The Secret to Building Rapport

Mike Adams Article in the February 2019 edition of Mortgage Professional Magazine

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The secret to building client rapport

by Mike Adams | 30 Jan 2019

How to build better rapport and engagement with clients

Have you ever wondered how some people seem to effortlessly reach their sales targets? How they have a steady flow of easy, friendly business? These salespeople make the most money, are the most valuable employees and love their job to boot.

The truth is that easy rapport-building is the hidden skill of the best salespeople. Their clients keep coming back for more business and go out of their way to refer them to friends and colleagues – and those recurring clients are many times more valuable to them than single-transaction clients.

America’s greatest salesman

Ben Feldman was a high-school dropout who became possibly the greatest salesman in post- World War II America. In a career spanning 50 years, Feldman wrote more than $1.5bn in life insurance policies.

Still working in his 80s, Feldman suffered a cerebral oedema in 1992. While he was critically ill in hospital, his employer, New York Life, decided to create a sales competition in his honour, to be called ‘Feldman February’. The inaugural winner of Feldman February was… Ben Feldman! He closed $15m worth of insurance from his hospital bed.

Do you think Feldman was making cold calls from his hospital bed? Of course not. He was calling friends – the legion of clients he’d established a lasting rapport with over a lifetime.

The power of the personal

Yet the importance of building a rapport by exchanging personal stories is often not well understood. Mike Bosworth, author of the classic sales textbook Solution Selling, told me that for most of his 30 years as a sales trainer the conventional wisdom was that rapport-building “could not be taught”. He changed his mind on this topic only late in his career.

The secret is to tell a story about how and why you do what you do, within the space of a couple of minutes. If you include personal events and you are honest about the setbacks and vulnerabilities of your career, all the better. Because ultimately the purpose is to get into a position to say, “Well, enough about me! What about you? How did you get to do what you do?” And that question passes the baton. If you’ve been open, honest and vulnerable in telling your story, you’re more likely to receive an open story in response. This story exchange initiates rapport.

To give an example: I trained as an electrical engineer, and in the mid-’90s I was working as a rock physicist in England when I was o­ffered a corporate role selling software in Norway. My wife was eight months pregnant and I didn’t want to be a salesperson, but the lure of Norway and our spirit of adventure won out. Furthermore, I would have returned to a technical role if I hadn’t closed the luckiest deal in history in my first year.

It’s these surprising turning points that make your career backstory interesting and encourage your future client to respond with an open story of their own.


Making authentic connections

But by now you may have some questions, such as: is it really worth putting this much effort into a personal story? And isn’t the whole process manipulative?

Yes, it is worth the e­ffort, because it will become the foundation of every effective business connection you make. And in a sense it is manipulative. We’re presenting a view of ourselves that we’ve spent time crafting. We’re not telling the full story. That’s not possible. And we’re not dwelling on things that would undermine our authority. But the interesting thing is that these stories are like lie detectors. When we tell a story about something that happened to us, we relive those moments and the emotion of those events comes out in our voice. If we’re telling a true story, the tone of voice is authentic. If it’s not true, that is also detectable.

If you think about your close friends, they know your story, and you know their story. We select moments that actually happened in our lives and deliver them authentically as a way to connect. The listener recreates and co-experiences the events of our story with us and becomes connected to us. It’s the first step to friendship. If you want to develop deep, long-term business relationships, learn how to exchange personal stories.


Mike Adams is a business storytelling specialist and author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Since 2014, Mike’s storytelling consulting practice has been helping sales teams ­find and tell their best stories. Find out more at

Misguided approach hampering business sales

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Many businesses are using the wrong approach when marketing to prospective customers, a sales consultant has claimed, and it could be losing them all-important revenue opportunities.


Adviser and author Mike Adams (pictured), who ran global corporate sales teams for 20 years before launching his own consultancy, told My Business that many sales teams and businesses use a push method of communication, which more often than not falls on deaf ears.

He said that most business communications combine facts, opinions and assertions about them and their product or service. But these have considerable limitations.

“Unfortunately, communication of disconnected facts is neither memorable, understandable nor persuasive,” Mr Adams said.

Instead, he is a big advocate of the “storytelling” approach, which he explores in his book Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell.

Storytelling in business is not a new concept. It has been touted as a key to generating cut-though in digital marketing, while Instagram launched a dedicated Stories tool on its platform for businesses.

But Mr Adams admitted that its meaning is commonly misunderstood.

“A story (by definition) is a sequence of related events. Stories are the easiest way for humans to communicate ideas and experiences because of how our human neocortex [part of the brain] works,” he said.

“Business storytelling means putting your facts, ideas and experiences into a story format so they can be understood and accepted.”

According to Mr Adams, a storytelling approach generally solves three core challenges: how to connect with prospective customers, and be accepted as a subject matter expert; how to motivate those prospects to change their behaviour in a mutually beneficial way; and how to help customers overcome any risks in order to close the sale.

It is this approach that he uses with his sales team clients, who may be underperforming, needing to expand the business or struggling with prospecting for new customers.

How to use ‘stories’ to win new customers

There are several key points business leaders should know when embarking on the storytelling approach to marketing and customer communications, Mr Adams suggests. They are:

  • Keep it succinct: “Conversational business stories are typically short (two-minute) anecdotes that make a business point.”

  • Stories are two-way: The point of stories is to share knowledge, rather than push a particular point. “We tell stories in order to prompt for the buyer’s stories. Listening (tending) to buyers’ stories is how rapport and situational understanding are built.”

  • Know your business’ key stories, and share them proudly.

  • Re-use a winning approach: “I’ve learnt that it’s possible to change industries, companies and countries and still succeed by using few basic principles, because people are fundamentally the same everywhere.”


The Riskiest Hire in Business

Mike’s article published in Dynamic Business.

Mike’s article published in Dynamic Business.

“How did you go hiring your National Sales Director, Paul?” “Terrible! That guy cost me $500,000!”

I’d met Paul (not his real name) about two years ago and was recalling our conversation about his plans for expanding the sales function at his start-up software company. I wasn’t in a position to advise Paul at the time but I had doubts about his approach. Paul’s company folded into a holding company not long after our second chat and he’s moved on from being a founding CEO to another role.

The riskiest hire in business is your first salesperson. For entrepreneurs, that new sales recruit could be the trigger for scalable growth but for many it’s a catastrophic failure that can kill the business. Few business decisions are as consequential. Why do so many get this crucial step wrong? There are two fundamental reasons — hiring the wrong profile and not setting up the sales recruit for success.

Hiring the right profile

Many will tell you there are two types of salespeople — hunters and farmers. Start-ups need hunters, that’s for sure, but you must know there are two types of hunter — Marines and Magicians.

Marines follow a well-developed sales process, selling the same products and services into a defined market. Magicians figure out how to sell new products and services into new markets. Marines are disciplined, persistent and goal oriented. But you have to define the process for them, step by step. If you haven’t already achieved regular sales success, you won’t be able to define a process and your marine will fail.

By contrast, Magicians are curious, creative, political and intrinsically motivated by the challenge. You must have a Magician if you’re still working out how to open a market. A Magician will find a viable sales process. Early stage business development requires Magicians. If the company founders don’t have that skill, they need to find one and pay well – preferably with equity. After the market entry has been cracked, start-ups need a sales consultant (or sales manager) to design a process for the Marines. (As a rule, neither Magicians nor Marines are well suited to documenting a sales process.)

Setting up for success

Almost every company founder is frustrated by the length of time it takes for new salespeople to sell their first deal. A job that seems straightforward to the founders can take six months to a year for a new recruit. It takes that long because the recruit doesn’t have the stories they need to succeed. Stories that the founders may tell unconsciously must be exposed to both magicians and marines.

The critical stories are:

The Company Story is the narrative that explains how your company started, why it didn’t fail, how it succeeded, how it serves its customers and where it is going. Your company story is also your strategy story.

Insight is defined as knowledge your company has that your customer’s would profit from but do not currently appreciate. The Insight Story teaches your future clients your insight by describing how you discovered it. You must take your client on a learning journey otherwise they’ll push back or fail to understand.

Success Stories are stories about customers that succeeded with your products and services. Your successful customer is the hero of each success story. It’s critically important that your prospective customer be similar to the successful client.

Another way to distinguish Marines from Magicians is to note that Marines can only sell if there are success stories, whereas Magicians can sell when you only have an insight story. That is, before you have a successful customer.

If you don’t take the effort to craft and hone these three story types, your new salespeople will need to figure out the stories for themselves. That takes a long time — time that can sink your company.

It’s critically important to hire the right profile for your first salesperson. You can use existence of success stories as the test for the profile you need. Get that hire right, prepare your stories and you’ll be on your way to a stable growing business. Mess it up and you may never recover.

About the author

Mike Adams is a business storytelling specialist and author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell. Mike has managed sales teams in the UK, Russia and throughout Asia for international corporations such as Schlumberger, Siemens, Nokia and Halliburton and has sold over a billion dollars of products and services over his career. Since 2014, Mike’s storytelling consulting practice has been helping sales teams find and tell their best stories. Find out more at The Story Leader.

Gun image adapted from article Russian roulette, single player by Anuraag Lakshmanan

Why Effective Leaders are Storytellers


Mike Adams article published in the Weekend Australian on the 10th Nov 2018

Effective leaders are not just good storytellers, they all use the same story plot!


Effective leaders take their followers on a journey to a promised future. By definition, that’s a story, because a story is journey — an unpredictable sequence of events. If you understand the leader’s storyline you can be an effective leader too.

The 2017 Gallup poll, The State of the Global Workplace, found that globally, only 15% of employees that work full-time for an employer are actively engaged in their work. Australia and New Zealand performed under the global average (14%), far behind the USA and Canada (31%). 

The benefits of higher engagement are laid out in the same survey. Upper quartile companies enjoy many benefits including 17% higher productivity. Furthermore, 70% of the variance in engagement is due to management. Specifically — failure to inspire engagement.

What makes an effective leader?

The blog-o-sphere is awash with opinion. Business magazines routinely propose the top 5, 7, 10, 15 attributes of effective leadership. You can discount most of this opinion with a simple thought experiment:

Think of an important leader that you do not like: A leader that you disagree with, who has attracted a powerful following (If you’re having trouble, consider the German word führer).

With this despicable but effective leader in mind, we can discount most of the popular leadership qualities: accountable, creative, team player, generous, ethical, humble, loyal, selfless, sincere, and trustworthy. Requirements, no doubt, for a good manager, but none is essential for effective leadership.

What remains? Vision, resolute against an enemy, credible guide. Those are the irreducible qualities of a leader. And this is the leader’s story in five acts.

1.       The leader’s social group faces a challenge.

Something has changed and there is a problem. The leader names the challenge.

2.       The leader claims the role of guide.

The rhetorical tool for the guide is the personal story. Great leaders craft their personal story to position themselves as the obvious saviour.

3.       A plan to a Promised Land

The leader lays out a plan to the ‘Promised Land’. The Promised Land could be victory in war, safety from any threat, or even a nostalgic vision (make our country great, again). In business it could be market share, a successful IPO or an acquisition.

4.       Avoids defeat by the enemy

An enemy is a crucial to the leader’s story. We’re motivated to avoid pain and loss more than to achieve a gain. Clearly defining the enemy creates in-group loyalty and motivates the group to support the leader. The separation between the threat of disaster and the promise of success gives the story tension and energy.

5.       Achieves Success

The leader is triumphant, leading the group away from disaster to the Promised Land.

You probably recognize this as the plot line of most movies and novels. It never fails to engage us.

On the 25th of May 1961, President John Kennedy addressed the US congress. America was losing the space race to the Soviet Union, which had just put the first man in orbit [change]. Kennedy explained that America was fighting against ‘adversaries of freedom’ [enemy] and losing its global leadership. Kennedy proposed putting a man on the moon within the decade and that success would signal a great new America and the ‘key to our future on earth’ [Promised Land]. He went on to spell out how obstacles would be overcome [Plan].

Effective leaders are storytellers. They enact the leader’s story by vanquishing the enemy and leading their people to the Promised Land. If you aspire to lead change and inspire engagement then craft your leader’s story.


Mike Adams is the bestselling author of Seven Stories Every Salesperson Must Tell (2018)


The State of the Global Workplace, Gallup Inc., 2017, Gallup Press