One of my colleagues told me I come across as a flirt. I was horrified. She’s a real pro and I respect her. Still, our styles are very different. I have numerous male clients. How do I act friendly without being flirty when building rapport? – Becky in Smyrna, Delaware
It’s all about the signals you give off. There’s a difference between building a relationship with a man and with a woman. There’s a big divide between genders; they have two different perceptions. No matter what, be mindful of how you might be perceived.
My first piece of advice is to always walk the line on the professional side. Whether your client is a man or woman, you want to build up a rapport for a long-term relationship. Rapport begins with building a comfort level. You can be friendly without being flirty!
It starts with physical points. You want to make eye contact, but it will come off as flirty if you make intense eye contact. Then there’s body posture. Be aware that lowering your eyelids or batting your eyes while leaning in might send the wrong message. If you’re standing, stand up straight. Or sit up straight with your shoulders rolled back. It will convey authority. Try not to touch while talking. Sure, you might touch their shoulder at some point, but never touch their hands. There are unwritten rules of space and touching the person’s hand could send the wrong message. Also, note that some people have really strong boundaries to their personal space, and to violate that space would come off as negative. When first building rapport with a client, I would go no further than shaking hands when first meeting. Then during the conversation, maybe a tap on the shoulder at some point.
Another physical point involves your tone of voice. If you’re speaking as a professional, your tone is friendly and open, not too jovial nor too soft. Observe your tone of voice; you’d be amazed at what it can reveal. Consider recording your voice in a role-playing exercise. Listen to your tone and inflections, the subtext you are communicating. This is an excellent way to identify areas of improvement in your tone.
Don’t be invasive with your questions when building a relationship. “What are you up to Friday night?” comes off as too flirty. Stick to my favorite saying, “be mindful.” There are many general questions that work quite well for establishing great relationships and finding commonality. These lead to other conversations and the building of rapport. It’s not flirty; it’s about making a genuine connection.
If you invite a newer prospect or client out for an event, such as a ballgame, make sure there are at least three people in attendance. A one-on-one get-together could be misinterpreted during the early stages of relationship building. It’s always better to bring along others, as it is more social, builds a stronger team, and avoids painful misunderstandings.
Now, once a relationship has been established, I don’t think it’s wrong to acknowledge it. Many times I would fly into a city and see a customer I hadn’t seen in months and give them a big hug. But that’s after getting to know them exceedingly well. Additionally, it directly relates to the client’s preferred communication style and personality. Flex your style to better fit your client.
I would add that everyone should come up with their own bucket of questions. Every personality and industry is different. One of my favorite questions is to start by making a comment about the weather or city. Then I ask, “If you could be anywhere right now, where would you be and what would you be doing?” People usually love to talk about what they like to do in their spare time. It’s a great way to expand the conversation. The best thing is they’re the ones doing all the talking. Another conversation starter is to be observant and notice a focal point in their office. People usually reveal themselves by what is on their desk or hanging on their wall. I remember a client with Egyptian art all around their office, and I found out, not surprisingly, that they were into Egyptology. It was easy to kick off the conversation by asking for the special meaning of a specific object on their desk.
These examples are all excellent relationship builders. Remember, observe and be mindful when building up rapport with clients.
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Lynn Whitbeck is the co-founder and President of Petite2Queen. She is focused on identifying and evaluating opportunities for women at work, helping them define their personal roadmap. She dedicates herself to delivering tools and insights, embracing visualization of the big picture, and identifying and implementing the minutiae of detail. Lynn aims to share lessons learned along her journey and enable positive uplift for women.