Why Would a Client Like You?

In a letter penned to her sister on Christmas Eve in 1798, the English novelist Jane Austen wrote,

“I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”

On the face of it, this is a rather odd statement. Austen was an extraordinarily astute observer of human nature, however, and in her letter she hints at something quite relevant for twenty-first-century professionals: When we like someone, we are inclined to help them and develop a relationship with them.

In business, we are generally motivated to build long-term relationships with people who can help us reach our goals and whom we like. You don’t have to like an “expert” who works on a transaction, but you’re unlikely to choose a professional to work with on a long-term basis if you don’t like him or her. Likeability, therefore, is an important driver of relationships.

Drawing on interviews I have conducted with corporate executives and individual clients for many years, as well as on ideas developed by a variety of researchers, I believe there are six major factors that do influence whether and to what extent we like someone at a first meeting:

1. Similarity

A law firm bids for a large assignment, and is chosen over half a dozen other competitors. Did this group of lawyers win because they were perceived as having better legal expertise? No, the client views the top three bidders as being equal on this score. So what pushes this plum contract their way? One of the lead attorneys lists “polo” on her résumé under recreation, and, you guessed it, the in-house counsel choosing outside lawyers also plays polo, a somewhat esoteric and rarified pastime. Unfair? No, human nature—we like people with whom we have things in common. Research has consistently shown that when we see similarities between ourselves and other people, we are more likely to lend them a quarter for a phone call, sign a petition they offer to us, and generally grant their request.

It’s important, therefore, to find genuine commonalities and connection points with clients. These could include just about anything: family status (you both have teenage children, or perhaps a newborn baby, and are thus both exhausted), education (you went to the same school or had the same major in college), sports (you played Jai-Alai in college too?), or just about any other shared experience. The objective is to find and explore real areas of common interest. Insincerity or ingratiating behavior is usually patently obvious and even repulsive to clients.


2. Familiarity

Simply put, we like things we are familiar with. I lived in Rome for four years, and I remember a comment an Italian friend made to me about restaurants in that city: “New restaurants in Rome almost always fail. Italians like familiar places with familiar faces, and they just stick to their habitual restaurants where they are treated extremely well.” We are all a bit like that, actually. We gravitate toward familiar foods, familiar surroundings, and familiar people. The more contact a client has with us, the more she can get a sense for personal chemistry, trustworthiness, personal values, and integrity. Occasionally it doesn’t work out—some people just aren’t very compatible—but in general familiarity creates an advantage over the competition. During a proposal process, you can gain a “familiarity” advantage by having more face-to-face meetings with the prospective client than others who are vying for the same business.


3. Positive Association

I once made an appearance on CNBC News to talk about building long-term client relationships, and on the air the interviewer said to me, tongue-in-cheek, “Well, we see that some of your clients have included Citibank and American Express, and that’s of course why we wanted you on the show!” In fact, she didn’t realize how true that statement, said in jest, really was. If a person is associated with something or someone that we like or respect, a transference occurs and we are more inclined to also like that person (this works with brands as well, or so advertisers think—that’s why pop stars are paid millions to endorse soft drinks). So to the extent you have worked for some admired or blue-chip clients, either individuals or corporations, make that known up-front. Have you been published in a reputable journal or been interviewed by a well-known TV network personality, radio announcer, or journalist? Have you ever had the opportunity to work with a respected corporate executive, academic, or accomplished public figure? Be sure to communicate this experience to potential clients.

4. Praising What’s Good

Numerous studies have shown that we feel more positively toward people when they give us compliments, even if we know the statements are untrue. In other words, we like people who praise us and whom we believe like us; conversely, no one enjoys criticism.

These research findings are fascinating, but I don’t mean to suggest that you throw away the objectivity and independence you must show as a client advisor and become an insincere flatterer. The lesson is that we must accentuate the positive as well as the negative. It’s just as important to tell clients what they’re doing right—both at an institutional level and a personal level—as it is to pick apart their performance. When I conduct a series of executive interviews at the beginning of an assignment, for example, I always begin my report to management with what’s working well. I also try to give individual clients positive feedback about their performance as executives. A word of encouragement from a trusted outsider can be welcome and motivating.


5. Openness

At a client meeting recently, a best-selling author who was a respected expert in his field made frequent allusions to past clients and investment situations, but cloaked them in vague language and inscrutable insinuations. I felt as if I were talking to a CIA agent. His answers were always a bit evasive, and it was clear that he wasn’t going to reveal much information until he was on the client’s payroll. Later, I discovered that while clients hired him to speak at corporate conferences, they rarely followed up and used him for consultation. He was a closed book, and because of that, clients didn’t particularly like him or feel inclined to build a relationship with him.

The quality of openness is very appealing to clients. Open body language, a willingness to share, authenticity, and honesty are all ways to demonstrate this

6. Rapport

To some extent, a general sense of rapport is the result of many of these behaviors. But there is a particular aspect of rapport that deserves a separate discussion, and that is the specific feeling on the part of clients that we are in sync with them. This feeling will be based on the extent to which we are matching our client along a number of dimensions, including voice, gestures, style, and content. For example, rapport will be enhanced if you match your client in:

  • Pacing of the conversation
  • Degree of formality or informality
  • Pitch and tone of your voice
  • Body language
  • Energy level
  • Dress
  • Personal space
  • Degree to which you are fact-based rather than merely anecdotal.

In practical terms, if a client is informal, enjoys talking about things outside of work, and has a sense of humor, respond in kind and you’ll start to develop rapport. If you compensate by constantly redirecting the conversation to business issues, the client will have a vague sense of being out of sync—of just not relating to you.

These same principles of likeability, by the way, apply to any situation where we are meeting someone new. Whether it’s a new client or a prospective employer, it is these softer factors—on top of a perception of our competence to do the job—that can often determine whether or not someone will do business with us.


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