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Building rapport – or getting on with the client

Building rapport is basically about getting on with the client. It’s one of the key consulting skills that more technically-oriented consultants overlook. Without the skills to build rapport, the basic consulting goals of selling, influencing, guiding and managing are much more difficult (if not impossible) to achieve.

Building Rapport: Never tell the client their baby is ugly

A wise consultant once told me it is never a good idea to tell the client their “baby is ugly”. First meeting with the client is not the time to bring out all the (reasonably obvious, at least to you) flaws in their organisation’s approach to the consulting assignment, or their management style. It’s not necessarily the time to lord it over the client about how much you know. It’s the time to be affable. Being affable is about being in rapport with your consulting client. It requires you to be able to walk a mile in their shoes. When you and a client get on well, when you are in rapport, they are happy to take on your ideas, and follow your lead.

This article looks at rapport issues in brief. I cover:

  • Defining rapport – what is it
  • Examples of rapport in the world
  • What good rapport can do
  • The psychological basis for rapport and why it works
  • Subtlety or fakery – doing rapport well
  • Testing rapport
  • Selling happiness
  • When do you walk away from a client?

Defining rapport

Rapport is really about reducing the differences between you and your client, and building your similarities.

In normal conversation we already do this – we look for things we have in common, such as people we know, schools we went to, former employers, where we live, the age of our children.

Take an example. Jane runs a film accounting business. She was going off to Hollywood to talk to the Americans about using her services in some of their films, and about licensing her software. She and I spoke before she went, and she told me how apprehensive she was about meeting this people and how different they were to her.

She didn’t know about rapport, so I told her a bit about it, and how to test for it. I also talked about how our interests and businesses are more global, but how our sense of belonging is becoming more tribal. This is the basic idea behind John Naisbitt’s book Global Paradox.

Jane was part of the accounting tribe. As such, I figured she would find more in common with the people in LA who did accounting than they had in common with other Americans, especially the creative types within the film industry. It was true. One of her potential clients, a studio executive, got on so well with her that he took her children to Disneyland, showed her around their studios, and then took her family to dinner. So much for having nothing in common.

Rapport in the world

So where can you see rapport in action in the world? People who are in rapport have the conscious similarities I listed, such as friends, schools, and where they live, but they also have unconscious similarities.

If you’ve ever seen two friends having coffee, they can be both sitting with a cheek on one hand. They will often even take a sip of their coffee at the same time, or if they’re smokers, puff on a cigarette at the same time.

In a meeting, you can often get information about who’s allied with whom, just based on the body positions they adopt. The ones who are supporting the motion will, as a general rule, have similar body postures. Likewise those against, and those sitting on the fence. It doesn’t matter which particular position it is – it could be sitting back from the table, relaxed, leaning on one elbow, or legs or arms crossed. What’s important is that it’s similar, and when the “leader” of the group changes their posture, the others who are “with them” follow.

People with whom you “automatically” get along are usually people who are like you. People who are like each other like each other. But if you don’t always get along with a client instantly, or see eye to eye with them at first sight, help is at hand. If you truly believe that your services are invaluable, if you think that the consultancy you offer will make a difference to the client, then building rapport gives you to help them to like you when you first meet.

What good rapport can do

So what can good rapport do?  Take an example I saw (and was a little jealous of!).

Gus met Ilone at a training course I attended. They hit it off instantly. Their senses of humour matched, they had friends in common. As Gus was a consultant, and Ilone a Human Resources manager looking for someone to work with her department Ilone hired him to do a short job with her company. It involved creating a clearer, fairer, competency based training system for her organisation.

Nearly four years later Ilone has moved on to another company, and she uses Gus as a consultant there. Gus still works with the HR department at the old company. Gus was lucky, because he found a client who he had instant rapport with. It’s the ideal situation. But sometimes we’re not all that lucky.

The psychological basis for rapport

Building rapport is based on looking for grounds of similarity. Robert Cialdini (in his book Influence and Persuasion) calls this influence principle “liking”. Whatever you’ve noticed about the client, you can build similarities with. This is one reason to keep notes on who the client is, so you can build rapport again easily when you meet them for a second or third time.

The Liking principle is a good principle to base your rapport on. And it doesn’t have to be hard. Joe Girard, who holds the Guinness World Record as the salesman who has sold the most cars, sends out more than 13,000 cards each month, to celebrate his customers’ birthdays, Valentines days or anniversaries. All it says inside the card is “I like you”. He attributes his outstanding sales success to keeping in touch with his clients.

Although buying a car may be different to working with a consultant in your organisation, because it’s a longer term investment, the idea is similar. If you know you can work with the organisation, if they’re an organisation you think you want to work with, you can consciously build up a liking with your clients. Why leave it to accidents of personality, if what you do is important?

People are more likely to like things that are associated with something they like. Research shows that young men in general rate sports cars photographed with scantily-clad women as faster, more expensive-looking and better designed. The key point here is that it is not a conscious thing. But when researchers pointed this out, the same men did not believe the presence of the woman made any difference. But the research bears it out.

What does your client like, and how can you be associated with it? If your client likes a particular sport, it helps to listen to the scores the night before you meet with them. If your client’s children have a hobby, consider sponsoring the sports team or dance troupe or school that they go to. Associate your consultancy, and your name, with things they already are positively disposed towards.

Familiarity is also important. Another research study found that when people had faces flashed on screen in front of them, people liked more the ones they had already seen, even though they had no recollection of ever having seen them before.

Subtlety or fakery – doing rapport well (or not)

Building rapport is not just about wearing the same clothes as your client. It’s not just about matching their body posture (crossing your legs when they cross theirs, scratching your head when they scratch theirs). It’s also about finding similarities at a level the client may not even be aware of.

At a recent sales seminar, one speaker described “doing that NLP stuff” as “like wearing a clown suit into work”. What he meant was that if all you do is parrot the client, their ways of being or their ways of behaving, then you will break, rather than build rapport. Once your conscious rapport building comes into the awareness of the client, then it stops building rapport, and starts to break it.

The essential thing is to make sure that the rapport building you do is natural. If you truly believe in what you are selling the client, then you will take the time to make sure that pace (match) them well. Sue tells the story of her friend Mark who came to sell her an insurance policy. Where he was usually a natural rapport builder, laughing with her, on this particular day it was like he’d gone to a sales seminar and swallowed the manual. Instead of finding out her needs in his normal voice, he had a suave, sales person voice. Rather than acting “naturally” he seemed to mimic every gesture she made, mirroring every body movement. She didn’t buy an insurance policy that day, and nor were relationships ever the same between her and Mark. She told him that she felt insulted by his “monkeying” her every movement. How many other clients had felt similarly manipulated by clumsy attempts to build rapport?

Testing for rapport

Testing your rapport is simple. To give a physical example, imagine yourself at coffee with a friend. You’re both laughing and talking together, and you notice that you have unconsciously adopted the same body posture as your friend, legs crossed, one hand around the coffee cup, the other hand touching the table. If you really are in rapport, when you lift the cup to drink, your friend will lift their cup to drink very soon afterwards, if not at the same time.

Similarly with a client, if you have diagnosed their type well enough you can get into rapport with them (this is called Pacing). Physically, you can match or mirror their behaviour – let’s say you’re both sitting back in your chairs. Then you can change your behaviour – say by folding your arms. See how long it is before they follow you. If they don’t, then go back to pacing their behaviour, until they come with you.

Selling happiness

I call Brenda a consultant who “sells happiness”. None of her solutions are particularly innovative. Nothing she does is particularly clever. Her clothes are not particularly swanky, she often doesn’t quite look the part of the consultant. She rarely brings an assignment in on time, or on budget. She spends very little time on her professional development, and she tends to pick up one idea and flog it to death. And yet she has a very successful consulting business.

How she does it is she builds rapport with her clients. She knows the principle of availability, affability and ability works in just that order, and once her client knows she’s available she exploits her affability fully. She never makes a move before ensuring the client is on her side. She gets in-synch with the client, telling them what they want to hear, for much longer than the average consultant does. Although she has the “arrogance” that seems to come with consulting, she is also extremely likeable. And clients like her back. And they keep on asking her to come back. They may know that her solutions are ordinary, but they also know how pleasant it is to do business with her, and how smoothly she works with them.

When do you say this client’s not for me?

Of course, you do need to set up your own parameters for who and how you want to work. If the client doesn’t like you, or if you have to compromise yourself too much to become a familiar, likeable person, associated with positive things, do you want to work with them?

You need to determine what sort of clientele you are looking for before you start selling. There are several ways to do this, but the simplest is to profile a hypothetical ideal client. In Consulting Mastery (one of the books available on this site) you will find an easy-to-use ideal client profile questionnaire.

When we as consultants get proactive about the sort of personalities, processing styles, ethics and values we are prepared to work with, our focus gets sharper, and the clients we want end up coming to us.

When we force ourselves to work with people we don’t like, no matter how hard we try, or clients for whom we need to make a constant effort, then it makes our job that much harder. If instead we can put our efforts into solving the client’s problems more efficiently and effectively, and less into building difficult relationships, then we can help the client more.

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