6 Techniques from the Playground for Building Rapport with Clients
By: Kristine Schoonmaker
Remember back to your playground days the first day of school? Even if you can only remember back to freshman rush the same principles apply. The first step to making it in this social jungle was to get your group of friends. You scoped out the crowd for people you’d like and made your move. But you didn’t become besties instantly. You had to work through several phases to build a meaningful relationship.
In the business world, having a strong relationship with your clients makes a huge difference in your ability to be successful. But this skill doesn’t come easily to everyone. One of the biggest problems most not naturally gifted with the art of schmooze face is forgetting that relationship building is a PROCESS – one that starts with building rapport!
To remind you of those essential skills you don’t realize you already have, stroll with me down memory lane. You’ll see how the same tactics that worked on the playground will help you in the business world too.
- Treat them like a friend immediately. When you first spotted your future friend (we’ll call her Jane) I’ll bet you were really warm and friendly to her right? We feel comfortable around our friends and we’re warmer towards them than we are with strangers. With clients, this comfort will come as your relationships grow over time. So why not expedite things? Some clients can be intimidating – yes – but authenticity and warmth can win over almost anyone. Now, of course you’ve gotta keep it professional. BUT, don’t be afraid to be yourself and talk with them as comfortably as you would a friend you have known for years.
- Make idle chit chat. I’ll bet the first convo you had with Jane wasn’t about some serious relationship issue or your homework from the night before. It was probably about something light like the game she was playing or your favorite TV show. “But at work, I have a job to do!” you say. It’s true, you were hired by your client to do a job, but it doesn’t have to be all business – that’s boring! The reality is relationships are built initially on the “superficial” stuff that some don’t see value in spending time on. Chat your clients up in the cafeteria line about what’s good to eat. Ask if they caught that “unbelievable shot” during the previous night’s ball game while pouring your morning cup of joe. Even pop in their office to see if they have any cool weekend plans before heading out on Thursday. As long as you don’t take up too much time, it will go a long way to build their comfort with you.
- Ask open ended questions. With Jane, you probably were very inquisitive and got her talking by asking things like “what do you think about that cute guy?” or “what kind of music do you like?” When you’re trying to engage someone in conversation at work, you also want to ask open ended questions. “Did you think the leadership meeting went well?” is a close-ended question. It’s too easy for the other person to give a simple yes or no. This is a conversation dead-end. Alternatively, asking “What did you think about the leadership meeting today?” is open-ended which invites more commentary and will elicit much more meaningful dialogue.
- Talk about stuff they care about. Ok, so you were making headway in your initial exchanges and now you’ve got to keep Jane on the hook. You probably complimented her on her cool scrunchie or fabulous shoes that you wished your mom would buy for you. At the office, scope out your client’s digs. What’s around? Pictures of kids? A fish mounted on the wall? A college degree? Gadgets and toys? And what do they talk about besides work? The stock market? An upcoming vacation? Pranking a co-worker? All these little gems are clues that will help you understand more about the things they value and what will engage them. With a little sly observation, suddenly you will have lots of things to talk about.
- Make a connection. You and Jane were doing great and well on your way to building your new friendship, when magic happened. Remember that day that you discovered you both were totally IN LOVE totally with Freddie Prinze Jr.? On the job, this could be sports, the university you attended, wine, great food…it really doesn’t matter. The point to remember is that you can find something in common with ANYONE. A common bond will immediately kick your relationship up a notch. I went to dinner with a client once and he ordered a wine I really liked. I complimented him on his choice and asked how he discovered it. Next thing I knew, he was offering to set up a private tour of one of his favorite wineries for an upcoming trip I was taking to Sonoma. To this day, he brings up wine any time I talk with him.
- Acknowledge Mood Changes. After a week or two of good playground interactions, you noticed Jane seemed a little down. Because you want to be her friend, I bet you asked her what was wrong. Mood changes are a great opportunity to make serious inroads on the relationship front. If you have a normally care-free client that seems stressed or down, say: “Hey, you don’t quite seem yourself today. Everything ok? Anything I can do to help?” They may say they are fine and let it go. Or, they may call you into their office for a bitch fest about their boss. At the very least, even if they don’t open up, they’ll appreciate the fact that you cared.
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