Everyone who works in the school market agrees that educators are more relational than other professionals. It makes sense then that relationship-selling — making a comfortable fit — is important to sales success. Building rapport — making a meaningful connection and establishing understanding — is the starting point for long-term customer relationships with busy school administrators.
Rapport is like lubricating oil. It reduces friction and makes the pieces fit together and work more smoothly. For a salesperson, creating rapport with any human being is an essential step that enables prospects to feel comfortable and leads to a more effective sales interaction. The best salespeople create rapport with everyone. The most successful sales professionals who call on school administrators demonstrate and hone this skill consistently, even if it does not come naturally. Ask any of the top sales professionals who sell to schools and they'll agree.
Here's a dictionary definition for rapport: "an emotional bond or friendly relationship between people based on mutual liking, trust, and a sense that they understand and share one another's concerns."
Creating a sense of understanding and mutual trust is a skill that has been studied through the ages. Here are seven proven ways to build rapport with a school administrator and begin a smooth relationship sales cycle:
People form an impression of you based on how you look, before they even say hello to you. Your appearance, then, should be designed to help you look confident and competent -- whatever that means in the context of the individual you plan to engage with. At a minimum, your clothes should be clean and pressed, shoes shined and hair cut. Your attire should help you connect and create comfort with the prospective customer – not separate you or cause you to feel out of place. Most school administrators dress more formally than is typical for many office settings these days. But rather than make an assumption about how your prospect dresses, check ahead by contacting an administrative assistant or by speaking with someone who is familiar with how the people you will be meeting with are likely to dress. The best rule I've seen is this: dress like your customer, only a little better
In routine interchanges, say something that the prospective customer does not expect, so you avoid the knee-jerk response. For example, if he says, "How are you?" instead of the perfunctory, "Fine," try something different. Here's an example: "Honestly, my day didn't get off to a good start. One of the kids was sick this morning, and I was a half-hour late getting out of the house. How are you?" This type of answer is disarming because it was unexpected. And, it's honest. It reveals something about you that begins to build trust instantly and describes a situation with which almost everyone can relate. Disarming honesty is a good way to build rapport.
If you are one of those people who can make most people laugh most of the time, then you are equipped with a powerful rapport–building asset. Laughing together helps to break down some of the barriers between people and removes some of the tension. It's another great way to build rapport. If you are not one of those people so gifted, then it's better to stay away from this. Telling a joke that nobody gets, or having a glib comment being seen as sarcastic or caustic is not a good way to build rapport, but tasteful humor and the opportunity for a laugh is a good thing.
Everyone likes to be complimented. A characteristic of school leaders is that they enjoy and are lifted by recognition. When you sincerely compliment a school administrator (or his or her school or school district), you communicate that you're interested and recognize their accomplishments. You notice something they've done or are doing that stands out. You aren't afraid to say something complimentary. Those are good things. While it is always good to have done your homework before your sales call to find news to recognize your prospect for, sometimes you can find something on the fly. Not so long ago, I entered a prospect's administrative office building for the first time. The lobby had some impressive awards and news about academic excellence and trophies for sports. When my sales prospect came down to meet me, I immediately told him that the recognition displayed in the lobby was impressive, and that I felt very inspired because of it. We chatted for a few minutes about it and I followed him to his office, having established some rapport.
A thoughtful, sincere question does everything that a compliment does, and then some. When the compliment doesn't call for any response from the customer, a question does. If done correctly, it can initiate the conversation and help the customer feel that you are interested in and care about him. In the previous situation, for example, I could have said, "What was it like to have one of your soccer teams win the state championship?
If you have something in common with the customer, mention it. Again, doing your homework before a sales call can really pay off. You don't have to beat it to death, just mention it. When the customer discovers that you knew the same person, went to the same school, vacationed in the same place, or belong to the same organization, he realizes that you are alike in some ways. It's easier to do business with someone who is like you. And again, because educators are very relational, those personal connections, especially to people whom he or she may know, are very valuable in building trust.
It doesn't have to be a major digression, but a short story about something personal and honest is a great rapport builder. Something like might work: "Boy, I had a hard time getting here on time. I must have run over some glass or something sharp, because about halfway here, my right front tire went flat. Took me a while to change it. Glad I made it on time." You may not get a flat tire on the way to the appointment, but you get the idea. Tell a story that's short but something almost anyone could empathize with. If it's personal, and it's a bit transparent, it reveals something about you as a human being. And, it's something to which everyone can relate.
Building rapport is a science with proven practices and tactics. While these techniques come naturally for some of us, even the most relational person among us can benefit from constant improvement of our rapport-building skills. Work on any of these techniques and watch your ability to create rapport improve, and thereby smooth the way to more sales with senior-level school leaders!