The secret to building client rapport

How to build better rapport and engagement with clients

Have you ever wondered how some people seem to effortlessly reach their sales targets? How they have a steady flow of easy, friendly business? These salespeople make the most money, are the most valuable employees and love their job to boot.

The truth is that easy rapport-building is the hidden skill of the best salespeople. Their clients keep coming back for more business and go out of their way to refer them to friends and colleagues – and those recurring clients are many times more valuable to them than single-transaction clients.

America’s greatest salesman

Ben Feldman was a high-school dropout who became possibly the greatest salesman in post- World War II America. In a career spanning 50 years, Feldman wrote more than $1.5bn in life insurance policies.

Still working in his 80s, Feldman suffered a cerebral oedema in 1992. While he was critically ill in hospital, his employer, New York Life, decided to create a sales competition in his honour, to be called ‘Feldman February’. The inaugural winner of Feldman February was… Ben Feldman! He closed $15m worth of insurance from his hospital bed.

Do you think Feldman was making cold calls from his hospital bed? Of course not. He was calling friends – the legion of clients he’d established a lasting rapport with over a lifetime.

The power of the personal

Yet the importance of building a rapport by exchanging personal stories is often not well understood. Mike Bosworth, author of the classic sales textbook Solution Selling, told me that for most of his 30 years as a sales trainer the conventional wisdom was that rapport-building “could not be taught”. He changed his mind on this topic only late in his career.

The secret is to tell a story about how and why you do what you do, within the space of a couple of minutes. If you include personal events and you are honest about the setbacks and vulnerabilities of your career, all the better. Because ultimately the purpose is to get into a position to say, “Well, enough about me! What about you? How did you get to do what you do?” And that question passes the baton. If you’ve been open, honest and vulnerable in telling your story, you’re more likely to receive an open story in response. This story exchange initiates rapport.

To give an example: I trained as an electrical engineer, and in the mid-’90s I was working as a rock physicist in England when I was o­ffered a corporate role selling software in Norway. My wife was eight months pregnant and I didn’t want to be a salesperson, but the lure of Norway and our spirit of adventure won out. Furthermore, I would have returned to a technical role if I hadn’t closed the luckiest deal in history in my first year.

It’s these surprising turning points that make your career backstory interesting and encourage your future client to respond with an open story of their own.

Making authentic connections

But by now you may have some questions, such as: is it really worth putting this much effort into a personal story? And isn’t the whole process manipulative?

Yes, it is worth the e­ ort, because it will become the foundation of every effective business connection you make. And in a sense it is manipulative. We’re presenting a view of ourselves that we’ve spent time crafting. We’re not telling the full story. That’s not possible, and we’re not dwelling on things that would undermine our authority. But the interesting thing is that these stories are like lie detectors. When we tell a story about something that happened to us, we relive those moments and the emotion of those events comes out in our voice. If we’re telling a true story, the tone of voice is authentic. If it’s not true, that is also detectable.

If you think about your close friends, they know your story, and you know their story. We select moments that actually happened in our lives and deliver them authentically as a way to connect. The listener recreates and co-experiences the events of our story with us and becomes connected to us. It’s the first step to friendship. If you want to develop deep, long-term business relationships, learn how to exchange personal stories.


Mike Adams is a business storytelling specialist and author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Since 2014, Mike’s storytelling consulting practice has been helping sales teams ­find and tell their best stories. Find out more at www.gifocus.com.au.