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Building rapport with clients means getting down to business

June 8, 2017

Traditional approaches to building business relationships may be wearing thin. Consider taking a fresh look at how you connect with your clients.

Bart Shachnow

Sales Performance Director

As Sales Performance Director, Bart, with the help of his team, develops and delivers a broad range... About this expert

office handshake

Rapport-building has been the starting point for virtually every sales training course for what seems like generations. Professional salespeople are counseled to spend time at the beginning of every meeting on building an emotional connection with the buyer to lay the groundwork for a productive discussion.

This rapport-building should, so the advice goes, focus on areas that would seem to resonate with the buyer by showing interest in things like their family, mutual friends, an upcoming birthday or anniversary, or their favorite pro sports teams. In fact, most contact management programs prompt users to identify this type of personal information.

I have nothing against this approach. Building an emotional connection with a buyer is an essential part of the trust and credibility-building process. But sometimes, the effort substitutes for solid research in other areas that can accomplish the same objective while also helping make your meetings more productive. Furthermore, the downside of rapport-building that focuses on personal or family-related topics is that it risks appearing contrived, forced and potentially phony.

A more effective approach to rapport-building is to apply different strategies for business-related vs. purely personal interactions with clients. Consider the time and place of your conversation:

  • If you are taking a client (and perhaps his or her spouse) to dinner, a ballgame or a show, discussing personal and family issues is not only important, it’s also essential.
  • Rapport-building that takes place in an office or at a meeting should, if at all possible, focus on developments or trends within the client’s company or industry that may be impacting the client directly.

For example, say you’re in a business setting and talking to a client who is in the construction industry and facing a huge increase in orders associated with winning several new projects. Rapport-building might sound like this: “Sara, I’ve noticed that your company has won four new bids on healthcare-related construction contracts. First of all, congratulations! How do you see that impacting your division?” Or: “I’ve noticed that a new city ordinance may create some new opportunities for you. Do you see it the same way?”

When adopting these approaches, rapport-building is still focused on showing concern and interest, but related to their business and how a new development might impact the client directly. This is always a desired byproduct of effective rapport-building.

Naysayers may ask, “Why jump in so soon? It feels like you’re forcing the issue. Isn’t that just as bad?” My response would be that busy executives today are less inclined to “shoot the breeze” than they were in the past. Getting down to business quickly shows them respect and professional courtesy.

Ultimately, the time and manner in which you build rapport is a judgment call. But it may pay bigger dividends when you focus your concern and empathy on a client’s business challenges and the solutions you may have to offer.