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Beyond the Yellow Brick Road

Building rapport is a hallmark of customer service training and coaching. Look at your average quality rubric and you'll likely find something regarding rapport-building. But what is rapport? It's how we establish human connections, particularly at the beginning of a relationship. It typically begins with a commonality, like shared experiences or views.

Rapport is considered a critical component of customer experience when customers interact with service, support, or sales agents, but it can be difficult and emotionally taxing for agents who are asked to continually build rapport with strangers with whom they may have very little in common. (It's reminiscent of "Single Serving Friends," a concept introduced to us in the book (and film) Fight Club. Edward Norton's character is a frequent flier who compares meeting people on flights to single serve items like hotel toiletries and cream and sugar packets.)

"How's your day going?"

How many times have you gone through a checkout line in a store or been waiting on a contact center agent to do something and been asked some mundane question like this? It's a rather weak opening attempt at building rapport, but it's simply what they have learned to do to fill the silence. In the absence of better options, it suffices and can lead to rapport-building.

But recently, while checking out at a store, the cashier asked me an entirely different question.

"Can you name five Elton John songs?"

Suddenly, my mundane checkout experience was transformed into a game show!

"Saturday Night's Alright for Fightin'!" I blurted out, proud that I had broken the ice!

"Candle in the Wind!" came next, but the unscanned and unbagged items were quickly disappearing.

"Benny and the Jets!" I was more than halfway there and the guy behind me was rooting me on, but my heart was starting to race as my competitive nature was taking over. But the cashier was giving me the "I'm impressed face" and encouraging me.

"Oh, 'Rocket Man'!" The last few items were left and despite being a casual fan of Sir Elton John, I was having an incredibly hard time coming up with a fifth song.

The guy behind me half whispers a hint: "Wizard of Oz!" This should have been automatic for me since I live in Kansas, but I was definitely feeling the pressure.

"Oh, yeah! 'Goodbye Yellow Brick Road'!" The guy behind me, the woman behind him, the cashier and his coworker all gave a little clap. I was still standing. Could this ever happen at a self-checkout? No way!

This cashier went beyond standard rapport-building; he had created a rapport group. While this may not have the lasting effects of a support group, a rapport group is a group in which you've become comfortable talking and engaging with everyone. Before we were in a rapport group, we were simply strangers in a line at the store. We didn't even really look at each other, much less talk with each other. But he created an environment where there was active communication and encouragement.

The End of the Experience IS the Experience

All too often, we focus on the beginning of the customer's experience, but that's not what people remember. What we remember most about just about any experience is the end. I will forget about the prices, the store's cleanliness, even what I purchased, but I won't forget the end of that shopping trip. I also remember the end (of what was a pretty long, drawn-out experience) of my last interaction with my mobile phone carrier over social media support: the agent told me a dad joke. I don't remember the joke, but I remember how it made me smile.

If you send customers a survey, they're not going to focus on the beginning of the interaction, just the end. Did you resolve the issue? Did you make them feel valued at the end? Did you make them smile?

Are you hiring people who want to solve problems and make customers smile? How are you equipping your agents to finish brilliantly? What could you do differently that is both on-brand and making customers feel valued in a novel way?

I hope I've fueled some amazing ideas for you to bring into your contact center because…that's what friends are for.