I suppose it would have been just another ordinary sales call … that is, except for Ralph. I had set an appointment with the manager of a dermatologist’s office. She had asked me to come in to “show them what specials and packages we were offering.” Unfortunately for me, the company had brought in a former top sales manager as an outside consultant. Ralph’s job was to accompany reps on sales calls.
Upon our arrival, we were ushered into an understated yet elegant office. Vintage 1930-era photos hung on the back wall. The doctor, a well-groomed, formal-looking man in his mid-sixties, entered the room a few moments later. As if on cue, “Ralph” (not his real name) immediately launched into his rapport-building routine. Standing by the vintage photos on the back wall, he pointed to a portrait of an infant and asked, “Is that you?” He proceeded to tell the doctor “what a cute baby” he was. The more he joked and tried to build rapport, the more I could see the doctor’s walls going up. His face was like watching the drawbridge of a medieval castle slowly being raised as the iron bars came crashing down across the gate. (Were those archers I saw positioning themselves at the turrets?)
When we finally got around to sitting down, instead of asking about the “specials and packages we were offering,” the doctor announced that he wanted to cancel his existing advertising. As I climbed up off the floor and back into my chair, I could sense Ralph’s eyes boring into me. It was as if I could read his thoughts: “You dragged me all the way out here for a cancellation?” Every fiber of my being wanted to shout at him. “You did this! This is all your fault … with your ridiculous, ‘what-a-cute-baby-you-were’ false rapport-building nonsense!”
What saved the day was that the doctor’s son and partner in the practice joined the meeting, along with the office manager with whom I’d originally set the appointment. The tension left the room as we began discussing ad packages. They physically leaned over the desk to get a better look at the ad programs we could offer, especially when we showed them how they could get an edge over the competition with a better-placed ad. We ultimately closed the deal and wrote up a contract.
As I stood at the reception counter afterwards, waiting to collect the down payment (Ralph had walked outside to put his briefcase in the car) the office manager asked, “So you’re our sales rep, not the other guy, is that right?” When I told her I was, she lowered her voice slightly and said, “Because the doctor did not like him at all. But he likes you.” So much for building rapport, Ralph.
There were a couple of things I learned from that experience (okay, maybe more than just a couple, but this is a blog post, not a novel).
Liking is a key ingredient in sales. It’s not the only thing, but without liking, none of the other things can happen—like trust. Because the doctor didn’t like Ralph, he was prepared to cancel his advertising. What might have happened had Ralph gone alone and there’d been no one else for the doctor to like?
Ralph’s mistake was being too familiar. Taking a genuine interest in his family photos and asking some questions about them would have been far more effective than telling this proper, middle-aged, bespectacled and respectable member of the medical community that he was “a cute baby.” Being too friendly in an attempt to be liked can be a fatal error. I always took my cue from the prospect. If he starts addressing me as “buddy”’ or “pal,” then I know what level of formality he’s comfortable with.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking to build rapport (in fact, I highly recommend it). But the best “technique” to build rapport is not a technique at all. Are you ready for this amazing, never-before-revealed secret? Here goes:
Be genuinely interested in the other person, and listen to what they say.
Of course, I’m being facetious. It’s no secret at all. Dale Carnegie wrote about it over 70 years ago in his classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People.
So why is it that sales people resort to manipulative techniques when just being genuine is so much simpler? Perhaps it’s because being genuine may be simpler; it’s just not easier.