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How to Build Rapport in Sales

How to Build Rapport in Sales and Connect with People

blog author
Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

If you want to be a successful salesperson, you need to get comfortable with skepticism. Why? Because people have doubts about one another. In its Trust and Distrust in America report, Pew Research Center found that 71% of Americans think interpersonal confidence has worsened in the past two decades. Nearly half of Americans think the reason is unreliability.

For salespeople, it’s safe to assume that a certain level of skepticism is the norm.

It’s not all bad news, however. That same Pew Research report found that nearly six in 10 Americans think building confidence in each other is highly important. People want to trust each other, despite rampant skepticism. And people want to buy from people they know, like, and trust. The way to earn that status is to focus on building and maintaining relationships, and not only on the transactional nature of closing a deal.

The way to do it is to build rapport.

So, how do you build rapport with buyers? The first step is to make the time and space for it. Really! People can pick up on even subtle indicators of disinterest, boredom, or hurry. Be human and conversational. Say hello, make eye contact, and break the ice.

If you're meeting with multiple people, fill time with conversation while you wait for others to show up. Unless you can tell the buyer wants to jump into business with military precision, do what you can to build rapport early in your conversation.

But be careful to make a sincere connection. Too often, chit-chat seems contrived because it feels forced, generic, or superficial. To achieve a level of sincerity and build true rapport before, during, and after your calls and meetings, try these seven strategies.

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7 Tips for Building Rapport in Sales

1. Be yourself

Step one in building rapport is all about staying true to you. Channel your inner Oscar Wilde, who once said, “be yourself—everyone else is already taken.” His words still hit home, especially in an age when “authentic” has become a buzzword, and your prospects and customers can smell an act from a mile away.

Then again, “be yourself” can be a bit of a cliche too. What does it actually mean for salespeople?

  • Don't try to be anything you're not, create a new persona, or adopt a "sales-like" tone.
  • Relax, smile, and go in with a positive attitude.
  • Give genuine compliments. Don’t say you like the buyer’s office if, deep down, you think it’s tacky.
  • Try not to overdo it, as most buyers equate over-friendliness and saccharine smiles with fakeness.
  • Ask questions and solicit advice to show vulnerability, encourage cooperation, and facilitate sharing.

2. Be friendly

Right or wrong, chilly people get chilly reactions from others. Even if you’re not the warmest person in the world, there are still some simple ways to be warm and friendly. Smile, for one. Give a firm handshake, make eye contact, and engage with the person in front of you.

Again, avoid “forcing the friendliness.” Most of us know someone who wanted to be liked so much that it showed. That person likely appeared needy and conspicuous, which are not ideal perceptions to engender during a sales call. We’ve found that asking follow-up questions is a great vehicle for coming across as friendly and conversational (more on that later).

3. Show real interest

Tunnel vision isn't good for building rapport. Sure, people are naturally self-focused (I’m no different). But a seller will find it difficult to build rapport if they only focus on closing the deal—especially if it’s at the expense of learning about buyers, hearing their needs, and crafting a tailored solution.

Buyers want to feel like they have an opportunity to share what they're thinking, including their desires, fears, and problems. More importantly, they want to feel like they're being heard. The more you can show you're listening to them by making the effort to relate, the more likely they are to keep talking.

I’m talking about empathy. Empathic sellers are:

  • Aware of what’s going on here and now, rather than thinking of what they’re going to say next
  • In-tune with the buyer's verbal and non-verbal cues
  • Capable of discussing buyers’ goals and challenges without pitching
  • Consistent about following up
  • Mindful of the difference between empathy and sympathy

4. Find common ground

When it comes to people, like attracts like. The more you can uncover shared interests, the greater your ability to build rapport. Maybe you:

  • Went to the same school
  • Lived in the same city
  • Have children of similar ages
  • Enjoy the same TV shows, sports interests, or hobbies
  • Have shared connections

These are similarities. Similarities pave the way to a stronger connection.

Another way to find common ground is through shared experience. This is all about interaction and collaboration. It’s easily confused with a similarity, but the two aren't the same:

  • Similarity = “We’re both fans of golf”
  • Shared experience = “Let’s play golf together”

Even spending a short time together on a casual game of golf, dinner, a cup of coffee, or attending an event is enough to move from the “stranger” category to “friend.” But don’t restrict your thinking to a traditional in-person experience. If you’re selling in-person or virtually, you can create shared experiences through interactions. For example, how you come together to:

  • Define a problem
  • Craft a solution
  • Devise a strategy to present the solution
  • Work collaboratively to come to the right agreement and terms

The essence of shared experience is creating the feeling that you and the buyer are working towards a common goal and are on the same team. When you do this, buyers like you more and are much more likely to take action.


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5. Give genuine compliments

Sycophants get nowhere, but genuine compliments are endearing. If you like the office, a buyer's website, or are impressed with the books on the wall, say so. If the buyer had a recent accomplishment, relay your authentic congratulations.

To avoid coming across as insincere:

6. Calibrate the rapport

New sellers are often sensitive to a buyer’s time. They may think, I have an hour and she's the CEO. No time for chit-chat. So, they dive right in without an ice breaker. Others spend too much time chatting, failing to notice how anxious the buyer is to get started.

In both situations, the culprit is assumption. Instead of assuming the CEO has little time, start building rapport and adjust based on the feedback you’re receiving.

Read the other person—including their verbal and non-verbal cues—to calibrate your relationship building.

7. Read the culture

It's always best to be yourself, but remember to adjust your approach depending on who the other person is, or which company they work for. Don't change who you are to fit the culture, but be aware of how the culture works and might impact your conversation.

For example, you might not want to show up to a suit-and-tie-type operation in your tie-dyed Grateful Dead ’95 shirt (unless you're meeting with me, in which case I'd be impressed). And you might want to dial back your choice of attire and approach for the jeans-and-sneakers shop with the 'Never Lose Your Whimsy!' sign on the wall.

Finally, do yourself a favor: avoid bashing. I’ve seen too many sellers get too comfortable, too early, only to assume they’re clear to openly bash something. Whether it’s a politician, sports, or the weather in Siberia, the rest of the call is going to be painful if assume incorrectly.

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Rapport Building Isn't a Sales Script, It’s a Discipline

You can memorize all of the scripts, talk tracks, and scenarios you want. But you can’t script being yourself, showing real interest, or any of the other tips shared above. In many ways, these are intangible skills with tangible means of execution. And sometimes, the buyer still might not respond the way you want.

Building rapport is often a feel. It’s about instincts and emotional intelligence. And these qualities are developed over time by consistently applying some of the tips and tangibles we’ve listed above. If you’re wondering how to build better rapport in your sales relationships, change your approach and treat this particular skill like a discipline. Work on it. Hone it. Try, fail, and refine—over and over again.

Once you do that, you'll be well on your way to creating the lasting sales relationships you're looking for.

Last Updated December 21, 2023

Topics: Sales Conversations