Rapport is overrated: Believing that sales is all about relationships can backfire

When someone making small talk finds out I’m in sales training, almost every time, they reply with something like this: “Oh, that’s interesting. You know, at the end of the day, isn’t sales really all about relationships?”

I’ll bet it’s happened 100 times. And why shouldn’t it? Ask any salesperson what selling is about and you’ll get the same answer over 90 percent of the time: relationships.

We subconsciously equate relationship with rapport.

For years my company has been asking salespeople this question: “How important is it to build personal rapport with contacts?” (choose one)

  • The better I am at building personal rapport with contacts, the better my results will be.
  • I think the value ascribed to building personal rapport in sales is often overestimated.
  • Other.

This is not a trick question. Ninety-five percent choose “A.” And the interpretation is undeniable: salespeople see a one-to-one correspondence between personal rapport and results.

I invite you to get comfortable with response “B.”

The idea of building relationships is as old as selling itself, and “relationship selling” has long been considered to be the paragon of sophisticated and effective sales.

But something happened along the way. Like a badly translated instruction manual, “sales is all about relationships” has instead become, “sales is all about friendship and rapport.” “Building relationships” has evolved to “building rapport,” then “creating friendships.” And suddenly, it seems, salespeople have determined that their No. 1 goal has become “being liked.”

Having rapport is not the same as having respect. Being a friend is not the same as being a peer. Being liked is not the same as being trusted.

There’s nothing wrong with being liked. But there is something wrong with using friendship and rapport as a sales tool or even a strategy.

Our relationship mindset has consequences.

When salespeople interacting with clients are steered by the mindset that boils “relationships” down to personal rapport and personal rapport down to “being liked,” they hurt themselves and the business they represent.

Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • Both we, and our contacts, lose objectivity in communication and motivations.
  • We get too comfortable with “our” contacts. This gets in the way of pursuing other contacts inside the account for fear of alienating our contact. Yet with only one contact, when that person leaves the company or the position, we are likely to be cast adrift.
  • Our contact, with whom we have the great relationship, may have too little real political muscle inside his or her company.
  • We depend too heavily on our relationship as our key differentiator in a buying decision.
  • We find ourselves protracting the sales campaign as we work on “cultivating the relationship.”
  • Too often, the end result of such relationships is that we get “last look.” And what does that really mean? The opportunity to cut our margins to win the business.

Consider also how often salespeople leave Company A to join Company B, assuring Company B’s management that he or she will bring countless “relationships” along. It rarely plays out this way in the real world.

Don’t put your trust in rapport.

Many salespeople have cultivated high-trust relationships with clients. They’ve done that by consistently delivering over a long period of time and by their high degree of personal integrity.

But think about what happens to trust when you say “hello” to the customer contact for the very first time.

“Hello Mr. Jones, Mark Williams. It’s nice to meet you. Say, (looking at fish on the wall) are you a musky fisherman?”

Mark wants to believe that trust is climbing because he’s building rapport with Mr. Jones. But it’s not.

Instead, Mark is unwittingly playing into the “salesman” stereotype. Mr. Jones’ reaction is automatic, not consciously analyzed or thought out: He’s thinking to himself, “Here we go again. Another salesman. And I don’t trust salesmen!” And Mr. Jones’ response is so automatic that he doesn’t even know he’s thinking it…but he is!

On the cold phone call, the opener favored by 90 percent of us – “How are you?” – is the worst possible language. Yet salespeople fall back on it because they feel an obligation to build rapport, which they equate with building a relationship. But they run into the very same uncontrollable (literally) automatic stereotype response from the prospect, 90 percent of the time resulting in a hang-up.

Where to from here? You might start by stepping back and asking yourself whether you need to work more on creating trust in the customer interaction, not rapport.

But creating trust in the interaction is, well, a lot harder than it looks because, for starters, it requires us to consciously temper our rapport-building efforts.

There’s a lot more, of course. But let me give you two things that you can use right now:

  • Embrace the reality of the “salesman” stereotype: When you say or do anything a salesman might say or do, you will automatically – more like spontaneously – associate yourself with a low-trust profession. Even a comment as innocuous as, “My goal is to understand your needs” will have that effect.
  • Stop using master/servant language. “I appreciate the time,” “I know you’re busy,” “I’ll get out of your hair.” Does anyone believe that subservience fosters trust?

Trust, not rapport. By now I hope you understand the difference.

Jerry Stapleton is the founder of Waukesha-based Stapleton Resources LLC (www.stapletonresources.com). He is also the author of the book, “From Vendor to Business Resource.”

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