Building a rapport with internal and external stakeholders has long been a staple of good business. But in a post-lockdown era where businesses are navigating the new normal of a hybrid or remote set-up, the tactics for cultivating business relationships have had to shift.
Hospitality and that compulsion to wine and dine a prospect in order to land a deal is less of a go-to tactic when many are still exercising post-pandemic caution and others have simply left cities and the commuter belt, positioning them further away from business centres and corporate culture.
Particularly from a sales perspective, we know that 87% of those responsible for buying products and services in UK businesses now prefer to conduct deals virtually*. This means it has never been more important for sales professionals - and indeed anyone in an account management, project management or customer facing role - to successfully build a virtual rapport with clients and prospects, to grow and win new work, and ultimately conduct successful business.
But such prowess doesn’t materialise without training and coaching; it’s also incumbent on business leaders to ensure their teams are equipped with the skills required to strengthen their connections with key partners throughout a business cycle.
What is a ‘virtual rapport’?
By definition, a rapport centres around a close relationship in which the parties concerned understand each other’s motivations and communicate well. Ultimately, rapport boils down to a mutual and established trust. And when you overlay this further with a virtual framework, it comes down to building enriching and rewarding relationships over the likes of Zoom.
It’s worth taking a moment to dig into the role that trust plays in building a rapport. Multifaceted, trust manifests in many ways; from the confidence that time spent with you is worthwhile, to the assurance that what you’re saying holds value, and reinforced by the belief that you will deliver on what you have promised.
Fostering trust starts at the very first point of contact so, if you are building a relationship with a new client or stakeholder virtually, there are some fundamental steps to set you up for success.
How do I build virtual rapport?
Linger in the discovery phase
Building a rapport begins ahead of the first conversation. Before attending a virtual meeting with a new prospect or client, make sure your research is thorough. Don’t rely on a generic deck or agenda to steer you through; instead, research the organisation and its competitors to show an understanding of the opportunities and challenges facing their industry.
Try to anticipate pain points based on customers in a similar sector and prepare to answer concerns or queries with living, breathing examples of how you’ve added value previously. While this requires a level of speculation, it will ensure time spent with you feels additive.
Don’t talk about the weather!
When building virtual rapport, it is mission critical to drive relevance from the outset. With 44% of UK office workers saying their mind starts to wander within half an hour of a virtual call**, it’s important to make sure you are prioritising areas of the conversation that are most likely to keep your contact’s attention.
This should be done by thinking about how you drive the conversation beforehand to ensure that you are delivering the information that is most useful to whom you are speaking, rather than repeatedly pushing your own agenda. In many regards, this requires showing up as a business consultant rather than a seller. And make sure you set a mutually beneficial agenda that is highly relevant to them while reassuring that you understand their business challenges.
Where possible, it’s also worth researching the individuals with whom you will be meeting - LinkedIn is a great starting point for this. It is not just about making a commercial connection, but also a personal one. Even if they don’t post or engage with content regularly, you may have mutual connections or they may have an interesting career history that steers you towards targeted talking points.
Alternatively, check to see if they have published anything of interest and use that to signpost relevance in your conversation. Whilst you might not be able to take them for lunch, you can still advance discussions with a personable topic of conversation without reverting to something mundane like the weather. Ultimately, some due diligence will unveil mutual interests that could be dropped into conversation to establish a commonality outside of work.
Don’t talk about yourself
Above all, be authentic. Don’t start a conversation with waffle or try to start building the foundations of a relationship on a lie. Make sure your conversational style comes across as relaxed and, above all, natural. But equally be prepared to mirror the customer or prospect’s style if they are particularly formal.
If you want to build trust virtually, you need to let them get a sense of your authentic personality. A helpful way to do this without making the conversation about you is to find a shared interest or experience. When conducting a meeting virtually, try picking up cues based on how they have shown up to the meeting. Are they in an office? Is there anything interesting in the background – like posters, books or a view – that you can enquire about?
Don’t make the conversation about yourself, but instead make sure you ask questions to make your contact feel at ease. And even if your customer turns off their camera, keep yours on throughout to show you are present and engaged.
How do I maintain this rapport or rebuild it virtually?
Once you’ve built a rapport with someone, it’s important to maintain it! Keep your follow ups friendly and personable, and avoid any pushiness that can undermine trust. If they reach out but you’re struggling to find time to get back to them right away, drop them a short response explaining next steps and a time frame - be honest. Keeping your responses relatable and relevant will be just as important in maintaining a rapport as it was whilst building it.
If a relationship loses momentum and the rapport needs rebuilding, focus on empathy. There could be many reasons why a prospect goes quiet – maybe their focus has been diverted to another project, maybe they are disheartened at a commercial outcome – but get in touch to align yourself with their requirements and show them you are a supportive business partner. Focus on asking them what they need from you and how you and your team can support them in achieving their goals; this will go a long way.
Ultimately, the foundations of building rapport virtually remain similar to relationship building in person. If you can make sure you come across as approachable, reliable, informed and authentic, then the lack of body language cues, or the need for lunch meetings or deals on the golf course that were useful in the pre-pandemic world, become secondary. After all, virtual deals tend to be more efficient, saving customers and prospects one of their most precious assets of all: time.
*Data based on Showpad’s State of Selling survey amongst 524 UK employees who make purchases on behalf of their company in June 2022
**Research conducted by Mortar Research in June 2022 amongst 1,008 office workers in the UK as part of Showpad’s State of Selling survey
Andrea Abbate is VP of Revenue Enablement at Showpad.