"The Navigator" News Blog

You Can’t Fake Rapport.

Last week, I made a trip to work with a client in Central California, doing a Sales Audit.  It was a great trip for many reasons, but one of the greatest was this.  That area is San Francisco 49ers country.  The Niners just lost the Super Bowl to the Chiefs (wait – should I have said “The Big Game” so the NFL doesn’t sue me?). Which meant that, for the first time in quite a while, people didn’t ask me “How about those Chiefs!” when they met me and found out that I’m from Kansas City, so I didn’t have to talk football!

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t dislike the Chiefs, nor do I dislike football. I’m a good Kansas Citian, and I’m glad they won.  I just don’t eat, sleep, and breathe it, and when people attempt to build rapport with me by starting a conversation that way, they are assuming that I do.  Most likely, they don’t care much about the Chiefs either – it’s just a fake way of building rapport.  And that’s the problem; entirely too many salespeople attempt to build rapport in a way that is inauthentic and actually hurts your potential rapport with customers and prospects.  The good news is that there’s a real way of building rapport, so let’s talk about it.

I should tell you that I’ve always felt that rapport-building is the weakest part of my sales skills.  Don’t get me wrong, I like people, but I’m not one of those guys who can be someone’s friend within 30 seconds.  I knew one of those guys in the car business, and coming from him it was the most natural thing ever.  He was great.  When I try to build rapport by doing the old “spot their interests” tactic, it comes off like Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross.  It’s painful.

However, there’s one fact that works in my favor.  I’m curious by nature.  I like to ask questions.  And I know one simple element of human nature.  The thing that most people like to talk about is themselves.  When someone is trying to get me to talk about football (or Kansas City barbecue – the other topic that people always bring up when they find out where I’m from), they are making an assumption that those things are things I’m passionate about. I’m not passionate about football.  I am passionate about barbecue, but I’m convinced that the best Q in Kansas City comes from my own backyard smoker.  But in either case, people are trying to build rapport by attempting to tell me what my story is, rather than asking about my story.

And that’s the key that I discovered early in my sales career.  If I just showed some genuine curiosity about my customers and prospects and asked them about themselves – giving them an opportunity to tell me their story – and then just listened, I built rapport with them without having to flap my gums.  It works.  Note that I said “listen.”  To “listen” means to engage with their words and remember those words, not just plan your next phrase.

Today, it should be easier than ever to build real rapport with people, because they are already telling much of their story on social media.  The vast majority of your prospects are already laying out what’s important to them for public consumption.  All you have to do is check it out and note it down.

Even when salespeople try to build rapport by asking questions, many of them screw it up.  They ask the wrong questions.  They ask questions that are personal in nature (“Are your kids involved in sports?”) that cross boundaries, rather than questions that are “safe” for customers to answer.  As I’ve noted in a previous Webinar, people build relationships differently nowadays.  Relationships are built on a professional basis and then segue to personal, rather than the old method of becoming buddies and then moving that relationship to a sale.  This is more pronounced with each subsequent generation, from Gen-X through Millennials to Gen-Z.

So, what can you do to show curiosity and build rapport without crossing boundaries?  Here are a few of my favorite ways.

  1. Ask your customer to tell his/her professional story. One of my favorite opening questions is, “How did you come to be in this position?”  This creates an opportunity for your prospects to tell you all of their successes, foibles, and their journey, without crossing any boundaries.  In fact, your prospect may take you into some of those personal spaces as well – but it’s THEIR choice to do so, not you prying.
  2. Ask your customer to tell you his/her favorite thing about their job. Again – you’re opening the door for them to brag.  You’re also possibly getting a window into how to sell to them.  If you sell something that can enhance their favorite thing about their job, or create more time or money to do it, you have a pretty powerful motivator.
  3. Ask about something they recently posted on LinkedIn. Yep, I’m being specific to LinkedIn here.  That’s the “professional” social media, and as such, it’s fair game in a business world.  For instance, “I saw you just took an award trip to the Dominican Republic.  That’s pretty awesome!  What did you do to win that trip?”

Those are a few examples, but remember that the key is shutting up and listening while they talk.  Don’t interrupt their story (that shows that you really don’t care about it) and don’t immediately transition from a story point to a sales pitch (ditto).  If you do hear something that can lead you to a sale, make a note and ask about it later during your normal questioning.

Real rapport building is about showing genuine curiosity by asking, and genuine interest by listening.  The old “fish on the wall” method comes across as fake – even when it isn’t.  And fake rapport sets you back instead of moving you forward.  In other words, fake rapport isn’t rapport at all.  It gets you kicked out.

Just ask Shelly Levine (Jack Lemmon’s GGR character).