Rapport: Definition and Dimensions

ABSTRACT - Rapport is a characteristic of a relationship if there is a high degree of empathy, attention, and shared understanding and expectations. Rapport should be enhanced when the salesperson and the customer are comembers of the same group. Also, rapport should aid persuasion and help increase consumer satisfaction. Both observational and paper-and-pencil techniques can be used to measure rapport.


George Coan, Jr. (1984) ,"Rapport: Definition and Dimensions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 333-336.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 333-336


George Coan, Jr., University of Kansas


Rapport is a characteristic of a relationship if there is a high degree of empathy, attention, and shared understanding and expectations. Rapport should be enhanced when the salesperson and the customer are comembers of the same group. Also, rapport should aid persuasion and help increase consumer satisfaction. Both observational and paper-and-pencil techniques can be used to measure rapport.


Theoretical and empirical research in personal selling has often been directed toward discovering techniques which would induce the prospect to purchase a product. Often these techniques are designed to gain a sale without addressing the customer's wants and needs. For example, with the foot-in-the door technique, salespeople ask prospects to agree to a small request because agreement with such requests may change the prospects' self-perceptions and may increase the likelihood that the prospect will agree to a subsequent larger request (Burgoon and Bettinghaus 1980, Reingen and Kernan 1977). With the door-in-the-face technique, salespeople make a large request of the prospect because rejecting the request may activate norms of reciprocity and, thereby, increase the likelihood that the prospect will agree with a smaller request (Burgoon and Bettinghaus 1980, Mowen and Cialdini 1980). Because these techniques ignore the customer's wants and needs, they are more consistent with the selling concept than with the marketing concept.

Yet, several textbook authors have stated that the marketing concept is the basis for personal selling (Pederson, Wright and Weitz 1981; Kurtz, Dodge and Klompmaker 1982). If the marketing concept forms the basis of personal selling, then personal selling is helping others satisfy their wants and needs (Nickels 1982; Pederson, Wright and Weitz 1981; Hannan, Cribbin and Heiser 1970). Thus, personal selling involves establishing a helping relationship rather than just attempting to persuade. Wilson and Ghingold (1981) indicated that salespeople believe that establishing a strong rapport with their customers is very important. Rapport is a quality of the helping relationship which facilitates satisfying the customer. The purpose of this paper is to define rapport, to propose some theoretical dimensions for the construct. and to discuss ways of measuring rapport.


Building rapport follows from the marketing concept. The marketing concept is customer oriented (Kotler 1980, Nickels 1982). Saxe and Weitz (1982) state that customer oriented selling is characterized by a desire to help customers make satisfactory purchases, a desire to help customers assess their needs, avoiding manipulative and deceptive practices, and avoiding high pressure. However, a customer orientation is the stance of the salesperson while rapport is a characteristic of the relationship between the salesperson and the customer. To define a construct, a "dictionary" or "literary" definition should be proposed, some important relationships with other constructs should be hypothesized, and ways of measuring (i.e., operationalizing) the construct should be discussed (Gross, Collins and Bryan 1972). Thus, the following definition of rapport is offered:

Rapport is a characteristic of a relationship if the parties engage in a high degree of attention, show a high degree of empathy and share a set of common expectations.

Attention, empathy and shared expectations constitute the three dimensions of rapport. Attention involves active listening and is composed of a set of behavioral skills. Thus, attention is observable and measurable.

According to Ivey and Authier (1978) attending behavior's (i.e., active listening's) main components are eye contact, physical posture, and verbal following behavior. Greater eye contact, a forward trunk lean and a relaxed body posture are usually associated with more positive attitudes between the people in the personal selling situation. Verbal following behavior involves the appropriate use of open vs. closed questions, summarizing and paraphrasing. Open questions are invitations to talk. They ask the customers to express their wants and needs and permit customers to raise issues which Concern them. Open questions can have great value in the first meeting between the salesperson and customer. Through them the salesperson can gain a general idea of the bene its the customer is seeking.

Open questions typically begin with "what," "how," "why," and "could" (Ivey and Authier 1978). "What" questions aid in gathering facts and information. "What" questions could be used at the beginning of a sales situation, especially as the first question during the first meeting. "How" and "why" questions may help in discovering reasons for the purchase or the benefits sought and in following up "what" questions. "Could" questions imply the customer has the choice of following a line of questioning or exploring a sensitive topic area. For example, a salesperson slay sense that apparently illogical product specifications put forth by a customer may be the result of sensitive company politics. In addition, open questions provide the salesperson with too much information on too many topics. The salesperson may need greater clarification from the customer. At this point, a closed question could be used.

Closed questions help the salesperson focus on specific and central issues. This is particularly important if the customer has been rambling or has raised so many issues that they need to be treated one at a time. The closed question is very specific. Often, the customer may be able to give a yes or no answer. Closed questions can be chosen based on the salesperson's impressions of what the customer is seeking and the products the salesperson has to offer. For example, a computer salesperson can ask if the personal computer is to be used in the person's business or strictly for home use. The answer to the question helps determine the memory size and type of software the customer will be needing . Closed questions often begin with "is," "are," "to," or "did." One characteristic of closed questions is that they tend to cause the customer to stop talking. Thus, the salesperson may need to have another question ready to encourage the customer to continue expressing his/her feelings regarding the salesperson's products or the benefits the customer is seeking.

Ivey and Authier (1978) make a distinction between summarizing and paraphrasing. Summarizing is a synopsis of a series of issues and topics the customer has raised. Paraphrasing is an attempt to feed back to the customer statements the customer has just made. Summarizing and paraphrasing serve two functions. First, by paraphrasing and summarizing the customer's statements, the salesperson can communicate his/her understanding of those statements. This feedback function helps clarify what the customer has said and can help resolve misunderstandings as they occur. Second, summarizing and paraphrasing give the impression that the salesperson is actively listening; the customer may perceive the salesperson as interested in his/her problems. The advantage as well as the disadvantage of summarizing and paraphrasing is that they highlight various topics the customer has raised. If these topics are central to satisfying the customer's wants and needs, then summarizing and paraphrasing aid the salesperson and the customer. However, the wrong issues and topics may be highlighted, and the salesperson and customer may explore topics which are only tangentially related to the customer's needs. Also, the salesperson may misinterpret the customer's statements. Summarizing and paraphrasing give the customer a chance to correct the salesPerson.

Attending behavior alone will not create rapport. The salesperson needs to show empathy. Ivey and Authier (1978) indicated that empathy is composed of the following at tributes:

1. Positive regard - the selective attention to the favorable statements the customer makes about himself/herself

2. Warmth and respect - accepting the customer as he/she is and honoring the customer's perceptions of the same events and facts.

3. Concreteness - giving detailed and specific attention to the customer's problems.

4. Immediacy - Focusing on the appropriate time period (i.e., past, present or future).

5. Genuineness - being open and sharing one's thoughts and opinions, expressing congruent verbal and nonverbal messages.

6. Confrontation - pointing out the discrepancies in the customer's attitudes and opinions.

The salesperson can show positive regard, warmth and respect by not explicitly disagreeing with the customer or by using the "Yes, but" technique. The "Yes, but" technique is a superficial means of showing positive regard and respect. The salesperson first agrees with the customer by saying "yes," but then points out the shortcomings of the customer's position. The salesperson needs to do more than say "yes" to show that he/she understands the customer's position. Summarizing the main points or paraphrasing the position may help establish respect, warmth and positive regard.

Because the customer may be unwilling or unable to express his/her choice rules, the brands in the consideration set, and the salient product dimensions, the personal selling interview should exhibit a characteristic concreteness. While interviewing the customer, the salesperson could probe for specific examples of how the product will he used and the specific benefits the customer is seeking. By judicial use of open and closed questions, the salesperson could discover the brands the customer is most likely considering. If the salesperson sells a variety of brands, the salesperson could help the customer achieve a better match between the customer's wants and needs and the product bought. As a result, the customer should be more satisfied with the product and the salesperson.

Immediacy may be important to the personal selling process because the customer's problems may result from past product performance, present needs, or anticipated future problems and opportunities. By concentrating on the appropriate time period, the salesperson can better understand the customer's point of view. Although concentrating on the customer is important, the salesperson must also communicate his/her own thoughts and observations concerning different brands and their benefits, and his/her observations regarding the benefits sought and problems the customer may be facing. Without this two-way communication, the personal selling interview would lack genuineness. To establish rapport, the salesperson must become an active participant by sharing his/her expertise. Confrontation is a means of influencing the decisions and choices of the customer. If the salesperson is to help the customer, the salesperson may have to confront the customer with discrepancies in his/her opinions and attitudes. The salesperson may have to show that the customer is being inconsistent with previous behavior, attitudes and decision criteria; that the customer has formed inappropriate beliefs that do not conform to social standards; or that the decision rules, attitudes and beliefs are or will be ineffective in solving the customer's problem.

Because the personal selling process is a helping relationship, the salesperson and customer need to establish a shared set of beliefs, activities and rules for solving the problems associated with the purchase. The shared beliefs should include a common understanding of what the customer's wants and needs are, the limitations of the seller's ability to satisfy the customer, and the types of product attributes that will satisfy the customer. A common understanding of the customer's wants and needs serves as a basis for finding the best product. A common understanding of the seller's limitations and the customer's needs can help prevent conflicts from arising and resolve conflicts when they do arise. For example, the customer should understand and accept that the seller is in business to make a profit and, therefore, may not be able to lower prices or provide all of the services the customer wants. Also, the seller should realize that the customer may not benefit from some product attributes and should not attempt to sell those products with the unnecessary attributes. For example, a car salesperson should not attempt to sell unwanted and unneeded accessories and options.

Although the personal selling situation is one in which the customer has often been, the specific selling situation may be unique (e.g., a first-time home computer or stereo purchaser). If the person is in a new situation, then the person may develop new rules as guides to behavior, and the salesperson can help the customer establish the new rules. These rules could involve developing a search procedure, deciding on pertinent product features, building a consideration set of various brands, and developing choice rules. If the customer is familiar with the purchase situation, then the salesperson needs to determine the customer's methods of searching for and processing information. With establishing rules for behavior, the salesperson and the customer begin to engage in common activities. Together, they may review the characteristics of various brands.

Some Hypothetical Relationships with Selected Constructs

Rapport can be hypothesized to influence and to be influenced by a number of related constructs. Because establishing similarity is often used to establish rapport, the relationship rapport may have with similarity and the related concept of comembership will be discussed. Also, because building rapport can help increase persuasiveness, some relationships between rapport and interpersonal persuasion will be proposed. Next, because rapport represents a customer oriented approach to personal selling, customer satisfaction should be affected by rapport. Thus, how rapport may affect customers' expectations and their subsequent satisfaction will be discussed.

Often, salespeople will attempt to build rapport by establishing common interests. The research literature suggests that establishing similarity between the salesperson and customer increases the salesperson's credibility, and the customer has greater identification with the salesperson (Hass 1981). As a result, the customer is more easily persuaded. However, unless there is comembership, establishing similarity is not sufficient for building rapport. Comembership is the extent to which the salesperson and the customer share a common background. Erikson and Shultz (1981) indicate that the similarity in background may be correlated with common cultural experiences. Between those of similar backgrounds, nonverbal and verbal communication may be facilitated. For example, an Italian-American salesperson would be able to interpret an Italian-American customer's hand gestures and dialectical idiosyncracies. With similar backgrounds, the salesperson may be better able to attend to the more important aspects of the customer's statements because the salesperson and customer are communicating in a similar language. Comembership facilitates rapport because of the greater trust and ease of communication. Between a salesperson and customer of different backgrounds, there may be cultural misunderstanding and sensitivity. Although similarity may aid credibility, the importance of comembership is that communication is facilitated. Thus, buyer-seller relationships with a high degree of comembership should exhibit more rapport than relationships with a low degree of comembership. Although perceived similarity increases the perceived trustworthiness of the salesperson, perceived similarity alone should not be related to rapport. Perceived similarity may not reflect comembership, especially if the salesperson deliberately attempts to establish comembership when there is none.

Rapport should aid persuasion. Because there is a common understanding between the salesperson and customer, the salesperson should be better able to match the customer's needs to product attributes. Also, the customer should be more willing to purchase from a salesperson with whom he/she has established a rapport than from one with whom the customer does not have a rapport. The customer may be more easily persuaded to purchase from the salesperson with whom he/she has rapport because the customer may identify with the salesperson, because of greater trust or because the customer wishes to maintain the relationship. Thus, the salesperson may be just as important to the customer as the products the salesperson sells.

Rapport should contribute to customer satisfaction. Often, interpersonal persuasive techniques emphasize inducing the customer into buying the product irrespective of the customer's wants and needs. Because rapport emphasizes a customer oriented approach, customers should be more satisfied when the relationship is characterized by rapport. Furthermore, because the salesperson and customer establish a common understanding, the customer's expectations of product performance and seller service should be more congruent with actual performance. Thus, there should be less negative disconfirmation of expectations which could reduce customer dissatisfaction (Oliver 1977).


Because rapport is a multidimensional construct, a measurement technique is necessary for each dimension. Also, because rapport consists of observable behaviors, observational techniques and pencil-and-paper scales can be used to measure rapport. The observational techniques can be unobtrusive and may require the use of content analysis. The paper-and-pencil measures can be used to assess the customer's and salesperson's perceptions of each other's beliefs about the brands, perceptions of the customer's needs, and perceptions of the seller's strengths and weaknesses. In this part, suggested methods for measuring each dimension of rapport are discussed.

Because attention consists of specific verbal and physical behavior, it is the most observable dimension of rapport. Attention consists of using open ended questions more than closed ended questions, maintaining eye contact and having the correct body posture. To measure attention, an investigator could use a video camera which also records conversation. The camera would be used to record the interaction between the salesperson and the customer. A group of judges could view the recording and rate the extent to which the salesperson's and customer's body posture and eye contact indicated attention. The conversation would be transcribed. Using the sentence as the coding unit, the transcripts would be content analyzed for the number of open and closed questions. Also, judges could assess the effectiveness of the open questions in getting the customer to express his/her needs and important issues.

Using the paragraph as the coding unit, the extent of summarizing and paraphrasing could be measured. Also, judges could rate the extent to which the salesperson and customer have reached a common understanding of the customer's needs, the brands being considered, and the seller's strengths and limitations in satisfying the customer's wants and needs. Through a paper-and-pencil measure, the customer's and salesperson's perceptions could be assessed. The extent of agreement between the salesperson and customer could indicate the degree they share a common understanding. The correlation between the salesperson's and customer's answers to the measure could be used as the measure of agreement. For example, the salesperson and customer would be given the same questionnaire measuring the perceptions of the customer's needs, the brands under consideration and the salesperson's strengths and weaknesses. Ii there were 20 Likert-type items in the questionnaire, then the correlation between the salesperson's 20 answers and the customer's 20 answers would be the measure of agreement. Other measures of correlation, such as Kendall's tau, and similarity measures could also be used to assess agreement. If both the observational techniques and paper-and-pencil measures are used, then convergent validity can be measured, thereby helping to establish construct validity of the measures.

To measure empathy, both observational and paper-and-pencil techniques can be used. Judges would analyze the conversation between the salesperson and customer. The extent to which the salesperson and customer display positive regard, warmth, respect, concreteness, immediacy, genuineness and confrontation would be assessed. Also, customers could answer a questionnaire measuring the extent to which they felt the salesperson was empathetic. Because rapport is characteristic of the selling relationship, the salesperson must also feel that the customer was empathetic. Thus, the salesperson should also answer a questionnaire measuring the perceived empathy of the customer. Finally, the extent of agreement between the paper-and-pencil measure and observational techniques could be used to assess convergent validity.


Rapport is defined as a relationship characterized by a high degree of attention, empathy and shared expectations. Attention involves using the appropriate mix of open and closed questions, summarizing and paraphrasing. Empathy involves showing warmth, respect and genuineness toward the customer. Finally, to have rapport, the salesperson and customer must develop common expectations and understandings concerning the product, the customer's wants and needs, and the seller's ability to satisfy the customer's wants and needs.

Rapport is hypothesized to be related to comembership, similarity, interpersonal persuasion, and customer satisfaction. Similarity may aid in building rapport if it reflects comembership. Comembership is the extent to which the salesperson and customer share the same cultural or subcultural experiences. Rapport helps in persuasion. Customers may be more willing to purchase from salespeople with whom they have a rapport because such salespeople should have a better idea of what the customer's wants and needs are. The salesperson may also be perceived as more credible. The customer may purchase from a salesperson with whom he/she has a rapport because the customer identifies with the salesperson. Because rapport emphasizes the customer's wants and needs, selling relationships characterized by rapport should lead to greater customer satisfaction.

Several methods have been suggested for measuring rapport. Both observational and pencil-and-paper tests have been suggested. Judges would be needed to content analyze video tapes and the conversation between the salesperson and the customer to determine the extent of rapport. Pencil-and-paper methods could be used to measure the extent to which a common understanding has been achieved. Furthermore, the results of the observational measures and the paper-and-pencil measures could be correlated to yield support for convergent validity.


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George Coan, Jr., University of Kansas


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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