What if you had a formula for building long-lasting client relationships? Relationships in which important clients come to regard you not just as a helpful supplier/provider, but as a trusted business advisor or even part of their team?
Good news: We’ve leveraged our deep, ongoing experience in customer relationship building to put together a system of highly effective strategies for doing exactly that. And it is important to emphasize that it all starts with building client rapport and trust.
We all have a sense for what it feels like to have a good rapport with someone in everyday life — friends, family, colleagues, etc. Communication comes easily. There is mutual trust and minimal wariness.
In the context of sales, establishing strong client rapport can be more challenging, in part because the client — especially at the outset — is fully aware that the salesperson has something to gain from the relationship.
What is client rapport?
A couple of quick points before we dive in. At the most fundamental level, the term “client rapport” refers to more than just a positive relationship with a client or prospect; it also encompasses your ability to develop, nurture and sustain such relationships.
In this step-by-step guide, we draw on our experience working with B2B companies to help them build healthy and prosperous customer relationships (and, yes, client rapport). Read on for important insights into how to cultivate the type of client rapport that is the foundation for fruitful, win-win relationships with your current and future customers.
Start the Relationship from a Customer Success Perspective
Your success in building client rapport is closely connected to two vitally important and related concepts — customer focus and customer success. Our experience has shown us that two of the most essential ingredients in this equation are:
- Working proactively with customers to truly understand their most important business needs and goals (customer focus), and
- Demonstrating that you are sincerely committed not just to making a sale, but to helping them find ways to achieve their desired important business outcomes, — current and future (customer success)
At the start of a potential business relationship or initial sales consultation, you can make a positive first impression by focusing more on asking the person about their business than by telling them about your products and services.
More specifically, you can begin to wow potential customers by expressing curiosity about what is most important to them — right now — and seeking ways to connect on their terms about what success means to them and how you might be able to help. Look for ways to talk about their business and their goals that feel immediately relevant, rather than simply circling the conversation back to your product portfolio.
Though this may sound at least a little bit counterintuitive, it makes sense when you consider that gathering insight into their business fuels your understanding of how to best help them. Ideally, this approach will help plant a seed along the lines of: “Hey, this salesperson isn’t just here to sell; they actually seem really interested in how they can help.”
Of course, you will have also done some diligent homework on the customer, their industry and their organization. Coming in with at least a preliminary understanding of their industry and their company’s niche in that industry will establish you as someone who is both thoughtful and well-informed. Appearing immediately conversant in some of their most timely issues will help set a solid foundation.
Regarding those initial and early conversations, Sales Hacker suggests: “If they want small talk, go for it. If they wish to keep things close to the chest, that’s fine, too. Rapport isn’t about following a prescribed path. It’s about understanding and accepting what the customer most wants.”
We go further in-depth on the importance of adopting a customer success perspective when building client rapport in this article — “Customer Success: What it Is, Why It’s Crucial and How to Achieve It” — and we offer a more detailed look at specific client rapport-focused communication tips below.
Nurture the Relationship by Focusing on the Client’s Big Picture
As you get to know the client a little better, consider a communication strategy that emphasizes ongoing curiosity about their big picture, while continuing to demonstrate insights that connect to your eagerness and ability to help.
Staying focused on developing a deeper understanding of your customers’ big-picture business needs and goals boosts your ability to help them meet those needs and achieve those goals. Framing conversations in the context of customer success is something that your clients and prospects will definitely notice and that will help differentiate you from your competitors.
This can be accomplished by digging for intel about each customer/potential customer and their industry by reviewing trade publications and public filings, creating news alerts, talking to others with knowledge about the industry and its key players, trends, challenges and opportunities. Other helpful sources for sales intel include LinkedIn, Hoovers and company social media accounts.
The process of deepening your understanding of the client should also involve formulating and asking open-ended questions about the business and the industry. For example:
HubSpot offers a helpful review of “20 Open-Ended Sales Questions That’ll Get Prospects Talking to You,” including the following:
- What are your goals for the next [3, 6, or 12] months?
- How does your company evaluate new products or services before buying?
- What’s holding your team back from reaching your goals?
- Was budget a barrier in solving this problem previously?
- What is the business problem you’re trying to solve?
- Why is this a priority for you now?
- What are the priorities for your business/team this quarter?
- What are your biggest pain points?
- Where do you see the biggest opportunities for growth?
The thinking here is: If you understand what your customer is trying to achieve, you are better equipped to find ways to assist in the areas that matter most to them. And what client doesn’t appreciate suppliers who are focused on helping them achieve their larger business outcomes?
Working to establish client rapport through an ongoing focus on the little things that relate to the customer’s big picture might come quite naturally for some sales reps; others may benefit from training that will help them develop and deploy customer-focused communication skills.
Build Long-Lasting Client Relationships as a Trusted Business Advisor
Of course, building client rapport in sales is ultimately about … making sales. However, it is also about building long-term customer relationships in which your reps and your company are seen not just as product and service providers but as trusted business advisors or, best-case scenario, trusted partners.
It is important to emphasize that such relationships are forged over time, that there are no shortcuts and that customers are most likely to share meaningful time with you if it is clear that you are engaging patiently to learn about and understand their priorities, rather than putting most of your efforts into pushing your products/services. For example, one proactive strategy might be to send an article you think is likely to be helpful along with a question: “How does this connect to what you are facing right now?” — and then continue to dig deeper into their issues and priorities over time.
Which brings us back to our central theme: how to build rapport with clients. As mentioned above, operating from a “customer success” perspective and continually engaging with clients to sharpen your understanding of their big picture are two important keys to cultivating such relationships.
The process of transforming a client relationship into a long-lasting, win-win partnership works best when you focus on discovering ways to add value every step of the way.
This sounds challenging because it is. Finding ways to truly add value will vary from client to client, but the underlying philosophy applies across the board. It involves expanding your thinking and your dialogue beyond the challenges directly addressed by your own products and services portfolio to the most important challenges facing your customer.
Accomplishing this involves:
- Doing extra homework that yields valuable business intelligence about the customer, their industry and their competition
- Developing a deep understanding of their pain points (and how you can help solve them)
- Consulting with others who can help you add value for a particular customer; for example, an expert on your team, an industry watchdog or someone involved in a similar business
- Helping clients identify obstacles to success that that may not be immediately obvious but instead lurk below the waterline
An example of this fourth point involves one of our sales and service training clients who provided technical service, parts and support to offshore oil drillers. While installing new equipment on a platform in the Gulf of Mexico, our client’s team realized that the oil rig operators were not adequately forecasting their ongoing need for spare parts — a scenario that caused (costly) rush orders and unnecessary (very costly) downtime.
To help the customer overcome this below-the-waterline issue, our client created a simple spreadsheet to forecast spare parts requirements. The customer was delighted because the solution created significant value in terms of potential costs avoided. As a result, the customer placed an immediate $250,000 order for spare parts inventory.
The takeaway: Combining your enhanced understanding of each customer’s big picture with your ever-expanding insight into your company’s unique ability to help, positions you to add tangible value and delight customers in unexpected ways. Ideally, this approach — over time — will help you not only solve customers’ current needs, but know them well enough to anticipate future needs as well.
16 Communication Skills for Building Client Rapport
As acknowledged above, building high-value rapport with clients comes more easily to some sales professionals than others. Based on our own experience in providing B2B customer relationship skills training, as well as our ongoing additional research, here are some helpful interpersonal client communication tips:
- Be friendly; remember to smile.
- Always remember people’s names; use them in conversation; spell them correctly in correspondence.
- Consider a bit of small talk; look for common ground.
- Be aware of your body language, your posture and poise.
- Be genuine and sincere.
- Be empathetic; ask about their business challenges.
- Keep a positive attitude throughout the conversation.
- Be respectful of their time.
- Solicit their opinions on issues related to their work.
- Consider working a bit of humor into the conversation, when appropriate.
- Be aware of the client’s nonverbal cues, while being mindful of your own.
- Ask open-ended questions to enhance your understanding of the topic.
- Engage in active listening so the client feels heard.
Advanced (Gets You Ahead)
- Use reflective listening and paraphrasing to confirm that you hear and understand.
- Remember details from past conversations and refer to them when relevant.
- After reflecting on a conversation, follow up with a timely email recapping key points and adding possible new insights.
If you’d like to continue the conversation about how (onsite or virtual) customer relationship sales training can help unlock value for you and your customers, connect with us for a quick consultation. Our mission is to help companies like yours build the type of long-lasting client rapport that establishes you as a trusted business advisor and, ultimately, part of the team.