Why your thoughts on rapport are wrong, and that’s okay!

Once rapport is built, you can start to build a relationship.

It has come up a number of times in the short amount of time that I have been consulting on sales and sales processes: how do I help my employees and salespeople with rapport? One of my biggest prospective clients has been really concerned about rapport as of late, and they are a very successful retailer with a history of really great sales growth. I have also been talking with other people in other industries, and the topic all seems to be heading in the same direction: how do I talk to prospective clients and build rapport with them? First, of all things we are going to discuss, I think it is important to establish what rapport is and why it is so important.

What is rapport?

Rapport, simply, is what you are going to say to the customer or prospective client to get them to want to work with you. It can be a back and forth, it can even be seen as conversational, but the focus is on giving the customer enough information about you that you can continue to talk about the subject at hand and they have a reason to listen.

Our job, as salespeople, is to build the customers confidence to a point that they can make a decision. This is going to be a reoccurring theme in all of my writings and classes and it really does break down the sales goal to a very easy to understand and easy to attain nugget. In this case, we will break it down even further and say that rapport is building the customer’s confidence to a point that they will listen to the remainder of your sales pitch.

So what can you say to a customer at the beginning of your sales presentation to build rapport? Think about what might be interesting or important to you coming from someone that is going to be talking to you about spending money. Here is an easy one: a dentist. How would a dentist go about convincing you that they should poke around in your mouth? (if you think about it, selling the act of being a dentist is pretty hard!)

Here are some things that you might find interesting about a dentist, and would help you make a decision on whether or not you would trust them with the root canal that they may need to talk to you about:

  • Their history.

  • How long they have been doing this.

  • Their expertise on doing root canals. Maybe even a rough estimate of how many they have done.

  • A story about a successful root canal that really changed the patient’s life.

  • The dentist’s passion for doing root canals in a way that allows for rapid recovery.

  • How much better the tooth and the overall dental experience for the patient is going to be.

  • Seeing some examples of the dentist’s work.Getting a recommendation from another patient.

If you notice, all of these things are designed to help you comprehend that the dentist is:

Experienced in performing root canals andCan help explain any questions you have with root canals andThe dentist themselves feel really confident with root canals.

This is exactly what building rapport should do, help build the confidence of, in this case, the patient to want to go ahead and get the root canal done and, more importantly, done by this particular dentist.

Why is rapport important?

Rapport allows the customer to relax in the sales process, and to get over the fear of dealing with a salesperson. Salespeople are scary. In fact, there are two types of people that everyone avoids like a plague at a party: salespeople and experts. Even I run when either of these terms are used to describe someones career or how they perceive themselves.

Picking the right salesperson, especially for big purchases, can make an unpleasant purchase a joy. I used to work for an appliance and mattress retailer, both of which are purchases that customers are rarely excited to come and purchase (okay, high-end appliances are cool and fun to shop for, but most of us are not dropping $100,000 on a kitchen). Think of a great salesperson as someone who can make this unpleasant experience pleasant.

Really, what we want to establish with rapport is to put the customer’s “mind at ease” with dealing with us as salespeople. There is a tax that all salespeople pay based on the history that a customer has had with dealing with salespeople. Unfortunately, you can do nothing about the awful sales experience the customer had while shopping for rugs and that one store, or the horrific mess that your prospective client had with the supplier who’s salesperson promised the moon and delivered far less; these experiences tax the customer’s mind, so building rapport should help pay down that debt for the customer so that they no longer have to think about it.

Do not fall prey to the shortcut of “we have a guarantee” either. Loads of companies offer “guarantees” that promise that the customer’s product and experience will be satisfactory, but that is not what we are trying to establish. This shortcut is why salespeople are being marginalized, because too many salespeople have taken this shortcut and allowed the company to establish rapport, not the salesperson. When buying from a company (think Amazon) you feel safe making the transaction, but do you remember who processed your order? How many times have you been staring at 5 different items on Amazon and still couldn’t make a decision because no one was there to offer expert advice? That’s the magic of a salesperson building rapport and being able to give sound, practical, customer-first advice to a customer. That is rapport.

What rapport is not.

This part of the article will likely get the most backlash: stop trying to make idle conversation. For some reason, someone had some little bit of success with one customer one time and decided this is the way to get a customer to buy. It is not.

Idle chatter like the examples below, are used by weak salespeople to delay the sale, or crafty customers to distract and derail salespeople. Do not fall down this rabbit-hole an inane talk.

Once you have established a relationship with the customer, and they see you as an expert in your field, and they have made decisions to work with you and make purchases with you, then you are going to move into building a relationship with the customer and that is different. Rapport has already been established and, unless you are offering a new product or service, does not usually have to be established with every conversation with the customer.

However, when you are first meeting with someone please, for the love of all that is holy, do not be the yokel salesperson trying to get to know the customer. It’s insulting and transparent and adds zero value to the sales process.

“Those are really great shoes!”

Have you ever said something along these lines to a customer at the beginning of a sale to help start the sales process? Stop. Immediately. This is not building rapport.

Compliments are nice, and if it is genuine, there is nothing wrong with saying something nice to a customer, your barista at the coffee shop, your aunt, a random person on a train… anyone, really. Compliments are fantastic, they are fun to give (as long as they are not creepy) and really nice to receive (as long as they are not creepy) but these statements are not rapport-builders, nor do they build the customer’s confidence in your ability to service their needs.

“Did you drive up in that really great Mustang? I used to own a Mustang and loved driving it. Had to give it up because I had kids.”

“I used to be an actor in TV commercials.”

This is going to be a shot to your ego, and it might hurt a bit, but no one cares a single lick about you. When a customer or client is looking for a solution to a problem they have, and they are in a rush (every customer is, by the way) then the last thing they want to do is engage in mindless drivel coming from you about you. They do not know you, they do not care, and you are actually hurting yourself by bringing this up. These are fun anecdotes AFTER you have established a relationship. Maybe. You are better off just not talking about yourself at all.

“Do you have dogs? What kind of dog do you have?”

“How many kids do you have? What are their names?”

Stay away. If you really have a desire to not close sales, this is a perfect way to do it: get the customer talking about something that occupies their minds constantly in either a positive or a negative manner. What if the customer just got a new puppy and is the joy of their life?

Now you are forced to listen to them rattle on about their new dog, look at videos and pictures of their precious little puppy, and not get a chance to talk about anything that you need to talk about in order to make a sale. And kids? Even worse. Either their kids are the most amazing things that have ever graced the planet and they are better than anyone else’s kids and they are going to make the world a better place or they are heroin-addicts that have become the biggest failures in their parent’s lives. So, steer clear of these conversations altogether until a relationship has been established. The only time this question needs to come up in the sales process is if the product or service you are offering is directly related to animals or raising children, other than that they are black holes of no sales that you will tumble into an curse you into listening to the customer go on and on for the next 20-30 minutes.

Again, after rapport has been established and the customer agrees to work with you and you want to create a relationship with the customer, then this makes a lot of sense. Until that time, stick to the business at hand and build rapport that will help the customer make the right decision to work with you.

A Great Example

When I was a buyer at Fry’s Electronics in the software department, I would have up to 12 appointments in our “vendor days”, the days that our vendors would have a chance to come in and sell us on the latest-and-greatest in software. At the time, I was purchasing productivity software, the largest category of software at the time.

I had an appointment for a company called “InfoUSA” which sold information to other companies about companies; their software is still being used today for sales organizations to find other companies to approach for sales and many other uses. In consumer electronics, this sounded like the most boring, lame, and unmarketable things we could carry. Just un-sexy as all get out. I was 24, and I wanted something that I could plaster on a billboard that was going to get thousands of people running into our stores, and this was not the product.

The salesperson who came in was a tall man in his 50s with salt-and-pepper hair and a great handshake. He sat down and showed me the example of his box (which was very important at the time) and said “I know this product is not very exciting, but let me tell you why it is important.”

This caught my attention, because he verbalized exactly what I was thinking. It was a risk, because it was a little negative about his product, but it was a good gamble because it worked.

“When I was the head of sales at Sega of America, I used this exact software to find non-traditional customers for our products to help us beat Nintendo during the Genesis era.”

I was 24. I played video games. I knew about the “Console Wars” and this gentleman was on the front lines. He used this software, or so he said (I actually believe it was true), to help him win one of the biggest retail battles of all time; something that was near-and-dear to my heart. Did he establish a lot with that sentence? He absolutely did. And I allowed him to continue his pitch and actually ended up talking with him past the time I had allotted to ask him about what those halcyon days at Sega of America was like.

Needless to say, we not only started carrying the software, but promoted it as well with his help and did a pretty good job with selling it to consumers. In fact, we became one of InfoUSAs biggest retail customers.

This is a great example of what rapport can do. He built my confidence in the product and in his ability with one sentence. You can do it with you as well.

In closing

Rapport is the first step in establishing a solid relationship with a customer. If it is not established early, you are going to waste time: both yours and the prospective client or customer. Look deep within yourself to figure out what it is that you, as a salesperson, bring to the table. How can you add value to the product you are offering? How can you yourself make this purchasing process more enjoyable and easier and let the customer know that they are going to be able to accomplish what they want to do? Focus on that, help your customers understand why they should work for you, and you will be in great shape to build on that relationship.


  1. What are 3 things about the product or service that you offer that will help make your customer’s life easier or make their business more successful?

  2. What are 3 things about yourself that will help the customer feel more confident about working with you?

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