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How to Build Rapport With Just About Anyone

One of my guiding principles is that every business is a people business. It doesn’t matter what your industry is or what you do -- if you are not relating to the people you deal with, talk to, manage, or lead, your career will be a long, hard slog. That’s why building rapport is essential, especially when you’re forging a relationship and selling over the phone.

Rapport is the first step to earning confidence and trust, and it lets the prospect know you're not running the typical conversation between a pushy salesperson and browbeaten prospect. Here are six tried-and-true tips I use to build rapport.

Rapport Building Tips

  1. Research prospects on LinkedIn
  2. Understand your prospect's persona
  3. Get prospects to laugh
  4. Ask good opening questions
  5. Know when to switch to the sales conversation
  6. Ask follow-up questions

1) Research prospects on LinkedIn

Before every call, I review my prospect’s LinkedIn profile. Here are the things I look for:

  • Are they smiling in their profile picture?
  • How are they dressed?
  • What’s the background of their photo?
  • What kind of hairstyle do they have?
  • Do they have an advanced degree?
  • Have I been to a place they’re from, or went to school in?

The answers to these questions won’t tell you everything you need to know, of course, but they’ll give you clues to how your prospect perceives themselves and will behave. A 50-year-old man in a tie will behave differently than a millennial in a T-shirt and will quite naturally respond differently to the questions you ask.

2) Understand your prospect’s persona

Buyer personas describe business pain, job function, and other firmographic data that sum up who a prospect is and what they care about. Your company probably already has demographic information on who makes up your customer base. But you have to understand more than just demographics. You should also understand their priorities and how their job shapes their business focus -- that’s what makes a good buyer persona.

For example, in my role, I speak with individual contributors in Marketing and Sales, as well as senior executives. Marketers might be protective of their marketing efforts but are typically eager to learn and willing to collaborate with me to strengthen their long-term marketing strategy.

Salespeople are all about their numbers and very interested in specific and fast ways they can hit or exceed their numbers. Executives are all about strategic advantage, growing the business, and are interested in understanding competitive landscapes, the advantages your product will give them over other business, and other blockers to growth.

Each of these personas cares about different things, has a different personality, and needs to be communicated with differently. Rapport-building is all about meeting people on their turf and treating them how they want to be treated, so understanding your prospects’ personas is crucial.

3) Get prospects to laugh

Laughter is the best way to start a call. If you can make a prospect laugh, you make them more comfortable (and more likely to tell you what’s going on) and remind them that you’re a human too -- not just a faceless sales robot. It also makes the experience more enjoyable. Prospects who enjoy talking to me will spend more time in the sales process and will look forward to my calls more if they can relate to me on a level beyond just business.

4) Ask good opening questions

I ask extremely general questions to understand where the prospect is coming from. For each of these questions, the prospect’s voice tone is just as important as their answer. Are they into the conversation? Do they find it annoying? Do they seem distracted or engaged?

These questions are fun and lighthearted, and are an easy way to start getting to know your prospect without jumping right into qualification questions. Your objective is just to get your prospect talking as much as possible early on in the conversation so you can learn more about them as a person.

Avoid generic questions about the weather or sports -- “How’s the weather in Scottsdale?” or “How about the Celtics this season?” might seem like easy places to start, but they’re pedestrian questions that your prospect has probably heard dozens of times.

Open-Ended Conversation Starters

Use these questions to gauge your prospect’s mood and state of mind:

  • "How are you doing?"
  • "Are you having any fun today?"
  • "Wow, I can’t believe it’s Friday already. What’s your favorite day of the week?"

Lighthearted Universal Preferences

These questions can start a fun, playful discussion that helps you relate to your prospect on a personal level:

  • "Are you a cat or a dog person?"
  • "What’s your favorite drink?"
  • "How long have you lived in [city]? What’s your favorite restaurant? Your favorite time of year?"

Employment-Based Questions

These questions help you form a picture of your prospect on a professional level:

  • "How long have you worked at your company?"
  • "What is it like to work in X industry?"
  • "How did you land in your current role?"

5) Know when to switch to the sales conversation

Building rapport is not relationship selling. The days of Johnny Prospect buying from you because you are friends and took him for a round of golf and a steak dinner are over.

I usually spend three to six minutes on rapport-building, but with some people and in some markets, I spend double that. It’s all about reading your prospect -- some will be happy to talk your ear off, while others want to get straight to business.

Too much rapport-building can also make you seem like a glad-handing relationship seller. Just last week, I was shooting the breeze on a closing call with my prospect and referenced "The Wolf" in Pulp Fiction. It was just a little too much -- my prospect politely laughed but immediately steered the conversation back to the product.

After you ask a question, hit the mute button. Let the prospect talk and listen. You’ll hear the point where your prospect is thinking, “Enough chitchat -- let’s talk business.” Once you hit that point, move to the agenda and the reason for your call today.

6) Ask follow-up questions

Don't make small talk just to hear yourself speak. Build a relationship with your prospect by asking follow-up questions the next time you talk.

If you're sending them an email, add a sentence or two letting them know you watched that movie they mentioned during your last conversation.

At the beginning of your next call, inquire how their ski trip went last weekend. And as you're leaving a voicemail, throw in a question about how their daughter's dance recital went.

If you ask great questions but never build on them, your relationships will be less substantive and more shallow. Ask prospects genuine questions, and care what their answers are and what happens next.

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