Talk about their interests
Patty, who works in circulation at a library, likes to get customers talking about themselves.
"I try to pick up on their interest, whether it is cooking, art or camping etc. People like to talk about themselves and this makes them a friend."
This is great technique because Patty is absolutely right—people feel comfortable talking about themselves. It helps put them at ease and makes you more likable when you show a genuine interest in something they care about.
Ask about their projects
Dawn is a customer service representative at a company that sells manufacturing equipment. Dawn's customers all make things, so Dawn likes to ask about their projects. This opens the door to getting customers to talk about themselves.
"Asking what my customers are making always starts a conversation. It gives the customer the feeling that I'm truly interested in them and I learn fascinating things about the people I serve."
This technique is similar to Patty's approach. In this case, Dawn is asking a work-related question that has two potentially good results. The first is it helps build rapport since people like to talk about themselves or what they're working on. The second benefit is it helps Dawn better understand the customer's needs.
Share something about yourself
Kristan, a Senior Director at a software company, breaks the ice by sharing a little about herself to encourage clients to open up about themselves.
Kristan might ask a client, "Are you experiencing the same week I am?" during the busy back-to-school season.
"School is starting back this week so it's been crazy getting everyone out the door on time [in the morning]. Then I learn if they have children, a hobby if weather is great for gardening, or whatever topic and I try to infuse that in future conversations."
You can sometimes break the ice by doing something first, like sharing a little about yourself. What I really like about Kristan's example is it's simple without oversharing. Adding just a line or two such as, "It's been crazy getting everyone out the door on time," encourages the customer to share something about themselves.
Wish them a happy birthday
Andrew works in technical support, and sometimes needs to ask customers for their date of birth.
"If a customer’s birthday is within about two weeks of the current date I’ll wish them a happy late or early birthday."
Customers are generally surprised and appreciative when he acknowledges their birthday. Using Andrew's two week suggestion, you'll be able to use this technique fairly often without over using it.
Ask your customer for suggestions
Derrick, a sales manager for a hospitality company, likes to ask customers for suggestions when he knows he'll be traveling to their city.
"I typically discuss their favorite restaurant in their town. If I've been there it's an easy one. If not, I keep it on my list of places to visit. This works so well that when I went to a new town for a visit, the manager struck up a conversation with me and said 'Sarah said you would be coming to check us out.' This really helped cement the relationship and I typically have great meals, too!"
People like to be an expert, so asking customers for advice can make them feel comfortable and naturally inclined to want to help you.
Pay your customer a compliment
Rachael is a consultant who builds rapport with clients by paying them a genuine and sincere compliment.
"I go with fashion sometimes. Appreciating a customers fashion builds a foundation for an easy rapport with customers. It can be their eye glasses, wristwatch, or even their hair."
Some people may be concerned about crossing the line from paying someone a compliment to being unprofessional and flirtatious.
Rachael's advice for avoiding this trap is to stick with something you know and make the appreciation genuine. For example, you might comment on a customer's watch if you are familiar with the brand or truly admire the style.
Ask about their name
Viraj is a corporate trainer who recommends asking customers about their first name.
"When I come across a name that is different or unique, I politely pop a question: ‘That’s a unique name—I am curious where it comes from or what it means.' More often than not you get great background for the name and get the person to open up."
I've often used a similar approach when signing one of my books after a speaking engagement. Whenever I encounter someone with an uncommon name, such as "Sunshine," I'll comment that they're the first Sunshine I've met that day. This often draws a laugh and opens the door for them to tell me a little more about themselves.
Take action to build rapport
Rapport is one of the four customer service skills that I think are most important for customer service professionals to have.
I encourage you to experiment with these suggestions. Find out which ones work naturally for you. Perhaps some even work better than others, while some might not be appropriate for your situation.
Keep in mind these seven suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg. There are many other ways to build rapport.
In fact, I'd appreciate it if you shared your own suggestion in a comment!