11 Professional Tips for Building Customer Rapport

Building customer rapport is that ice-breaking part of sales and service of getting the customer to like you. Can you remember the last time you were convinced by somebody you disliked? Without goodwill, it’s hard to convince anybody of anything.

There's ample evidence for the power of rapport. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman explains that people process the words of a speaker more easily when they're in a good mood.

What's more, the Halo Effect explains how our brains fill in the blanks about a stranger based on first impressions. When you meet a person who is confident and funny, you'll subconsciously assume she's trustworthy and intelligent as well.

This leads to the conclusion you may have already suspected: people are more receptive to a sales/service people they like than to those they dislike.

All things being equal, people will do business with, and refer business to, those people they know, like and trust.

Bob Burg

That’s why building up comfort and liking in the customer is a worthwhile investment. Here are 11 pro tips for building rapport – for breaking the ice – in sales and support.

1
Find common ground

This is the first principle of building customer rapport. A topic of mutual interest allows both sides to talk on a comfortable basis. Notice how often small talk drifts towards the trending TV series. They’re a topic almost all of us can talk about.

Hitting common ground with a stranger also turns you and that person into members of the same ‘in-group’. The in-group – out-group theory is one of the major social identity theories, and states that people form social alliances based on in-groups – "us" – versus out-groups – "them".

The theory was popularized by Henri Taijfel. He found that people could form self-preferring in-groups within a matter of minutes. What’s more, they could base them on seemingly insignificant shared characteristics like, say, their favorite TV series. “You like Narcos? Yeah man, I like Narcos as well. ¡Plata o plomo!”

2
The law of self-disclosure

In The Like Switch, ex-FBI agent Jack Schafer shares “the 13 laws of attraction”. These are 13 principles taught to FBI agents for making a favorable impression.

Book cover of The Like Switch

One of these is the law of self disclosure. It states that the more you share about yourself, the more the other person will reveal about herself in return. So despite the other central theme of letting the other side do most of the talking (more below), opening up yourself first can be a valid strategy when dealing with a reserved customer.

But this is best done gradually and tactically. Technique #22 in How to Talk to Anyone is to accentuate the positive. Start with safe topics. “I’ve visited Amsterdam a few times in the summer”, is cool. “I got so hammered last time I visited Amsterdam!” might be too much.

3
Instant history

Book cover of How to Talk to Anyone

How to Talk to Anyone shares another specific tip for finding common ground: instant history.

With this technique you look for a special memory that you and the customer have in common. Last time I was talking to a guy I noticed was a big fan of the Dutch football team.

I mentioned the World Cup final of 2010. "Where did you watch it?" And so we were exchanging memories of this historic moment. By guiding the conversation to this special shared memory, we built up a little common history.

4
Name usage

Dale Carnegie already mentioned the importance of name usage in his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People.

So few people take the deliberate effort of remembering names that when you do, it’s an instant compliment. It tells the person that she's memorable.

Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

Dale Carnegie

Some people overuse this tactic, which makes it come off awkward and fake in face to face contact. But that's different over the phone. How to Talk to Anyone discusses the Name Shower.

Because there’s no face-to-face contact over the phone, it’s easy for your thoughts to wander off. Because people “perk up” by the sound of their own name, the repeated use of the name over the phone serves as an attention call.

Check my post on customer service techniques for some effective ways to memorize names.

5
The Premature “we”

Another tip from How to Talk to Anyone. Leil Lowndes describes the four levels human conversations typically pass through:

  1. Sharing clichés
  2. Sharing facts
  3. Sharing personal questions and feelings
  4. “We” statements

The latter is when you talk with your customer using words like “we”, “us”, and “our”. “We'll find a solution”, “Let’s look at it together”, “Let’s make a good impression on our bosses”. These words create a group feeling.

While these “we” statements naturally come after personal questions, you can take a shortcut and use them early on. You’ll speed up feelings of intimacy.

6
Mirroring

This is another core principle of building rapport. When people like each other, they tend to assume the same body posture. But this also works the other way around. Although it happens subconsciously, people like those who mirror them.

Besides the body, mirroring can also be done with the voice – echoing.

7
Echoing

Just like we feel at ease with people who move like us, we feel at ease with people who sound like us. Echoing is Leil Lowndes’ 45th communication tip – listening to and echoing back your customer’s vocabulary choice.

When your customer uses the word “converse” above simple “talk”, try to follow him in his peculiarity.

8
Humor

The 6th law of attraction states that the appropriate use of humor in social interactions makes you seen as more attractive and reliable. Humor can also be a powerful tool in disarming angry people; it’s hard to stay angry with someone who makes you laugh.

Joking around angry people does bear the risk of being interpreted as not taking the other side seriously enough, so do take care with this tactic.

Perhaps more important than your ability to arouse laughter in your customer is the ability to arouse laughter in yourself. When the customer makes a joke you had better deploy the appropriate mirroring: laugh.

9
The Swiveling Spotlight

While the Law of Self Disclosure suggests you to talk about yourself, this talking has the higher purpose of getting the customer to talk. Principle #4 from Carnegie’s How to Win Friends is “to be a good listener and encourage other people to talk about themselves.”

A spotlight.

The Swiveling Spotlight is an envisioning technique from How to Talk to Anyone. In a conversation, imagine a spotlight shining on you when you talk, and shining on your partner when she talks.

Shine it brightly enough on your partner, and she won’t even realize that you hardly talked yourself. You’ll notice that this technique makes it easier to pay undivided attention.

Use your short moments of spotlight-time not to counter with your own opinion, but to build on the ideas of the customer. Leil Lowndes’s 86th technique tells you to “empty their tanks”. The only time someone is open to receiving new ideas, is when their last drop of argument has been spent.

10
Image talk

We talked about echoing, but image talk takes things a step further. If you happen to know a bit about the customer’s lifestyle, hobbies, and preferences, you can tailor your analogies to make your speech truly resonate with your audience.

If football is his sport, use words like “game plan”, “you’re on the ball”, and “scoring big”. If sailing is his hobby, use words like “smooth sailing”, “making waves”, and “changing course”. The customer will instantly feel like the two of you are on one line.

11
Sincere compliments

Dale Carnegie’s tip for making people like you instantly is by giving them a sincere compliment. Sincere is the crucial word here, because no one enjoys receiving shallow flattery.

Probably that’s why compliments are relatively rare. We don’t want to appear as suck-ups. That and the fact that we’re mostly too preoccupied with ourselves to seize the opportunities for giving sincere compliments.

Next time you’re interacting with a customer, think of a way to give a sincere compliment. When you think they have a nice looking website or a cool service, for example. Don’t keep such thoughts to yourself; share the positive vibrations!

By building rapport you prime your customer to a state of receptiveness. See it as an investment, apply the techniques, and you'll become much more effective in your communication.