The semi-professional blog of Albert Ciuksza Jr.

Good Bartenders Teach the Art of Building Rapport

Learn from This Guy. He's better than you at it.

Learn from This Guy.
He understands people
better than you do.

Steve Blank is a damn good entrepreneur. He writes a very interesting blog and seems to be a great guy. He also points out a common entrepreneurial challenge in a recent post that I’ll paraphrase — a lot of engineers start companies, and those founders often really suck at the relationship part of building a business.

I’m a salesman at heart (you build these skills when the Cub Scouts force you to sell popcorn door-to-door when you’re 9 years old), but early on in my career, I sucked at the relationship part too. I’d try to impress people with whiz-bang knowledge, not realizing that I had to build rapport before I could get someone to be interested in my ideas. It’s actually a classic marketing mistake — If they like you, they’ll likely buy from you.

Then I hit drinking age.

I was so impressed by bartenders who could control a room and engage people they didn’t know, especially the folks who weren’t regulars. I realized they had something about them, some sort of skill that I just didn’t have. Maybe because there was alcohol involved, or maybe it was because a lot of people just wanted to have a good time and not worry about whatever crappy stuff they were dealing with in their own lives. Regardless, a good bartender could get anyone going.

So, I watched how they worked and figured a few things out. For those of us where the rapport stuff doesn’t come naturally, here’s the overused bulleted list in a blog:

  • It’s all about the customer — Bartenders make the customer the center of attention. They ask where you live, what you do, how your day was. They greet you with some generic-but-informal name (buddy, chief, whatever). You’re the most important person to them at that moment, and it feels awesome.
  • They’re warm — There’s nothing like being in the presence of someone who’s genuinely warm and welcoming. EVERYONE wants to be Norm from Cheers, because it feels good to be known. The masters make you feel like that, even if you’ve never been there.
  • They give valuable freebies — There’s nothing that can make you feel special like a beer on the house. To add a little drama, a great bartender will use a glass or some other token as a reminder that you’re due when you finished your last drink. It’s like there’s a little unspoken communication between you two, and that builds a hell of a lot of goodwill.
  • They bring people together — They can’t be in two places at once and there are a lot of other people that have to be served. A great bartender makes connections between people so that the attention isn’t always on them. It’s a little bit of sleight of hand, and you never know the difference. Plus, you never know who you’re going to meet.
  • They know how to have fun — It’s all about feeling good, and great bartenders focus on having fun. They’re not talking about the technical aspects of making a perfect margarita or the new electronic system that only lets them pour exactly 16oz pints. They just make you feel relaxed and at ease.
  • They remember the details — If you’re there more than once, they remember your name and what you do. They bring it up the next time they see you. They ask about the kids or what the daily grind is as a (enter your title here). You know that they paid attention.
  • They know how to get your money — Maybe it’s just some great conversation or the extra beer, but you feel compelled to leave a few bucks more for the great bartender. You feel like they deserve it. And you do it voluntarily.

You can get a drink anywhere and great bartenders know this. So, they make up the difference in service and it works. You go back to that place. You have conversations that make you feel good at the end of the night. You tip enough to be surprised by what you left the next morning. In short, you do exactly what you’d love your customers to do. You want them to like you, to refer you, to give you their money voluntarily. You want them to love your level of service and tell people about it. You want them to realize that, even if there might be other solutions out there, you’re bringing a level of game that no one else can match. Perhaps most importantly for any start-up, you want them to like you enough so that when there’s the inevitable hiccup, they’re more forgiving and understanding.

If you really want to understand how to build the relationships you need to succeed, skip the Dale Carnegie books and spend $20 at your local bar. You’ll learn more and have a lot more fun doing it.

1 Comment

  1. Meghan Skiff

    What a great post..I couldn’t agree more. I actually think rapport is so often neglected and underrated….and not just when it comes to sales. Another area that could use more emphasis on the “art of building rapport”, as you put it, is networking. I received an email via LinkedIn from an MBA classmate (this person is FT, I’m PT) asking for me to help him get an internship. He made no acknowledgment that we have even had class together (we have), and just sort of put his ask out on the table.  I would have been much more open to helping him had he asked if we could get together for coffee to have a chat. Good stuff, and I’ll be sure to pay more attention to the skills of the bartender from now on!

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