While it may seem like some magic list of questions will help your sales team build rapport with leads, it’s a bit more complicated than that. For a salesperson to succeed, they need to build a connection, and that requires attentive follow-up questions.
Opening questions like those at the bottom of this article can help you start an effective conversation, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle. The real rapport building questions are those that dive deeper, without getting trapped in those surface-level conversations.
So rather than letting your sales team waste time on question lists that start strong but get nowhere, keep reading to learn more effective rapport building techniques.
Avoid lingering on surface-level topics
There are plenty of standard rapport-building questions most people ask, like “Where are you from?” or “How long have you been at XYZ employer?” or “How about this weather we are having?”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with these questions, but they’re really just surface level. For most sellers who aren’t comfortable taking conversations deeper, the surface level is where rapport building efforts will stop.
Our advice, and what we coach our sales teams to do, is to go multiple levels deeper.
For instance, a salesperson can still start with “Where are you from?” but once they know this information, they can ask a follow-up question. For instance, “oh so you must be a (insert local sports team) fan?”
Something as simple as this will get them talking about anything other than business, even if only for a minute, and will help to establish some common ground. This is where true rapport building starts.
A simple technique here to ask “reaction” questions, such as “what is/was that like?” or prompting statements like “that must have been really fun/interesting/memorable.” That’s because a key way we connect with each other is through emotion: it’s not the events or facts that connect people, but the ways we react and respond, and how we view our experiences.
Rapport building is not about some magic list of questions
Think about the best rapport builders you know. More times than not, they are excellent conversationalists because they know how to naturally go 3-4 layers beyond the surface, and really get a conversation going. Some people will be naturally better than others here, but practice and knowledge go a long way.
There really isn’t some magic question or questions that will build rapport for your team. But once they’ve gone deep enough into the layers of questions, they’ll find it’s really more of a natural conversation. Their prospect will start to open up more about whatever it is you ask next, business related or not.
Your sales team still needs to “earn” their way to those deeper or more personal questions, though. Imagine how awkward it might be if you just opened a conversation with a stranger by asking about their kids? It feels odd even typing it, but if you weave your way there through conversation, it isn’t as awkward and will feel like a natural progression of the conversation.
An example of digging deeper to build rapport in conversation
So what does this digging actually look like? Here’s how a sales rep might go about it.
Rep: So what part of the country are you in?
Prospect: Tampa Bay
Rep: Oh, so you must be a Tampa Bay Bucs fan?
Prospect: No, I don’t even watch football.
Rep: Not a fan of sports at all, or just football?
Prospect: Well both of my daughters play soccer so I guess we do typically watch that, but not really anything else.
Rep: Oh I see, yeah kids have that effect sometimes. How old are they?
Just in that short exchange, we were able to get from “where you from” to “tell me about your kids.” This is just an example of course, but it’s exactly how rapport building is done.
Helpful tips for building rapport
More important than memorizing specific questions, consider this a shift in mindset during initial sales conversations. As a rule of thumb, sales reps can build trust more quickly by giving leads their full attention, free from judgment or ulterior motives. Here are some tips you can pass along:
- Mindful speaking style: keep your tone, pace, and voice inflection in mind. Keep your voice warm, light, and friendly, making yourself easy to talk to.
- Mindful listening: stay present as they’re speaking, and listen with the intent to understand them, not merely to speak next. Allow them to do most of the talking — people in conversations tend to trust people who listen more than they talk.
- Read the room: Don’t focus on a topic that your prospect doesn’t care about. This conversation should be all about them as much as possible.
- Ask personalized, specific questions: These can get increasingly personal as you talk, but not inappropriate or intrusive. The more genuine the questions are, the more people feel comfortable revealing themselves.
- Transition smoothly into deeper topics: you have to ask some surface level questions to earn the right to ask the deeper level stuff.
- Think long-term: rapport isn’t built overnight, and real rapport will often take multiple engagements to build effectively.
- Practice internally: sales reps should practice amongst each other so they aren’t practicing on prospects. This could be as simple as asking “how was your weekend” on a Monday. Take it multiple levels deeper than whatever surface response you get from that initial question.
- Open body language: for in-person meetings (or, to a lesser extent, video calls), keep your body language open, and be responsive to nonverbal cues. If they tense up or seem uncomfortable about a certain topic, it’s best to avoid it.
- Do your homework: aside from useful facts like hometowns and colleges, small talk can also be business related. Mutual connections on LinkedIn, a common past employer, a connection to a college or university… These are all potential entry points to get your conversation moving in the right direction. You might be surprised at what you find along the way.
The goal with building rapport should focus on gaining common ground, establishing credibility, and most importantly, establishing trust.
When it comes to building rapport, questions should be open-ended to get the person talking. Reps should save most of the yes/no questions for later, when they’re leading the conversation more towards your solution.
Early questions to get off on the right foot
Asking about their education or career are usually good bets to start with (especially if the sales rep has done enough research to know it’s a safe question). Better still, if they find some of the lead’s work or writing online, this is a great way to get them talking about a topic they care about.
- I noticed you went to [college name], that’s a great school. What did you like about it?
- I read that article you wrote on [topic]. What do you think about [related idea]?
- What got you into this line of business?
- Where were you before you started here at [their company name]?
- Congrats on [recent company update] — how long has that been in the works?
- I saw you worked/studied/lived at [place], do you know [potential mutual friend]?
Follow-up questions to dig a little deeper
These questions should give you a sense for how your sales team can encourage leads to elaborate on something they said, ideally in a way that allows them to share their experiences in a more meaningful way. These questions give people space to be as open as they’re comfortable with — just make sure your team knows to stay respectful if a lead opens up more than they expect.
- What would an example of that be?
- How did that impact you?
- Tell me more about that, please.
- What was that like?
- How did that turn out?
Remember to keep digging
For the most part, the questions a salesperson asks further into the conversation should be much more personalized, based on what the lead has said so far. Those deeper-level questions should rarely come from pre-written stock questions, unless the rep has run out of ideas. With more practice, your team will start getting a sense for how comfortable a lead is with more personal questions, and this comfort should increase as the rep builds trust with them.
Rapport is critical to any sales engagement, but you can’t really just ask your teams to build rapport and expect them to have any success doing it.
So what’s a good exercise to get your team thinking of this in the right way?
You can ask them to imagine rapport building like a brick wall. Every time a prospect laughs, shares something about themselves, their interests, family, etc, you can take one brick out of that wall. Once enough bricks are gone, walking through that brick wall isn’t so impossible anymore.