More and more companies are realizing the power of customer relationships. 31 percent of business leaders surveyed in the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2022 say driving stronger customer relationships is a top priority this year.
But the question is, how can companies create connections with their customers?
It isn’t easy. Without the right techniques, customer interactions can feel forced, and you risk misunderstanding consumers and their needs. Avoid these mistakes by learning more about customer rapport and ways to develop it.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
What is customer rapport?
Customer rapport is about establishing and maintaining a positive relationship with consumers. It entails understanding and communicating well with your audience.
Developing rapport with clients can go a long way toward building customer trust and improving satisfaction rates. But you have to show genuine interest in your buyers. Otherwise, your attempts might come off as insincere. And with 90 percent of consumers saying authenticity determines who they buy from, insincerity is a big no-no.
Why establish rapport with customers?
Many people today feel like customer service is an afterthought for companies. According to our CX Trends Report, 54 percent of consumers say good customer service is lacking. This gap offers an opportunity for businesses to win customers over by building rapport and showing they care.
According to our CX Trends Report, 54% of consumers say good customer service is lacking.
If you’re one of the brands that can successfully forge strong connections with customers, you’ll have a competitive advantage. 81 percent of consumers say they would most likely buy again from a brand after a positive customer service experience.
Establish customer rapport, and you’ll be set to drive more sales and increase brand loyalty.
How to build rapport with customers
Building rapport with customers requires strong communication skills, empathy, and authenticity. Earn customer trust by using these tips from customer support experts.
1. Practice active listening
When most people “listen” in a conversation, they’re really just waiting to give a response. Support agents who take this approach are missing a golden opportunity to develop rapport with customers.
Active listening, on the other hand, requires you to pay close attention so you can understand what’s being said. It also means staying calm, being empathetic, and showing interest both verbally and nonverbally.
“Active listening isn’t just hearing the customer—it’s making a conscious effort to listen and understand the customer’s issues, concerns, or requests,” says Nicole Potalivo, director of customer success at The Neat Company.
This is one of the most important customer service skills because it has significant benefits.
“Listening to—and acting on—customer insight and feedback will not only make the customer happier, but also help drive a more enlightened product roadmap, solve customer issues before they become critical, and increase retention and revenue opportunities,” says Martin Schneider, chief evangelist and head of solutions marketing at SupportLogic.
Just like a muscle, active listening is a skill you can build. In their article for Harvard Business Review, “How to Become a Better Listener,” Robin Abrahams and Boris Groysberg offer several tactics that can help you become a better listener.
Start by saying the last few words of your customer’s statement back to them. Imagine a customer calls in to complain about receiving a dress in the wrong size. You could say, “To clarify, the dress is a size 10 and not a size 8?”
Use verbal cues like “okay,” “yes,” and “uh-huh” to show you’re paying attention. In a face-to-face conversation, nodding your head in agreement or maintaining eye contact also demonstrates you’re interested in what your customer is saying.
Abrahams and Groysberg discourage rehearsing replies before the other person is done speaking. While call center scripts help you deliver quick answers, you don’t want to sound robotic. Process the information the customer provides, and adapt your scripted response to show the customer you understand what they told you.
A reassuring smile can help a tense customer relax and set a positive tone for the conversation. Even if you’re talking to a happy customer, a smile will likely brighten their day. Plus, over 30 percent of consumers say interacting with a friendly agent is an important element of good customer service, according to our CX Trends Report.
“Smiling is the number one nonverbal technique you should utilize to look more accommodating,” explains Robin K. Dreeke, former FBI agent and author of It’s Not All About “Me”: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.
Dale Carnegie, the author of How to Win Friends & Influence People, also points out: “Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.’”
Take it from the experts—one of the simplest ways to build rapport is to smile, even when you’re speaking to customers over the phone. Often, the simple act can put you in a good mood, helping you stay upbeat and friendly.
If you’re having a bad day, try to think of a happy memory to trigger a smile. You can also put up notes to remind you to smile while interacting with customers.
3. Use concrete language
According to the Journal of Consumer Research, using specific terms when speaking to customers indicates you’re listening to them. This can positively change your audience’s behavior and perception of your business.
Say a customer calls in to request a return and mentions they bought a pair of shoes. If you use a vague term like “those” or “the item” in your response, you might come off as uninterested. But if you use a precise phrase—like “brown leather loafers”—you’ll prove that you’re paying attention to what the customer is saying.
To put this tip into practice, avoid using generic terms such as “that,” “the item,” or “the product.” Instead, say the exact product name, like “our 2019 Tesla model.”
4. Establish trust by mirroring
Sales teams use mirroring—the act of imitating the actions or words of others—to build affinity with prospects. Your support team can leverage this same tactic to develop rapport with consumers. By mirroring a customer’s tone, language, or volume level (within reason), agents can communicate they’re on the same page with them.
For in-person interactions, you should also mirror body language to establish a connection. Keep in mind that a little bit goes a long way, so you shouldn’t copy every single thing a customer does. Subtlety is crucial.
Former FBI negotiator Christopher Voss suggests taking note of key terms the other person says and using them when replying. Stick to repeating only a few words so it doesn’t come off as mimicry. This technique is particularly useful for support conversations that take place via live chat or social media channels because you can’t see your customers and therefore can’t imitate their movements.
5. Speak at the appropriate pace
If you speak rapidly, customers might miss vital information—or worse, see you as a dishonest fast talker. On the flip side, talking too slow can irritate a customer who wants their issue resolved quickly.
In his book, Dreeke suggests people adopt a moderate pace to build trust. “I purposely slow down the delivery and take pauses for people to absorb the content of what I have just said,” he explains. “This translates to meeting and chatting with strangers very easily. Speak slower when having a dialogue, and you will not come across as the ‘bad used-car salesman.’”
Communications coach Joel Schwartzberg says the most effective speaking rate is between 120 and 160 words per minute. “Keep within this optimum range by speaking rapidly enough to avoid being a boring drone, yet slowly enough to be understandable,” he advises.
Don’t rush through every sentence. Instead, pause between phrases so consumers can think about what you said.
Imagine you’re about to help a customer move their online store to your ecommerce site. You might say, “I am going to walk you through getting your store up and running on our website. (Pause.) The first step is configuring your basic administrative settings.” (Pause.)
Each pause allows the customer to reflect on what you stated before they take action or respond.
6. Ask open-ended questions
Learn more about your customers and establish rapport by asking open-ended questions.
“One of the key concepts that every great conversationalist knows is to ask open-ended questions,” Dreeke writes in his book. “Open-ended questions are ones that don’t require a simple yes or no answer. They are generally questions that require more words and thought.”
Rather than asking close-ended questions that elicit straightforward responses, ask “why,” “what,” and “how” questions.
For example, you might swap “Do you like using our tool?” with “What do you like about using our tool?” This rapport-building question will encourage the customer to give you more details about the features they find helpful.
7. Try the FORD method
Created by leading CX consultant John DiJulius, the FORD method helps you base conversations on a set of four topics: family, occupation, recreation, and dreams. According to DiJulius, asking questions related to these subjects indicates that you’re genuinely interested in the other person—helping you develop rapport.
“[People] light up because someone is showing interest in them,” he explains. “When you’re … interested in building a relationship and not trying to get anything else out of them, friendship always becomes the greatest reward.”
To build your FORD knowledge, take note of details that customers mention in passing—like a child’s birthday or a projected goal for their business. When the right opportunity strikes, reference those details in conversation.
Encourage customers to share this type of information by asking questions. Just be sure to stay within the boundaries of a professional interaction.
8. Be empathetic
Customer empathy can be in short supply on some days, especially when you’re resolving numerous tickets and trying to multitask. It might be hard to see things from the customer’s point of view or to even sound interested in what they’re saying.
According to psychology professor Jamil Zaki, empathy becomes easier when we intentionally take a walk in another person’s shoes. “Over time, empathic practice turns into empathic habits and eventually empathic people,” he explains.
Empathy builds rapport by helping you understand your customer’s pain points better. When you find yourself feeling jaded, remind yourself that there’s a human being on the other end who needs your help.
Zaki also encourages people to start from within. Develop self-compassion by treating yourself with patience, generosity, and forgiveness. From there, show empathy to your customers by listening attentively without interruption, taking the time to understand their issues, and reassuring them while promoting a solution. Finally, praise empathy in others. It could be as easy as commending a teammate who was patient and helpful to a customer.
The support team at SupportLogic uses “mind melds” in the customer onboarding stage to drive empathy, understand buyers’ expectations, and form relationships.
“Since we offer sophisticated AI/ML solutions, it is important to work closely with every customer to ensure we understand their business language and what is most important to them,” says Schneider. “These scrums are typically 15 minutes in length, and the daily cadence serves two purposes: building project alignment but also creating a more ‘partnership’ feel to our business relationships.”
SupportLogic boasts a 100-percent retention rate, which Schneider says is a sign they’re building rapport the right way.
Good rapport isn't built in a day
Establishing customer rapport is similar to forging a friendship. The first few interactions might feel awkward and slightly uncomfortable. You must also try to understand the other person, get to know them, and connect with them.
On days when building rapport feels like a Herculean task, bear in mind the benefits of creating a friendly relationship with your customers, and keep going. The effort is worth it in the long run.