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Improve Your Relationship-Building Skills — Even If You Think You’re a Pro

The following is adapted from Moving from Models to Mindsets by John Reid

Salespeople rightly believe that relationships are important. However, many sales professionals rarely ask themselves, “Am I as effective as I can be in building relationships and in building the types of relationships that bring opportunity and commitment?”

In general, most take for granted that they are good at building relationships. Many of the most recent books on sales dismiss the importance of relationships and/or assume the reader is already skilled in this area. I do not believe either is true.

In our workshops, salespeople’s misguided beliefs that they are good at relationship building is highlighted when we ask the question, “Who here has won business because of a good relationship?” All of their hands go up. This belief­ — and frankly, overconfidence — is quickly exposed by the following question: “Who here has lost business because of poor relationship building?”

Zero hands go up. We, of course, know better. What we focus on next, then, is exploring their current mindset and belief system on this critical topic.

We shift the conversation to an activity around the six core selling skills (Connecting, Presence, Questioning, Listening, Asserting Control, and Positioning). We ask participants to “force rank” their skill level, with one representing the greatest strength and six representing the biggest area for improvement. Over 90 percent of respondents score themselves highest in Connecting. Connecting is described in part as the ability to quickly build rapport.

Then we give participants a scenario to consider. We tell them we’re starting a new customer relationship at an existing account, and that we have agreed to a one-hour meeting at three o’clock to discuss the business. At the beginning of the meeting, the customer tells the salesperson they have to keep the meeting to thirty minutes because he wants to see his daughter’s soccer game. We then ask participants to write down how, in a real-life scenario, they would respond to a customer saying they need to put a time limit on a meeting due to a personal engagement such as their daughter’s soccer game.

In a room with fifteen or more participants, we’re lucky if one salesperson asks about the daughter in their response. The majority say, “Okay, let’s keep it to thirty minutes,” or, “We can reschedule if you want.” Some go as far as to say, “That’s great that you’re going to the game. What do you want to cover today?” At least these people acknowledge that the customer said the word daughter, but it’s not enough. While they heard daughter and game, they still missed out on a valuable opportunity to build rapport.

The one person who gets the right answer says something like, “That’s great. What position does she play?”

After we discuss the results of this activity, the participants grow quiet. Many say that they would normally ask about the daughter, but they didn’t respond naturally in the workshop. Other participants say their customers (all of them?) don’t like to talk about personal things. A few get defensive and blame the customer for changing the meeting expectation from one hour to thirty minutes. Remember, these salespeople just said that building connections and relationships is their main strength.

We’ve had experiences where, even after discussing our results, attendees double down on their response that they would not ask about the customer’s daughter. They think the customer shouldn’t have scheduled the meeting, or that it was selfish of him to end the meeting early for a soccer game. In this case, we change the circumstances to try to get them to see it a different way. What if his daughter made the playoffs the night before and the game was just announced, or if there were other personal issues involved? There’s so much we don’t know that we should be curious about.

So what is the correct human-to-human emotional response? Most salespeople either:

  • Place too much focus on feelings: “Oh, you must feel terrible; tell me all about that.”
  • Place little or no focus on feelings: “Emotions don’t belong in the workplace. They make me uncomfortable. I’m unsure how to react.”

For effective relationship building, consider the continuum. The most effective place to be is to the right of center — to be interested.

In our workshop, participants typically give the first three responses — we have to model the last one:

  • Dismissive: “Okay, I will keep it to thirty minutes.” (Did someone say daughter?)
  • Disinterested: “That’s great that you can see the game. What should we focus on?” (I heard daughter; my robot brain says to acknowledge.)
  • Interested: “That’s great. What position does she play?” (Nailed it!)
  • Overly Interested: “That’s great. How old is your daughter? What color are their uniforms? Where do they play?” (This just gets creepy.)

Almost every conversation is an opportunity to build rapport. In the example above, it’s crucial for salespeople to ask about the daughter.

Ask about the personal stuff — the revealing stuff — and share, appropriately, your personal stuff. This builds rapport, and in the sales world, once rapport is built, people want to see you succeed.

John Reid is the author of Moving from Models to Mindsets and is Founder and President of JMReid Group, whose clients have included Ernst & Young, ProAmpac, Global Healthcare Exchange, Ryerson, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group. In 2015, JMReid Group’s work was featured in Training magazine’s Top 10 Hall of Fame Outstanding Training Initiatives.

For more advice on building rapport, you can find Moving from Models to Mindsets on Amazon.