Recently, someone shared with me a B2B sales training tool that directed the salesperson to spend the first ten minutes of a sales call building rapport with their contact before sharing an agenda and beginning the sales conversation they proposed when they asked their prospective client for their time.
The direction was specific regarding the order in which things were to be done. Also, the time spent in each segment of the meeting was specific, suggesting that the approach is always the same, regardless of whether it serves the people sitting across the table from the salesperson. Human conversations tend to be more dynamic, and different contacts may need different approaches.
When do you build rapport in the sales conversation?
Location Provides Clues
Specific geographic locations dictate that you don’t spend the first ten minutes building rapport—or better stated, attempting to build—rapport. New York City provides the best example. People move faster there and are generally less interested in rapport building early, preferring to get down to business quickly. The Northeast Corridor in the United States fits this general pattern, as do places like London. Trying to build rapport with someone interested in a different conversation is like giving you cat a bath; you make the cat angry, and you’re going to leave with scratches.
As you move South in the United States, ten minutes may not be enough time for rapport. In places where relationships are important, your contact may want you to answer questions about who you are and who you know, sharing with you who they are and how they ended up in their role. In places where things don’t move at the same pace, rapport building is a custom and appropriate.
These are generalizations, and all generalizations are lies, even they provide some value. Generalizations ignore the fact that there are exceptions. One of which is your contact’s preference.
What Your Contact Wants
It might be your preference to start a business conversation by trying to develop rapport with your contact before starting your meeting, but that may not be what your contact wants or needs from you, which is why there are no rules in sales, and you have to know them all. A busy contact who agreed to your meeting agenda because your value proposition was important to them may need you to make good use of their time by starting the conversation they agreed to when you asked for the meeting.
Other contacts may want to learn about you and share information about themselves before entering into the conversation. When this is true, pushing to start with the meeting agenda means ignoring what the person sitting across from you wants from you. Knowing when to build rapport and how much time to spend doing so means paying attention to the signs your contacts are giving you. When contacts look at their watch, they aren’t trying to find out what time it is as much as they are telling you what time it is.
The Art of Conversation
There is always a question about whether to build rapport first or deal with the business agenda and end with a more personal conversation.
My personal bias is to offer an agenda and start the business agenda instead of working to build rapport on a first call, partly because I believe the business conversation helps to build rapport, and in part, because the sales conversation allows for rapport building when done well. You might also worry about starting a conversation with a lot of rapport building because it can give the contact the impression that you are a time waster and not someone serious about helping them with better results. There are always opportunities to weave in questions that allow you to learn about your contacts without carving out the first—or last—ten minutes. This is the art of conversation.
What makes one adept at the art of conversation is their ability to recognize the opportunity to ask questions that allow rapport building without derailing the sales conversation. Asking the person how they came to their company and where they were before works to get people talking about themselves. You can also ask them how long they’ve been in their role and about their biggest challenges up to this point. You can also ask them about their initiatives and the results that are most important to them.
Being sincerely interested in other people improves your ability to build rapport. There is no end of questions you can ask to get to know your client and begin developing a relationship. Intimacy means you know me, know what I want or need, and care about helping me achieve my goals. It means we have a relationship.
Rapport Compounds Over Time
It seems that the more meetings you have with a contact, the more personal the conversations grow, as one would expect. It’s easier and more natural to start with small talk because you are more familiar, and you can do so without the risk of being a time-waster, in large part because you have created value for your contact in earlier calls.
Rapport building is a key component of relationship selling. Human relationships don’t generally lend themselves to artificial limits like “ten minutes of rapport-building, no more, no less, always at the beginning of the call.” You serve your client best by paying attention to what will serve them, and you adjust your approach accordingly.
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