Building Rapport With Clients: 10 Tips for a Positive First Impression

Fabio Comana
Fabio Comana
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It’s been said that in the first seven seconds of a customer or client meeting you, they’ll make 11 impressions about you. Make them positive impressions with our 10 quick tips to building positive rapport.

A common error made by many health and fitness professionals when meeting new or prospective clients is failing to recognize the level of rapport desired by that individual. We are often too quick to jump to investigating their health and exercise goals without building a foundational level of rapport. Unfortunately, rapport is not often a strong point for personal trainers. Initially, new clients want to know you truly care rather than how much you know about fitness – their expectations already included that you are knowledgeable.

Work on your moment of truth – that initial timeframe in which someone makes decisive decisions about you – make them positive and memorable. Here are 10 quick tips that have helped us build positive rapport with our new clients.

10 Tips for Building Rapport With Clients

  1. Open Your Attitude and Your Body: When you meet with a new client, put aside judgment and avoid being confrontational or adversarial. Be accepting of their belief systems or attitudes, regardless of your own opinion or facts. Now is not the time to educate or preach, your role is a supportive role, you will have time to educate later. Position your belly button and heart towards the client, just as artful business negotiators visibly unbuttons their jackets prior to sitting, displaying a non-verbal sign of openness and willingness to work together.
  1. Open Your Ears: Humans speak 125 – 250 words per minute versus listening at a rate of 500 words per minute. You cannot learn about someone if you are doing all the talking. Follow the 70:30 rule, letting them talk 70% of the time. Encourage dialogue by asking open-ended questions, being respectful of individual differences. Effective listening implies capturing both the content and the emotion driving it, and it occurs at different levels, active listeners capture everything as they are free of distractions (people, noise, etc.) and focused, so avoid multi-tasking as often witnessed with passive, selective, or indifferent listeners.This applies to note taking as well. Utilize conversation breakpoints where you can jot down key notes then paraphrase some of the dialogue for clarification. Also note any ‘nuggets” of areas where your client appears to be very passionate, as this may be useful later. For example, you notice your client’s body language deviates negatively from baseline, it could be time to use that nugget. Let’s consider Mary who shares how proud she is of her daughter’s soccer accomplishments. During your conversation you observe Mary changing her body language towards you when you discuss body fat levels, showing signs of closing off or becoming defensive, now would be an ideal time to circle back and say, “Mary, before I forget, I wanted to ask you something else about your daughter’s soccer accomplishments…”
  1. Your Eyes: Focus upon the social gaze area, the triangle between the eyes and mouth with an easy look approximately 90% of the time. Avoid power gazes (the triangle between the eyes and mid-forehead) or intimate gazes. Also, be sensitive to individual differences (ethnic, cultural, etc.) where clients may tend to avert their eyes. Also, avoid eye tracking around the room as this proves distracting to the listener.
  1. Smile or Beam: Amazing what a genuine smile can do. It presents a simple ice-breaker and welcoming sign, but a fake smile is easily apparent, especially to women who are more perceptive than men (women spot incongruences in non-verbal communication 87 % of the time vs. 42 % of the time in men). During a genuine smile, eyes tend to wrinkle while the lips turn upwards versus a fake smile where there is generally no eye wrinkle.
  1. Laughter is the Best Medicine: Laughter increases EEG activity in the left brain, releasing endorphins (opiates) that have an analgesic and immune-boosting effect, while also improving oxygen uptake and vasodilating peripheral vessels of the face. We all need to laugh more. As adults, we only laugh about 15 times a day compared to kids who laugh about 400 times a day. Share a few laughs, especially at your own expense, to let clients know you’re fallible and human. It is deeply rooted with bonding and building relationships.
  1. Hi – Salutation and Handshake: Include the client’s name in your initial dialogue multiple times to personalize the communication and help you remember their name for the next time you see them or greet them in passing.Ever considered the intention behind your handshake? Are you quick to assume that someone wants to shake your hand at your first meeting? If I extend my hand to shake yours as a friendly gesture, have I obligated your to reciprocate? The handshake is supposed to help establish a physical anchor to the forthcoming dialogue, but it may communicate the wrong tone. Play it safe - extend your hand slightly, palm-open (facing upward – an inviting position) and if the person begins to reciprocate, continue forward into a firm shake. But, if they don’t, you can recover by cupping both of your hands together rather than feel left hanging. Compliment your handshake with some positive, personalized dialogue. Be careful of your hand position. Your hand over theirs (i.e., palm facing downward) implies dominance; palm-up implies a submissive stance. Your safest approach is with the top of the thumb facing upward (palm perpendicular to the floor); double-grasping (i.e., cupping a hand with both of your hands) is reassuring to some, such as an older client fearful of falling, but disarming to others. Be sensitive to cultural differences. Europeans shake 1 - 3 times; Americans 5 - 6 times; any less may be perceived as distant or uninterested.What about hand gestures and pointing? Finger-pointing is considered a negative, authoritative position that often leads to people listening less as they feel intimidated or threatened by the speaker. Other hand gestures, including fingers placed in a steeple position, hands or fingers touching the mouth, chin stroking, hand rubbing all have hidden messages, so pay attention to any potential mixed messages that could be communicated. Always be aware of cultural differences as many gestures have very different meaning amongst different cultures.The same can be said for arm gestures which can serve as a protective barrier. We often adopt an arms folded position when defensive, uncertain, or insecure. Observe variations in the arm fold; arms folded with clenched fists generally conveys aggression; arms folded and arm-gripping generally conveys self-comforting; arms folded with thumbs up conveys cool, confident and controlling; while the one-arm cross (ladies) or crotch cross (men) conveys high anxiety, nervousness, insecurities, or low self-confidence as do fumbling with cuffs, watch, clutching a purse to the body, checking the wallet, or even holding a coffee cup across body at a table. Again, remember to separate habits, environmental influencers, and culturally-specific gestures from a personality trait or emotional state.
  1. Lean – Body Orientation: As 55% of our communication is non-verbal (e.g., posture, facial expressions, gestures, eye contact), this merits particular attention. Non-verbal communication is the outward reflection of a person’s emotional condition, therefore a key to effective communication is to understand body language in the context of the spoken word and noting changes as communication occurs. Always baseline and read gestures in clusters and not as isolated messages. Never assume just because someone has their arms folded that they are defensive; they may just be cold or that position happens to be comfortable. Observe how their posture changes during the course of your dialogue (e.g., they unfold their arms, lean forward and appear more receptive to your ideas). Look for congruence between the spoken word (content), voice tonality, and the non-verbal message.
  1. Keeping Your Distance: Appropriate distances demonstrate respect for personal space. In the U.S., 18” – 48” is generally considered the personal zone and appropriate for establishing rapport. Distances larger than 48” are reserved for more social events, whereas distances inside of 18” become more intimate. These close quarters increase our sympathetic nervous system response, accelerating heart rate and breathing, and initiates sweat rates. What is deemed personal space can also be influenced by geographic history (i.e., urban dwellers living in densely populated areas like Tokyo and Mumbai are more comfortable in closer spaces.).
  1. Posture and Positioning: Adopt an open, well-balanced, erect, but relaxed posture, with a slight forward lean towards the person to convey interest and acceptance. Leaning back or sideways generally conveys disinterest. While certain gestures differ across cultures and generations; an upward head tilt generally conveys arrogance and superiority, while a downward head tilt generally conveys a negative, judgmental, or dejected position. A sideways head tilt exposing the neck conveys a submissive trait or position, hands on the hips generally conveys a trait of assertion, confidence, or aggression, whereas the leg twine (lower leg wrapped around the other) generally conveys a trait of being shy or timid.
  1. Mirroring and Gesturing: Sensitively mimic a client’s posture, their gestures, voice tonality, and tempo to promote a sense of comfort, trust, and to facilitate dialogue. This is analogous to two people dancing who are in rhythm. When they are out of synch, nothing magical occurs. Avoid distracting movements that may disrupt the speaker’s communication (shifting in your seat, tapping your feet).

In closing, the information presented above as your “moment of truth” is aimed at improving your first impression which could make or break chances of success with building rapport. It should also serve as reminder of the many things requiring focus as we aim to communicate more effectively.

The Author

Fabio Comana

Fabio Comana

Fabio Comana, M.A., M.S., is a faculty instructor at San Diego State University, and University of California, San Diego and the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), and president of Genesis Wellness Group. Previously as an American Council on Exercise (ACE) exercise physiologist, he was the original creator of ACE’s IFT™ model and ACE’s live Personal Trainer educational workshops. Prior experiences include collegiate head coaching, university strength and conditioning coaching; and opening/managing clubs for Club One. An international presenter at multiple health and fitness events, he is also a spokesperson featured in multiple media outlets and an accomplished chapter and book author.


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