Customer Rapport: The Secret is the Secret

by Jim Stein

The term “customer rapport” is misunderstood by most company owners. The truth is, there are easy ways to improve your relationships with your clients and increase loyalty and referrals.

DEFINE Rapport
How do you define “good rapport” in a business sense? Many people define goodnot hand rapport as a spirit of friendliness that permeates every staff/customer interaction. It’s hard to argue with that definition, but I find it useful to redefine it in stark terms. I now define good rapport as the rapport that existed between prospect and staff when a sale was made; conversely, I define “bad rapport” as the rapport that was present when a sale was not made. This may seem like a simplistic copout at first blush, but here’s why I think this black-and-white definition is helpful.

Too many good-intentioned employees work hard at being friendly with every prospect. Sounds like a good approach, right? Not so fast! That “friendly first” style of developing rapport may rarely upset prospects and sometimes work with certain personality types, but it often fails to deliver sales. Read on and I’ll explain my thoughts on how to build rapport that’s more likely to result in sales and referrals.

WHY Rapport is so Important
Rapport is the emotional and sensory SOLUTION in which decisions are made. If you don’t eat all day and then take a simple grocery list to the store, you’ll likely buy a lot more than what’s on the list because you’re so hungry. Each buying decision is made with a hungry belly. That’s the SOLUTION I’m talking about—it’s the emotional/sensory state of the prospect. Your staff’s attempts at developing rapport impact your prospects’ emotional/sensory states. Getting the rapport right gives prospects the best chance to choose your company. It also makes them likely to refer your company, because you’ve engaged both their heads and hearts.

Let’s get personal. Write down five names of people with whom you’ve had the best rapport in the world. Now, next to each name, write the type of relationship (brother, wife, friend) and the number of years you’ve known them. Finally, indicate if you’ve shared some confidential personal details and feelings relating to your life stories with each other—aspects and feelings you haven’t shared with most other people.

When I’ve conducted this experiment in groups over the last 20 years, I’ve had each group share their list with other members in the group. Then the group draws general conclusions from all the lists. Their conclusions are always the same:

1. Names don’t matter (there were a lot of different names on everyone’s list).

2. How long you’ve known a person matters (long-term relationships were typical).

3. Relationship statuses matter (“family member,” “spouse” and “friend” ranked high).

4. The intimate knowledge of personal stories and shared “secrets” matters most. Group members always point out that, although they’ve known a number of people for 10 years or more, the person on their “Best Rapport” list whom they’ve known for a similar length of time knows them better than anyone. And in turn, they know the person deeply; they’ve shared feelings about life’s triumphs, failures and events.

The SECRET is the Secret for Good Rapport
How do you take the results of this experiment and use them in your business to create good rapport with your prospects and customers—rapport that leads to new sales and referrals? It can be challenging, so we’ll use the above template and take it one step at a time.

1. Names: No problem. Let’s move on.

2. How long you’ve known a person: This is a big issue. How do you recreate in one hour the rapport that can develop over 20 years? You can’t. But you can use the most optimal relationship status and share personal stories to essentially speed up the relationship clock.

3. Relationship status: While we can’t become a prospect’s father, brother or daughter, we can relate to her in a manner that borrows from the best qualities of these natural relationships. There are definite differences in typical positive patterns of interaction between friends versus between a father and daughter or mother and son.

First, we try to identify the type of relationship status we should adopt. We always start off friendly and assess who we’re talking to. As we discuss our products and services, we infuse our statements and answers to questions with personal anecdotes and parts of our personalities. Prospects usually respond in kind with more personal versions of their questions and observations. (If not, we stop sharing ours.) Soon, the rapport has deepened. The art of developing the relationship status is to match your personal style of sharing with the style of sharing your prospect is providing.

4. Shared secrets: You only just met a prospect, but you can “make time fly” and make it feel like you’ve known each other for quite a while. The secret is the secret. You have to be able to tap into your own life stories and share them in relation to what’s important to your prospect.

Think about when you met that special someone. You sat for hours and poured your stories out to each other. This multiplied the depth of your rapport many times over. Before the night was over you both felt like you knew the other better than most people you’d known for years. Why? Because you shared your secrets.

Which secrets should you share? Use those that relate to the values your prospect or customer is relating in their anecdotes. I’m using the word “values,” not actual items. If a customer brings up fishing, the value isn’t necessarily the act of fishing; as you probe, you might see the gleam in his eye as he talks about the fishing trips he went on with his grandfather. Now you’re getting to relevant values and can relate your personal stories. If you can tell a customer takes a lot of pride in her self-sufficiency and work quality, build rapport by tapping into the work quality/self-sufficiency value instead of a cliché default, like, “Gee, that’s a nice necklace you made yourself.”

Putting It All Together
Creating the right rapport for each individual prospect or customer is our goal. describe the imageThis is an ongoing process—it requires us to train staff in the art of creating good rapport. Within each of us are all the values we need to relate to others and stories that help us touch these values. We need to discover which values will make our customers feel most confident about their purchases and then tap into our “secret stories” (that are aligned with the appropriate values) to enhance our rapport.

Figure out what relationship status you adopt with your prospect. If they’re demanding, it may make sense to adopt the role of an efficient assistant. If they’re uncertain, you may become a directing parent or expert authority figure. Probe to get a sense of the values that make them tick, then use your personal secrets or anecdotes to communicate your appreciation for these values. This will deepen and speed up the relationship clock, resulting in more sales from prospects and referrals from customers.

Here are a couple of examples:

Example #1 – The Son: Years ago, when I was 25 years old, I was presenting an advertising opportunity to a couple in their 60s who owned an auto body shop. I presented in a friendly manner and asked questions about their business and background. I made a point of probing deeper on every personal revelation. I sensed their stories had strong family/child-centric themes, and I could see their enthusiasm for those topics. They spoke through a parent prism. So, to enhance rapport, which would allow them to better understand the advertising opportunity I was presenting, I included more personal stories of my childhood and listened to stories of them raising their family. The presentation began to take on a parent/son dynamic—at one point, I even asked them if they thought I should get married before I was 30! All this plus a signed contract occurred within one hour of our first meeting.

Example #2 – I’m Reporting to You (Demanding & Detailed): Last year, as I negotiated to put together long-term, strategic partnerships with several media companies, I saw a real difference in how my different contacts developed rapport with me. In evaluating media properties for the Diamond Certified Program to be promoted, I know I’m fairly demanding and very detail-oriented in the types of data that I request to analyze. The most successful rapport approach was adopted by a two-person sales team at KNBR. All the media representatives probed on rapport strategies, and most settled on the typical “How’s your family” and “How about those Giants?” defaults. KNBR was able to customize their rapport by meeting my demanding data requirements with enthusiasm, responding quickly and showing a willingness to debate the details. They made it appear that they were reporting to me. Many of their competitors got flustered with my demands for details and discussions, but they engaged and knew this was the key to winning rapport with my personality type. They achieved success when I signed a three-year marketing partnership with their media properties!

As you engage your prospects and customers, the first step is to think about rapport and the points made in this arti