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How to build rapport (and break rapport) with anyone

“What do you do?”
The classic question asked by a stranger at a networking event or gathering. Without going into the many ways that one could answer this timeless classic question, it really doesn’t matter what your industry is or what you actually do – you must grab their attention with your answer in that first couple of lines of your response, otherwise you will see the other person in the conversation break rapport. 

by Joey Nanai  I     17 March 2021

What does it look like when you break rapport, you might ask?! 

Well, have you ever been in a conversation with someone and they look over your shoulder at something or someone who has caught their attention, or, have you noticed the other person in the conversation answer the call or text notification from their phone ringing or vibrating in their pocket only to switch off from what you just shared about your role or company? That’s right. That’s exactly what breaking rapport looks like. 

It is when the other person or even you are distracted by what is happening around you and not focussing or giving your full attention to the person speaking, which in this case, is you. 

Human nature? Maybe. Rude? Possibly. Depends. Dealbreaker? (in sales) Absolutely.

If you are not relating to the people you deal with, talk to, manage, or lead, then I am afraid to tell you that your career will be a long, hard slog. That’s why building rapport is essential, especially when you’re forging a relationship and selling your product or service 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 sceptical prospect. If you are in the business to business or business to consumer space, here are six sure fire ways to build rapport with the right contact.

Rapport Building
• Research prospects on LinkedIn (sales navigator optional)
• Understand your prospect's persona and communicate accordingly
• Find a personal connection or common ground – (use humour)
• Ask good opening questions – “be interested, then be interesting”
• Know when and how to switch to the sales conversation
• Ask good follow-up questions

1)  Research prospects on LinkedIn (sales navigator optional)
Before every call, I review my prospect’s LinkedIn profile (I also use LinkedIn's paid sales gamechanger prospecting tool, Sales Navigator). 

Here are the things I look for:
How well presented are they in their profile photo?
What can I tell from their listed formal education?
What common ground do we share, if at all?
Is their bio summary written in the third person?
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 60-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 and communicate accordingly
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. The C-suite persona speaks a much different language to that of someone who works in operations. The key is to communicate according to the buyer persona you’re interacting with.

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)  Find a personal connection or common ground – (use humour)
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 – “be interested, then be interesting”
I ask extremely general questions to understand where the prospect is coming from and what is happening in their world. 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, light-hearted, 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 Parnell?” or “How about the Warriors 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’s your week so far?"
"what’s been happening?"
"Wow, I can’t believe it’s Friday already. What’s your favourite day of the week?"
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. Schmoozing is losing.

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. Play what’s in front of you.

After you ask a question, hit the mute button or as the kids write it these days, ‘STFU’. Let the prospect talk, and you just actively 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 good follow-up questions
Don't make small talk just to hear yourself speak. Telling is not selling. Build a relationship with your prospect by asking follow-up questions the next time you talk. Strengthen the rapport you are building by proving that you are actively listening and not just awaiting your turn to speak.

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. This proves you were interested in the conversation.

At the beginning of your next call, inquire how their ‘ski trip in Queenstown’ went last weekend. And as you're leaving a voicemail, throw in a question about how their daughter's dance recital went. Bonding and rapport building is underrated and undefeated.

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


Experienced sales people, what are some rapport building tips you have picked up during your career?

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