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We all know that making a great first impression is really important if you want to build a strong working relationship with new clients.

As countless studies have shown, people remember you most is by their perception of you during the first moments of your first interaction. Those who study animal behaviour recognise this as an instinctive survival mechanism to quickly assess and determine whether the creature in front of them is a friend or foe (“er..is he about to eat me?”).

While it’s not particularly fair, and I certainly don’t want to say that you’ll never get a second chance, the truth of the matter is that making a good impression during your first face-to-face encounter is more likely to win you the job and to lay the foundations for an ongoing relationship that generates referrals for your business long after the project is finished.

Making a poor first impression is likely to do the complete opposite.

To build a strong relationship that generates referrals, your clients need to trust you.

In order for them to trust you, they first need to like you and, more specifically, to feel that you’re like them. In other words, a great relationship begins by establishing rapport between one another.

The problem is, you haven’t got much time to make this happen, in fact your window of opportunity is around about 90 seconds.

After a decade or so of working with high end clients, I’ve come to think of that first interaction as something of a performance and have since crafted a routine of more or less repeatable steps that I enact before and during those crucial first 90 seconds.

I thought I would write this article for you in case this is something you’ve ever struggled with. Particularly in the case of wealthier clients it’s not always easy to find common ground because quite frankly we lead completely different lives. That said, it is entirely possible to be more likeable and to show that in many ways you share similar values.

At first glance you might think 90 seconds isn’t particularly long, but in reality, it’s about the time it takes to walk through the front door to the rear living area while you take the lead, break the ice and help everyone get acclimatised.

Put your game face on before you get out of the car.

Besides your personal appearance, the most important adjustment you can make prior to the meeting is to assume the right attitude; a relaxed, cheerful disposition.

People are intuitive and pick up on negative vibes especially if you’re trying to hide them, so leave grumpy in the glove compartment before you walk up to the front door. If that means thinking happy thoughts, listening to your favourite song or even forcing yourself to laugh out loud until it feels ridiculous, do it.

Whatever your choice, it’s unlikely to be as weird as my little trick which is to imagine I’m surprising some old friends. I run through as many silly nicknames as I can think of until I hit one that makes me laugh. It helps me get in the right frame of mind, plus I’ve already memorised their names before I see them.

However you get there, once you’re in your happy place, step purposefully out of the car and head on down!

While you wait for the performance to begin, take a deep breath, relax the shoulders and wait for the door to open.

And now, here is your five step rapport building routine in 90 seconds or less.

#1 Greet warmly and positively

To some of you, this comes totally naturally. You’d be surprised how many for whom it does not, so bare with me while I quickly break it down for the others.

When the door opens, don’t be cool and distracted, be ready and waiting! Relax your shoulders, left foot slightly ahead of the right, lift your chin a little, face your heart towards theirs (I’m serious!) and hit them with a big warm smile.

These are your old friends and you’re here to surprise them!

Lots of eye contact and firm, confident handshakes (Hint: hold their gaze and keep shaking until you can tell what colour their eyes are)

OK! They’re happy to see you! Great stuff!

#2 Show respect by asking permission

One of the finer points of social etiquette is to demonstrate to your hosts that you respect their property and acknowledge being a guest in their home.

A subtle gesture that can help you do this really quickly is to ask permission for something small with an, “Is it OK if I…?” question. For example, “Thanks for having me round, is it OK if I come in?” or “Is it OK if I leave my shoes on or would you prefer I took them off?”, “Is it OK if I park my car there?”

This small and simple social gesture sets a tone of respect right from the beginning.

Awesome! You’re allowed in the house, let’s keep going!

#3 Pay them a compliment

As you walk through the house, it’s time to break the ice and the best way to do that is with a sincere compliment that also leads to further conversation.

Being complimented makes us feel good about ourselves, and we forever associate that feeling with the person who gave the compliment. Research shows people who compliment others are also remembered as being more attractive, taller, charming and trustworthy than those who don’t.

Seeing as we’re trying to create the opportunity to be liked and trusted, a great compliment is definitely in order.

I wouldn’t say there is a “right” or “wrong” way to give compliments, but some are certainly better than others, and in 90 seconds you’ve got room for about two, max, so make them count.

The way to pay someone a great compliment is to notice something they’ve done that would help them feel good about themselves and create the opportunity to share a personal insight that you can respond to. Don’t worry, it’s a lot easier to do in reality than this explanation!

For example, “You’ve done an amazing job with the decorating in here (I noticed what you did), what inspired you to choose these amazing lamps (tell me about yourself)?” or “What a great move to live in this area, what’s the best part about living here?”.

In both these examples, you’ve helped them feel they’ve got great taste and created the opportunity to talk about themselves. Great! You’re getting more attractive and trustworthy by the second!

#4 Synchronize body language

This is a technique I learned years ago that I’ll admit feels strange at first, but really does work. Essentially you are intentionally performing an aspect of natural social behaviour which is to “mimic” the body language of those we feel comfortable with.

We all do this automatically when we get along with someone; subconsciously communicating to each other, “Hey, I like you, actually.. I am like you”.

You’ve probably already noticed when you’re in a networking situation, or at a bar that when two people are getting along really well and agree with what the other is saying, they start to make surprisingly similar movements. This can be everything from the position of the feet and hands, to facial movements, leaning in or away, tilting heads, tone of voice and even the way they laugh.

As soon as possible, begin a subtle reflection of the movements your client is making. If speaking with more than one, typically I would choose the person who I sense is going to be the key decision maker for the project. Yes, sometimes for me that means a somewhat masculine version of the lady of the house’s body language!

If you’ve not heard of this before or attempted it, practice on someone you know without telling them. I guarantee you’ll be surprised at the effect it has, even on how you’re feeling!

#5 Take time to find common ground

Being the fast talking, action type who has a million places to be because they’re so successful is a hard person to warm to in a minute and a half. Even if you really are up to your eyeballs in work, don’t put your troubles on them!

Avoid suddenly rummaging through your bag to spring into action. Instead, take another moment to further show you’re comfortable being around them. The best way to use the remainder of your 90 seconds (and beyond) is to find some common ground; aspects of your personal life that you share with them.

Look around, do you both have kids? Dogs? Follow football? Taste in furniture? Love of food? Same car? and so on.

And that’s it!

You’re 90 seconds is up, everybody is getting along surprisingly well and your new prospects will remember you for it over anyone else who comes along.

Building rapport is such a huge part of what we do as designers and contractors.

That’s my story, what are your strategies to get along with new prospects?

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