In my work, I get the opportunity to meet many professionals who are working on being more successful business developers – and for good reason. An ability to build a strong network and develop new business yields many benefits. It allows you to provide a tangible contribution to top line revenue for the firm. It leads to opportunities to be a thought leader in a given industry or segment. It enables you to refer clients to other advisors who can help them in areas where you firm doesn’t focus, and for referral sources to refer their contacts to you accordingly. It can also be an extremely fulfilling aspect of your career, thanks to the relationships that are developed.
In our Rainmaker Development Program (RDP), we explore a wide variety of strategies to help individuals find their unique mix of business development activities. The most crucial thing we teach starts in our very first roundtable: great rainmaking is all about the relationship. This underlying principal is the basis for all other ideas we explore. And yet, several participants in every program will fall short of reaching their best rainmaking potential because of one roadblock related to relationship-building: their hesitancy to get personal. In every program, we have at least one (and typically several) participants who admit that they don’t usually get too personal with clients. They often say things like “I like to keep business conversations focused on business and my personal life kept at home,” or “work ‘me’ is different than ‘home’ me,” or “I think small talk is pointless/a waste of time.”
The challenge with this viewpoint is that we are all human beings, and humans have an innate need to connect with others through common bonds. You can’t find those common bonds unless you get to know the whole person and they get to know the whole you. When we build rapport and have relatedness with one another, it increases feelings of familiarity, comfortability and likeability. People want to buy from people they like and can relate to, and people want to refer those they like to others they know. This means that you have to be focused on developing relationships with your prospects if you want them to make the decision to become clients. It also means you must continue building trust and deepening your relationships if you want your client relationships to sustain.
When you limit your rapport-building to strictly business-related topics, it makes the relationship feel like it’s purely focused on the transactional nature of your work together. This may be acceptable at first, but as you continue to work with your client, you’ll miss out on additional opportunities if you focus purely on the engagement at hand or on their business needs. For example, say your client Susan runs a dental practice and you do the accounting work for it. Your conversations center around the dentist practice finances and helping her focus on her upcoming fiscal year-end. However, because you ignore the personal rapport-building aspect, you don’t know that her son recently moved back to the area and has opened a restaurant. There could be an opportunity to work with her son on his accounting, too, but Sue may not have made the connection between her son’s accounting needs and you, so you don’t get the opportunity.
We hear countless examples from our clients who have learned important information through the “small talk” they have with their clients that ends up leading them to help their client in significant and unexpected ways. Sometimes they learn things that affect the services the firm is providing now (and their client didn’t realize that personal information would matter). Sometimes they learn things that allow them to make connections for their client (to other advisors, other clients who have experienced something similar, or other contacts who can help). Sometimes they learn things that just allow them to share some of their own experience or resources that they wouldn’t normally share in a conversation focused solely on business. There are all kinds of ways that you can further impact your clients’ lives, but when you keep the conversation focused purely on your project timeline, deadlines and deliverables, you’re missing out on those opportunities.
So how do you start building more personal rapport? Here are five ideas to consider the next time you meet with a client:
- Get comfortable with “small talk” by asking questions that are relevant to the timing of the meeting (e.g. How was your weekend? How has your summer been? What are your holiday plans? What do you think of this road construction? How are you enjoying the snow?). This is an easy way get your client talking and it’s a natural conversation starter. Your client will likely give you some information that you can expand on. They might say they traveled to the mountains for the weekend to camp, which could lead you to share about your own family’s love for camping and the recent trip you took.
- Ask open-ended questions (e.g. What activities do your kids do? vs. Do your kids play sports?). Close-ended questions (those that elicit a yes or no answer) are super challenging because they don’t encourage your client to elaborate any further and it can make you feel like you’re throwing out question after question to get them talking. Open-ended questions help the conversation flow better and feel more natural.
- Share back. A key to building personal rapport is sharing back some personal tidbits about your own life, your family, your hobbies and interests, etc. As you learn more about your client, relatedness will happen when we have something we both enjoy talking about or doing. If only one person is doing the sharing, it’s hard to build relatedness. On the flipside, be careful not to dominate the conversation and end up not learning anything about them.
- Remember what you learn. It’s not enough to ask questions and hear the answers during that single moment. You’ll need to remember the information for later discussions. The fastest way to make your client feel like just another number is to ask them the same question that they’ve already told you the answer to in a previous discussion. You can better remember what you learn by keeping paper notes during the discussion or entering notes into your CRM or Outlook contacts or a digital notetaking method after the fact.
- Incorporate what you learn. This can be done a number of ways. If you learn something that is valuable to your client service approach, you can incorporate it immediately (and communicate it with others on your engagement team). If you learn something that may be an opportunity to connect your client with another advisor, contact or client, make the initial outreach to that individual to give them a heads up and/or get any necessary feedback before connecting the client with them. Sometimes all you may learn is that their child’s piano recital is this coming weekend, so you can send well wishes at the end of your email recap. This may seem like a little detail, but it shows that you listened and you care.
By integrating these ideas with your current client service approach, you’ll start to see a shift in the way it feels to interact with your clients and the fulfillment you get in serving them. Eventually, you’ll have an opportunity to provide some additional value for a client based on you learn during your catch-up or small talk.
Also, those who are challenged in this area with clients are typically challenged in the same way with colleagues. Try these same strategies with your colleagues and you’ll experience deeper relationships with your team members, too. Stronger internal relationships yield many benefits including better collaboration and communication, greater opportunities for promotion and facilitating opportunities to cross-sell.
These ideas just scratch the surface of deepening client relationships. What tips would you add? How do you ensure you build personal in addition to professional rapport with clients? How do you teach others to do so? Share with us in the comments box below – we’d love to hear your ideas!