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How Do You Build Rapport with Customers?

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

Everybody's brain has two different processing centers: emotional and rational. The emotional brain is old. It developed millions of years ago, first with raw instincts—like fight or flight—that all animals have, and then into more complex emotions for us humans like anger, aggression, desire, fear, hatred, passion, love, disgust, sympathy, and so on.

Then there's the rational side, which developed more like tens of thousands of years ago. This part of the brain is more deliberate, analyzing and studying, and thinking about the future consequences of various possible actions.

What psychologists know about decision making is that when the rational and emotional side work together, it's a powerful motivator for action. When the emotional and rational sides are at odds, however, the emotional side typically wins.

The consequences for selling are profound, and it all starts with building rapport. The fundamental question of whether someone likes you or doesn't drives a significant portion of how your selling process and the customer's decision process will go.

Building rapport leads to some very important outcomes:

  • People talk to people they like
  • People share information with people they like
  • People buy from people they like
  • People feel loyalty to people they like
  • People introduce people they like

In 2013, the General Social Survey asked, "What percent of people are trustworthy?"

The average response? 30%.

But when asked, "What percent of people that you know are trustworthy?"

The average response was 70%.

Simply knowing leads to trust. We all know intuitively how important trust is when selling. Basic familiarity makes a difference in building trust. Knowing and liking…well, that's much more powerful, setting the stage for all selling success that comes after.

If you want to build rapport with customers, you need to succeed with the 4 Principles of Rapport: empathy, authenticity, similarity, and shared experience. Watch the video and continue reading below to learn more.



[Rapport is the R in RAIN Selling. To learn more, download our ebook RAIN Selling: Keys to Leading Masterful Sales Conversations.]


4 Ways to Build Rapport with Customers

RAIN Group's 4 Principles of Rapport create a solid foundation for strong customer relationships.

  1. Cultivate empathy by getting customers to talk about themselves and proving that you're listening.

    Question: What gives your brain as much pleasure as food and money?

    Answer: Talking about yourself.

    Harvard neuroscientists Diana Tamir and Jason Mitchell have conducted a series of behavioral experiments pointing to the fact that talking about yourself feels so rewarding, right down to brain cells and synapse, that people can't help sharing details about themselves.

    If you can get people talking about themselves, you've made some progress. If you can show them that you're actually listening to them, they'll be strongly inclined to like you.

    What you develop is Rapport Principle #1: Empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. If you want to understand another person, a) get them talking about themselves, and b) demonstrate that you're listening.

    [Download 50 Powerful Sales Questions for rapport-building questions you can ask.]

  2. Demonstrate authenticity by dropping the dog-and-pony show and being yourself.

    While most people like a listener, few people like a faker. Anyone who comes across as fake or phony might as well open the other person's brain and press the dislike button.

    Which brings us to Rapport Principle #2: Authenticity. Be Real.

    People like people who are genuine. Research and practice give us quite a bit to go on when it comes to being authentic:

    • Smile slower. There's actual research from the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior that says when you smile slower, and seem to ease your way into it, it develops the sense of authenticity.
    • Mostly, don't overdo it. Over-friendliness and saccharin-sweetness often seem like obvious ploys to connect, and ultimately fall flat.
  3. Find a similarity with your customer that puts you on a level playing field.

    People like people like them.

    Which brings us to Rapport Principle #3: Similarity. The more you can find common ground, the more likely you are to develop genuine rapport and like each other.

    Various psychological studies show people like names better when they're similar to theirs. They prefer brands when they share their initials. They prefer that people move the way they move.

    What can you do to apply the similarity principle?

    Find interests and background in common with the other person and you can make and deepen connections. Anyone who has shared a favorite TV show with someone, a favorite author, a favorite sport, a favorite activity, kids the same age, hobbies, and so on, knows what it feels like to have a connection with someone just because of that one similarity.

    Another way to practice the similarity principle is to mirror customers' basic behaviors. If they speak slowly, they likely prefer people who do too. If they speak quickly, the same. They lean forward, you lean forward. And so on.

    The idea here is not to outright mimic, but interact in ways customers like to interact, and interact like them, and you'll develop better connection and rapport.

  4. Created a shared experience to connect with your customer.

    Everyone likes intestinal meat, right? I mean, it's so popular, it's springing up on menus in all the hippest restaurants, and kids are just begging for it.

    Well, maybe not, but Rapport Principle #4 might just be able to make it happen.

    One of the founders of organizational psychology, Kurt Lewin, set up a psychology study in the 1940s with two groups of homemakers. His team lectured the first group about all the reasons for, and benefits of, eating intestinal meats. They also applied social pressure and played on the homemakers' senses of patriotism ("You'll help the war effort") to persuade them. They even brought in others to talk about how much they loved intestinal meat, and gave the homemakers recipes to try.

    The second group participated in a facilitated discussion. Study leaders asked the homemakers about how they might persuade other homemakers to bring the benefits of intestinal meat to their families. They talked it out, role played conversations, and shared ideas.

    The results were astounding:

    • 32% of the collaborative discussion group went on to serve intestinal meat to their families at home
    • only 3%(!) of the first group did

    People who are talked at don't feel connected to the speaker. People who are involved in a process and who actively interact develop a stronger liking for the people who are interacting with them and, at the same time, develop a sense of psychological ownership over whatever they're working on.

    Which brings us to Rapport Principle #4: Shared Experience.

    If you're selling, you can create a shared experience with your customer by making the process collaborative. For example:

    • Define the problem using your customer's own words
    • Craft a solution alongside your customer, brainstorming together, and co-creating value
    • Devise a strategy to present the solution to the rest of your customer's team or board
    • Work collaboratively to come to the right agreement and terms

    When you do, they'll not only like you more, but also be more likely to take action on whatever it is you want them to do.

    It's also true that if you simply spend time with people—dinner, coffee, events, and so on—your affinity for one another will rise.

    So, if you want to build rapport and increase your influence with customers, interact with them. Create shared experience.

Rapport is the foundation for building relationships. Sellers, professionals, and leaders who have great relationships tend to have great success. As you're building rapport with customers, think of it less as a mechanical part of how you should lead a meeting, and more as an investment in building a relationship.

To build rapport with customers, attend to these 4 principles:

  1. Empathy: Be curious. Listen. Care.
  2. Authenticity: Be real.
  3. Similarity: Find common ground.
  4. Shared Experience: Interact.
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Topics: Sales Conversations