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How looking out of a window can build rapport

2010 July 19
by Malcolm Sleath

Every professional who thinks about business development knows that you are supposed to let the client do most of the talking during the early stages of a discussion.

This is more than just a period of nodding and smiling while you wait to get to the real subject of the meeting.

The other day a colleague described accompanying a member of the business development team of a large service firm to observe how meetings were conducted in the field. His mission was to understand more about the client base. The project was about opening up a new way of delivering specialist services  by recruiting small local firms to become affiliates.

When they arrived at the first appointment, the principal of the small firm explained how family circumstances had been getting in the way of  giving attention to his business. His father, who had been suffering from dementia, had suddenly declined in health. As a result, he he had been caught up in arranging care, paying visits to the care home and all the other things that have to be done when a close family member can no longer look after themselves. The subject they were supposed to be discussing was was mentioned only briefly.

As they drove away, my colleague asked his companion how he thought the meeting had gone. “Well”, he replied, “It was rather a waste of time because he was so preoccupied with family problems.” My colleague wanted to bang his head on the dashboard. He had seen the affiliate scheme as a way for the principal of the firm to lighten his workload, which would make it easier to  pay attention to family matters. His colleague, on the other hand,  had heard the talk about family problems as ‘noise’ getting in the way of the real purpose of the meeting.

Instead of gently moving a potential affiliate towards a solution, they had left him feeling emotionally exposed and guilty about the neglect of his business. It was hardly a way to begin the process of building trust.

When trying to focus on the ‘real point of a meeting’ it is easy to fail to build rapport and miss the real opportunity. Here are the traps I have to guard against:

  • If the client talks about things that are not relevant to what I want to talk about, I am tempted to try and change the subject.
  • If the client says something that seems to cast doubt on the solution I have in mind, even if I haven’t said what it is yet, I want to take issue with them.
  • If the client seems to labour a point, I have to guard against switching off and rehearsing what I will say when I finally manage to get a word in edgeways.

If I give in to any of these temptations, at some level clients sense that I don’t really have time for them. They could even interpret my behaviour as meaning that I don’t like them very much, when I might just be keen to help.

This is more than just about politeness, important though that is. Think about your last visit to your doctor, or some other professional that you rely on. If you came away feeling that he or she did not like you, how sure would you be that they were acting in your best interests?

So how do I try to guard against undermining rapport with my clients?

When I am listening to a client, and can feel that my own agenda is getting in the way, I try this mental image to help me stay focused. I think of them as looking out of a window. As they talk, it is as if they are describing the view they can see. I think of myself as standing alongside them. Then I say things that indicate that I am trying to see things from their point of view.

  • I might test my understanding of what they have said: “Have I got this right… ?”
  • I might ask a question, “When did you first notice this was happening?”
  • I might briefly summarise what they have said, “So at first, you didn’t think it was important, but after it happened a few times you realised the true cost. But by then it seemed difficult to introduce the subject to the person causing the problem because you had not said anything before.”

My colleague’s story reminded me that when I am with a client, or anyone important to me, I need to focus on looking through their window and showing that I can understand what they see. My solutions can wait. They will still be there after I have shown that I am really listening, and they have got to know, like and trust me. That’s when they will more likely to listen to what I have to say.

And who knows, if I listen well, I might come up with a solution that is far more valuable than the one I was in such a hurry to get to.

Did you find this article helpful? Have you used something similar? Or do you have a better suggestion?