Building Rapport: Essential Sales Technique or Masterful Manipulation?

John Tabita
John Tabita

I’m subscribed to a number of email newsletters on the topic of sales and selling. I received two in my inbox within 24 hours of each other, both on the topic of “building rapport.”

The subject line on the first one read, “ARTICLE – Rapport Building – Step 4” (I’d somehow missed Steps 1 – 3.) The email informed me how his 3-day, high-intensity Boot Camp Sales Mastery program will teach me “nine steps to building rapport.”

The second email’s subject line read, “The Misguided Myth of Establishing Rapport.” This author asserts that “decision makers in today’s hectic business world are far too busy to waste valuable time on social chit-chat,” and that they “honestly don’t care if you have something in common with them. And they certainly see through your attempts to use photos and awards to better connect with them.”

I certainly agree with that last sentence, and I’ve written previously about how not to use props to build rapport. Many rapport-building techniques border on the manipulative. Here’s one of my favorites.

Into the Looking Glass

Sociologists have known for years that when two people are “in sync,” they fall into a natural (and entirely subconscious) pattern of mirroring and matching each other’s movements. But sales trainers and motivational coaches have turned this natural occurrence into a technique. Proponents claim by subtly mirroring another’s body language, you can quickly and effortlessly establish rapport. The philosophy behind this is that, since we tend to like people who are most like ourselves, mirroring and matching will make the other person feel as though he’s talking with someone “just like himself.” But there’s downside: If the other person realizes you’re using techniques to create a sense of rapport, you’ll get the exact opposite of what you intended—distrust and damage to your credibility.

This happened to Tony Robbins after a nationally-televised interview when it became obvious during the editing process that he’d been mirroring the host throughout the entire interview. I once asked a friend who’s been in the car business for a number of years if he’d ever used this technique. He sheepishly admitted that he had—and that it works. But he didn’t sound particularly proud of himself.

Is Rapport-Building Always a Bad Thing?

Yet, I’m not entirely convinced that decision makers “honestly don’t care if you have something in common with them,” as the second email claimed. My refrigerator started making a strange noise a few weeks ago and the repair man who showed up to fix it reminded me more of a sales person than a technician. His personable nature made for a pleasant experience—despite the cost of the service call. I’m not what you’d call a natural people person, yet the desire to connect with other human beings is an innate yearning we all have. At a restaurant recently, our waiter kept apologizing because they we’re so busy and he felt he’d been less than attentive. I told my wife that I didn’t mind because at least “he had a personality.” The brief encounters I have with checkout clerks and fast food services leaves little time for rapport building and finding commonality; yet I become annoyed by those who can’t even bother to smile or respond to humor. If a non-people person such as myself longs for that even during fleeting encounters, how much more so in the long-term business relationships we’re involved in?

A client once told me a story of the car her husband purchased from a salesman she didn’t like. I guess he just rubbed her the wrong way. Even though it was the car she wanted at the right price, she warned her husband that, if he bought it for her, she wouldn’t drive it. He did and she didn’t. He sold it a few months later.

Irrational? Perhaps. But it just goes to show that people tend to buy from people they like. So go beyond building rapport. Build relationships instead.

Image credit