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Effective sales representatives actively listen and watch for customer cues that indicate interest or emotion. A “cue” is a behavior, behavioral pattern, or shift in behavior that reveals a reaction or motivating feeling. Cues can be either non-verbal or verbal, and most of your customers will demonstrate repeated patterns of verbal and non-verbal cues. A noticeable shift in the patterns can indicate a change in attitude. 

Verbal cues are the customer’s words

Listen for verbal signals of interest, like the passive, indifferent customer who suddenly starts asking questions or opening up about their issues. Listen carefully not only to what your customers are saying, but also how they are saying it. 

Customers who are asking questions about your other clients or talking about problems with their current vendors are signaling their interest. Are they being very open and forthcoming about business or personal matters? This indicates a level of rapport and trust with the representative. Are they discussing options or asking questions about terms? These verbal cues can tell you a lot about what the customer is interested in. 

Non-verbal cues include body language, vocal tone, and voice inflection

These cues are often subconscious and can provide great insight into the customer’s attitude. Inexperienced salespeople tend to focus on the verbal communication channel, because it’s the most obvious way customers express their business or personal needs. However, being attentive to a customer’s non-verbal cues will produce valuable insights into his or her feelings and behavior.

Here are some general guidelines for body language cues reflecting emotions commonly experienced in sales interactions: 

  • Uneasiness or suspicion: Clearing throat, picking at skin or clothing, fidgeting, averted gaze or sidelong glance, hands covering mouth, rubbing nose or eyes, crossed arms, turning aside or moving away from you/toward the exit 
  • Distraction or disinterest: Doodling, drumming, staring, attending to something else, head resting in palm, loosely crossed legs with foot kicking 
  • Frustration or defensiveness: Crossed legs and arms, pointing with index finger, clenched hands, karate chop gestures, sighing or huffing, running hand through hair or rubbing back of neck
  • Interest or evaluation: Hand-to-face gestures, tilting head, chin stroking, removing or peering over eyeglasses, hand on bridge of nose, wandering around the table 
  • Uncertainty, needing reassurance: Touching or chewing pen/pencil, rubbing thumbs together, biting fingernails, shaking head
  • Agreement or cooperation: Moving closer, sitting on edge of chair, leaning forward, gripping edge of table, open arms and hands, unbuttoning coat, touching gestures
  • Confidence: Straight back, hands on lapels or cupped in back, smiling, posing, preening

Experience, interpersonal skills and some amount of intuition will help you interpret what customers are feeling. Be especially aware of changing patterns in customers’ non-verbal cues – for example, when someone who has been leaning back in his chair suddenly leans towards you. A shift in body language or behavior and vocal patterns often signals an interruption in thought processes or a change in attitude. 

Building Rapport with Customers

Opportunities to build rapport occur throughout any customer interaction, but it’s particularly important to start out on the right foot and establish a connection at the very beginning. In the opening minutes of a sales interaction, the customer is trying to decide whether they even want to keep talking to you. If you annoy them, seem insincere, or otherwise turn them “off,” customers are not going to be very receptive to what you have to say.

Different Strokes

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to building rapport. People are different, and have different interests and ways of interacting with others. Some people, for example, will want to have some social chitchat and get comfortable with you before getting down to business; others will consider this a waste of time, and would rather you be very businesslike and get right to the point. Opening the conversation the wrong way with the wrong person can be a major misstep.

People generally fall to one side or the other of two orientation continuums: a formal-informal axis and a dominant-easygoing axis. People with a more formal and task-oriented personality will prefer to focus on business concerns. More informal, people-oriented individuals will be more comfortable with the whole sales process if they get to know you a bit more personally, and if you show an interest in them as people. Those who are more dominant in nature will want to lead the interaction and will tend to talk more, while the easygoing types will do a lot of listening and asking questions. Easygoing individuals tend to avoid high-pressure situations, while the dominant types are more high-energy and competitive.

If you can size up your client’s general orientation on either (or both) of these axes fairly early in your interaction, you will have a better idea about how best to build rapport with them. In many cases, you can begin by referencing common business interests to help break the ice.

For example, discuss other companies for whom you have solved problems, current issues with their company, and personal business issues with the customer. This opening will usually appeal to people across the board – it is business-oriented enough for the task-oriented, formal types, while demonstrating a personal connection and interest that the other types will recognize and appreciate.

Establishing Trust 

Trust is very important to building and maintaining rapport (and rapport is important to trust). If the customer gets the impression that you are not sincere or honest, it will cause any trust and rapport to collapse and they will NOT want to do business with you. The cardinal rule of trust-building is that you must never ignore the customer’s interest areas in order to meet your own agenda.

For example, if you don’t ask questions about the customer’s situation or needs and jump straight into a product discussion, it is likely to be too early for the customer’s comfort level, which will cause negative chemistry. Besides, you have demonstrated no value to the customer if you do not show that you are interested in them. This type of selling-oriented behavior communicates to the customer that your primary concern is getting their money, not in solving their problems.

Remember that trust develops initially from the customer’s reading of your sincerity. Because of this, it is never a good idea to lie in order to build rapport – don’t say your favorite uncle shares the customer’s name unless it’s true, and don’t try to strike up a conversation about his college football team if you don’t actually follow the sport. Customers are fairly good at intuitively detecting insincerity, so this type of prevarication will not do you any favors. Finally, remember that not only your words, but your body language and tone have a lot to do with how credible and trustworthy you appear.

About the Author

Rogers has created and led businesses in 13 countries on three continents, has been interviewed on over 100 shows on CNN, CBS, and ABC on the topics of sales, CRM, sales management and corporate productivity, is on the Advisory Board of DePaul University Center for Sales Leadership and was a Texas eCommerce Awards finalist for two consecutive years. His passion for CRM enabled sales performance transformation inspired his two books, Pathways to Growth, co-written with business partner Tony Robbins, and Spark!