our demonstration of our care for the customer and in being likable. In demonstrating care, we’ve discussed the importance of active listening, inquiring about their wellness, showing an interest in them as a person, personally testifying to our desire to help, and providing relevant solutions. In being likable, we’ve discussed the importance of using humor, showing our knowledge and professionalism, and finding similarities with the customer (particularly with the FORD method). Finally, special consideration has been given to building rapport with angry customers through the breaking of their expectations with the use of compliments, agreement, questioning, and the use of their name, all while maintaining a calm and friendly tone. With these topics explored, we have a road-map for successfully building rapport with every customer and thus having more successful interactions with our customers due to their attentiveness to us, care for our pitch, and trust in our recommendations.

Lloyd, Craig. “Use the FORD Technique to Make Small Talk Easier.” Lifehacker. August 24, 2012. Accessed November 12, 2017.


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