Consulting 101: Building rapport quickly

  • We are not always persuasive; we all have “off days”
  • We are not always right; clients hire us for the difficult problems
  • We don’t always know them well, they may be new customers
  • We don’t always have the benefit of time; some projects are urgent
  • We might be very different from them; different background, understanding, point of view

How do you build influence?

There are many people, books, and resources to learn the art and skill of building influence. Two good places to start are How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Influence by Robert Cialdini (affiliate links). How about these experts in influence: children, dentists, spouses.

Children are persistent:

When your child wants something, the nagging can ceaseless. I remember when I was 10 years old and wanted a BMX bike, I “rode my parents” for weeks on end. What about children who want a puppy; the sales cycle can last 3–4 years. They just don’t quit.

Dentists have authority:

When is that last time you said “no” to your dentist? They have the expertise, and authority. There is massive information asymmetry (read: you haven’t studied tooth and gum health, nor do you often probe the inside of your own mouth.)

Easier said that done, right?

As consultants, we don’t have the benefit of forming 20+ year trusting relationships with all the stakeholders on a site. We might not be perceived as the authority on the topic, nor do we have 2–3 years to nag someone in the IT department. So how do you influence people on the client team, stakeholders, interviewees to cooperate and assist in the project goals? How to get them on your side?


Being able to build rapport quickly is a huge asset. It’s a mix of friendliness, approachability, optimism, courtesy, and likeability. You become a magnet. Essentially, people are attracted to you. You become worthy of their attention, time, and effort. On my first project, I failed in the task of getting some data from the client. The AP administrator said it could not be done. My manager went into that person’s office, talked sports for 20 minutes, and got the data as if had been lying on the desk. Hmm, a little annoying, primarily because it was a skill I just didn’t have.

  1. Be respectful. This sounds old-fashioned, but few people have manners. If you’re courteous and respectful, people will pay attention to you.
  2. Be humble. Admit you need help. Be self-deprecating, vulnerable, or even be willing to make fun of yourself. Give them the opportunity to help you.
  3. Be fun. Apply a little bit of humor. Take the edge off. Have fun. The government worker I had some good banter. He made my day, but I made his too.
  4. Be relevant. Find connection points. Know the company’s context. Know the content of the conversation. See how the local sports team did last night. Talk about food, travel, sports, children or things important to you.
  5. Be yourself. Don’t fake niceness. Don’t try to schmooze. It’s obvious and kinda gross. One absolute rule: clients know when you are lying.

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Reformed management consultant who now teaches at business school. Business geek.