6 Rapport-building Questions to Ask in Your Next Sales Call (and Why They’re Effective)

Sujan Patel is the founder of Mailshake, a sales engagement software used by 38,000 sales and marketing professionals. He has over 15 years of marketing experience and has led the digital marketing strategy for companies like Salesforce, Mint, Intuit and many other Fortune 500 caliber companies.
  • June 21, 2020

Have you ever received a sales call where the salesperson started off with an ultra-casual “How’s it going?”

There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but it has been overused to the point that it sounds scripted and is immediately recognizable as a sales call.

And the fact is, being pleasant but predictable does little to build genuine rapport with your prospects. Since you have such a short window of time to make a connection with them, why waste it on empty filler when you could be saying something much more effective?

Studies show it takes an average of eight calls to get someone on the phone, so don’t torch all that hard work by asking something shallow like “How was your weekend?”

Instead, make it memorable so that they’ll not only want to talk with you, but also remember you well after the call.

The Benefits of Building Rapport with Prospects

In the high-pressure world of sales, it may seem like taking the time to foster a relationship is a luxury you can’t afford, and that every contact with a prospect should be seen as an opportunity to close the deal as quickly as possible.

But that’s just not how sales works anymore. Buyers need to know that they can trust sales reps – that their needs are being understood, and that the rep they’re speaking to has the knowledge and expertise to recommend a solution to their problems.

It’s all but impossible to achieve this without first taking the time to build rapport with your prospect. That’s because investing in rapport:

  • Lets prospects know you’re listening to their needs
  • Allows you to ask difficult questions that could otherwise scare a prospect away
  • Puts the prospect at ease, enabling the conversation to flow more smoothly

Good Rapport-Building Questions

Successful selling is all about asking the right questions. But building good connections with your prospects is just as essential as finding out more about their company, needs, and pain points.

Questions that build good rapport go beyond the surface level. They’re highly personalized, and not something that just anyone could answer (i.e. “How was your visit to the lake this weekend?” vs “How was your weekend?”). You still need to be professional, of course, but adding a personal element to show you’ve been paying attention will take you a lot further.

In addition, these types of questions must be genuine to build real trust. When it comes to B2B sales, more than 90% of companies report that they only buy from companies they trust. This puts a lot of pressure on the salesperson, as another survey shows that only 18% of buyers say they trust and respect salespeople.

Try including some of these top rapport-building questions in your next sales call to make your sales efforts even more effective.

1. “I See You Live in ___. What’s Your Commute Like?”

Location-based questions can be a powerful way to show your prospect you know something about them. You can use a question about commute times or heavy traffic to create a relatable situation (because who doesn’t loathe morning traffic jams?).

It’s also unique to the individual. Someone who lives in Manhattan will likely have a strikingly different commute and experience than someone who lives in Salt Lake City – New Yorkers most likely commute via public transportation, while those in smaller metro areas probably drive to work.

Why It’s Effective: Whatever their answer, you can use their responses to build on the conversation and potentially learn more about what makes them tick. For example, someone who rides the subway every day may use that time to check email, listen to a podcast or audiobook, or review the sales literature you send them.

Additional Location-based Questions:

  • “Have you ever been to [local restaurant or attraction]? I’ve heard it’s pretty awesome.”
  • “What brought you to [name of city]?”
  • “I hear you guys have a big [event, festival, or major happening] there every year. What’s that like?”

2. “Where Were You Before You Started at [Current Company]?”

Open-ended questions are rocket fuel for sales conversations. You should listen more than you talk, so going beyond the basic ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions gives your prospects a chance to share with you.

Career-related questions give you more insight into their role in the company and their previous experiences. For example, if you’re talking to someone who worked for another company you work with, you could use that to build your own credibility. Also look to see if you have any mutual connections, such as a friend who worked at their old company.

Or, you might discover that the marketing director you’re talking to just got promoted to the position and hasn’t personally experienced many of the challenges a marketing director will face. In this case, part of your sales strategy could focus on how you can help them make a strong first impression in their new role.

Why It’s Effective: Career-related questions are highly personalized and shift the conversation toward your prospect. And most people love to talk about themselves. Psychological studies show it makes us feel good and lights up the same part of the brain that activates when we eat good food or do other self-gratifying activities.

Additional Career-related Questions:

  • “I see you used to work in [other industry]. What made you make the transition?”
  • “You used to work at [former company]? I had a friend who worked there. Do you happen to know [friend’s name]?”
  • “A lot of my clients in [prospect’s role] have told me [specific detail about the job]. What’s your experience with this been like?”

3. “I Noticed You Went to X College. That’s a Great School. What Did You Like Best About It?

Choosing a college isn’t a decision to take lightly, and getting into the school of your choice can be even harder. Most people are proud of where they went to school (and the degree they earned), and they’ll be happy you took notice.

You can usually find this information on Facebook or LinkedIn. It just takes a quick search, and you’ll feel better prepared for your call as a result. Take it a step further by looking up additional details about their school so you’ll have more talking points when you call.

Or, if you can’t find out where they went to college, it’s 100% okay to ask them during conversation. Make a note so you’ll remember it for your next call.

Why It’s Effective: These questions tap into the same psychology of how people love to talk about themselves. It gives them a chance to share a personal piece of their lives and gives you another way to connect with them.

Additional School-related Questions:

  • “Oh, I know someone who went to [name of college]. Do you happen to know [name of the person]?”
  • “What was your experience at [name of college] like?”
  • “What were you involved in while you were at [name of college]? Any sports, clubs, etc.?”

4. “I Read Your Blog Post on ___. What Do You Think About ____?”

If you think flattery is always insincere and will get you nowhere, you probably aren’t doing it right. Most people can spot meaningless compliments and feigned interest a mile away, which is why any praise or accolades should come without a hidden agenda.

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his quintessential book How to Win Friends and Influence People, being sincere to others, no matter the situation, is critical to building good relationships.

For example, if you mention reading something that your prospect posted on LinkedIn or on their blog and ask for their take on a related issue, you should have a genuine interest in their response.

Why It’s Effective: Taking note of the content they create shows you’re paying attention and care about what they’re sharing. Most people are flattered by this. They feel like they’re providing value or being helpful, which could help break down any communication barriers and get them to open up.

Additional Content-related Questions:

  • “I saw you’re a fan of [podcast or show]. Have you ever listened to [related podcast or show]?”
  • “I saw your latest blog post on [topic or event]. What are some other blogs you read regularly?”
  • “Thanks for sharing that [blog post, article, ebook, white paper] on LinkedIn yesterday. What is your take on this?”

5. “I See Your Company Just Moved to a New Office. What’s That Like?”

Company-related questions, such as what it was like moving to a new location, are powerful ways to bring personalization into the conversation, while also helping you learn more about the company itself.

It’s also an easy question to answer. It doesn’t catch prospects off-guard or force them to think too much. If you want an honest, open response, it’s best not to put them on the spot.

Learning more about their office can give you a feel for their environment and company at large. Maybe they have a stunning riverfront view from the fifth floor. Or perhaps they moved to a bigger space because they’re growing their team, or downsized because they’re trying to cut costs.

Why It’s Effective: It’s a simple question with powerful implications. Sift through their answer and you’ll likely come up with helpful nuggets of information that will keep the conversation going or give you needed insights.

Additional Company-related Questions:

  • “What are your company’s goals in the next year?”
  • “Congratulations on your [recent company achievement]! How long have you guys been working on that?”
  • “I saw your company was part of [name of event]. What are some of the other events you host or attend each year?”

6. “Do You Travel Much for Work?”

Questions related to work travel are among the easiest for your prospects to answer, but there’s also a benefit for the sales rep, too.

For starters, asking about a prospect’s work travel habits can lead to easy follow-up questions. For example, you might ask where they travel most often (i.e. the corporate office in New York, a branch location in Georgia, or their sister company overseas). You could even find out whether they love being on the road or loathe the thought of airports and hotels.

However they answer, you can most likely find common ground, whether it’s having visited the same places they travel to, or sharing the same love or hate for certain airports or public transportation.

Why It’s Effective: Knowing how often they travel and where can give you good insight into their schedule and availability when you’re trying to reach them. For example, an executive who travels for a week every month will be harder to connect with than someone who takes just one annual business trip.

Keep this in mind when you’re trying to schedule meetings or if your prospect isn’t returning your phone calls. It could be that they’re out of the office, not trying to avoid you. If possible, find out a direct way to contact them (i.e. a cell phone number) so that their presence or absence in the office won’t slow down communications.

Additional Travel-related Questions:

  • “What are your best tips for balancing your work trips with your office responsibilities?”
  • “Where are some places you usually travel for business?”
  • “I heard you travel a lot. What do you do to stay productive while you’re out of the office?”

Building Rapport Is a Journey, Not a Sprint

While you want to make as many connections as possible, it’s even more important to add value to every conversation. Every connection gives you a chance to make a memorable impression, so take advantage of the opportunity to make genuine connections with your prospects.

Salespeople build good relationships by asking the right questions. And, like any good relationship, it takes ongoing nurturing and a genuine interest to strengthen it. Be consistent in your interactions so your relationships are always moving forward.

When you prioritize asking rapport-building questions, you have a better chance of standing out for all the right reasons.

As well as asking rapport-building questions, you need to spend time on building rapport – before, during, and after your interactions with prospects and leads. Here are our six best practice tips for building rapport.

6 Tips for Building Rapport In Sales with Your Prospects

1. Do Your Research

You’re at a party. A friend introduces you to someone new. If your friend is a good host, they’ll probably tell each of you a couple things about the other. For example, “This is Jack, we used to work together at Company X and he’s a big baseball fan. Jack, this is Matteo, we went to school together in Chicago and he loves motorbikes.”

Ultimately, it’s easier to strike up a conversation centered around shared interests and experiences when you know something about the other person.

Sales is no different. You should always look into your prospect’s background before reaching out to them for the first time.

Presumably, you already know where they work and what their job is – that’s the whole reason they’re a prospect in the first place. But you need to dig deeper if you’re going to build rapport based around common interests. As a minimum, you should attempt to find out:

  • Their hometown
  • Where they went to school
  • What they studied
  • How long they’ve been in their job
  • Whether you have any mutual connections

2. Give (Genuine) Compliments

Compliments can be one of the greatest tools to help you build rapport – but only when they’re genuine and meaningful.

Let’s say you’ve researched your prospect on LinkedIn. It probably won’t advance your cause if you congratulate them on a recent promotion and tell them how much they deserved it – after all, they don’t know who you are, and they’ve almost certainly been inundated with “Congrats!” messages already.

On the other hand, if you see a piece of content that your prospect created and shared, it’s absolutely a good idea to read it, gather a couple of takeaways, and tell them how much you enjoyed it. Explain why you liked it:

  • Have you been able to implement any changes to your own methods or processes having read it?
  • Have you shared it with your colleagues or other prospects?
  • Have you learned something particularly valuable from it?

That’s a proper compliment, and it paves the way for a wider conversation.

3. Take the Personal Approach

Sure, you’re ultimately trying to make a sale. Your prospect knows that. But that doesn’t mean you’re only allowed to talk about work.

Both you and the person at the other end of the line have a life outside of the office. Often, it’s the personal touches – a shared love of a certain TV show, restaurant, activity, or anything else – that can really help you make a connection.

I’m not saying that your first call with a prospect should be 15 minutes of quizzing them about their favorite book or movie. Instead, the personal approach should follow naturally from your initial research.

Here’s an example: you’ve found out they got an MBA at the University of Arizona. One of your closest friends went to UA too and studied at the same program. They told you about a certain professor who really brought the course material to life – does your prospect remember them?

4. Get a ‘Yes’ As Soon As Possible

Buyers are busy. Whether you’re cold calling them or previously made an appointment, it’s unlikely that speaking to you will be their highest priority for the day. That means they’ll naturally want to say “no” as soon as possible and get back to their to-do list.

The most effective way to combat this? Get them to say “yes” as early in the call as possible. Getting that first “yes” removes a huge barrier to your rapport-building efforts and paves the way for more “yes” responses down the line.

Best of all, it doesn’t need to be a difficult “yes.” You don’t have to ask them if they want to learn about your product or are available for a meeting next week. A positive response to even the most basic of questions – “Are you the best person to speak to about your company’s email marketing?” or “Can I email you a couple of free resources that will save you time on your email marketing?” – gives you an opening to strike up a real conversation.

5. Tell a Story

If I told 100 people that the average temperature in the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall is 72.5 degrees, how many of them would remember it a week later? Half? A third? Probably much less.

Now, imagine I told that same group that the reason for this is because a constant temperature of 72.5 degrees helps to keep the musicians’ instruments in tune. That’s a lot more memorable, right?

Why? Because it’s not just a fact, presented without context. It’s part of a story.

Stories capture the imagination; they help us to picture a scenario or challenge in a way that mere numbers never could. As a sales rep, you can use this effect to your advantage to forge closer bonds with prospects.

For instance, let’s say you’re talking about a client success story. Don’t just reel off cold, hard figures – how much their revenue increased by, or how many more leads they generated. Create a compelling narrative. What problems was the client facing? What did they say when you started working together? How did you come up with a solution? What speed bumps did you face along the way?

6. Add Value Early

Buyers need to understand that you know what you’re talking about and are worth listening to. If they start to question this, you’ll never succeed in building rapport.

Overcome these doubts by adding value as early as possible. Make it immediately clear to your prospect that they’ll enjoy real benefits by speaking to you, and always give them a reason to keep listening.

Say you’re speaking to a tech CFO. Prior experience with similar clients has taught you a few of their likely pain points – for instance, maybe their team is spending too much time maintaining spreadsheets and not enough on delivering analysis and insight to the board. But you can recommend a couple free tools that could make a big difference, based on what you’ve seen work in other organizations.

That’s real value. And best of all, because you’re not actively selling something at this point, it’ll help build trust too.

Remember: You’re Speaking to a Real Person

If you only take one thing away from this article, let it be this: never forget that you’re speaking to a real person.

All the rules that apply to “normal” (out-of-work) conversations are true of sales calls as well. The more relaxed and natural you can be, the more likely it is that you’ll build the rapport needed with your prospects to move business decisions forward.

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