Here's the trick: How do you bridge the gulf that naturally exists between strangers, and establish a sense of shared feelings and values without coming across as too eager, or even phony? Far from laying the basis for trust, obvious petting-the-goldfish gambits just derail it. Pros advise that, above all else, you be genuine.

The warm-up — establishing rapport with the homeowner — is the most crucial part of any sale. But knowing when you've actually made that connection with prospects can be elusive.

“There are times when prospects are so comfortable with the salesman that they invite him to dinner,” says Gary Kearns, vice president of sales and marketing for Kearns Brothers, a window, siding, and roofing company in Dearborn, Mich. More frequently, he observes, the point where you know you've won the homeowners' trust is signaled by them talking about “when we do this project” rather than “if we do it,” Kearns adds.

FINDING SOLUTIONS At other times, it's not at all clear if you've established rapport, says Ted Castonguay, owner of Hometown Windows, Siding, and Gutters, in New Hampshire and Maine. Prospects who give you the least feedback can be the ones who buy the most. “You like to think you can read them, but I'm blown away by how often those sales go from three windows to 23 windows,” he says.

Even though Castonguay teaches “the warm-up” as a distinct step in the sales process, like many other contractors, he views the job of establishing rapport as inherent in his company's problem-solving approach to the customer, rather than anything separate.

“I tell salesmen: ‘Don't go in thinking about how much money you're going to make. Go in and identify [the prospect's] pain, then tell them about solutions you can provide,'” Castonguay says.

For Kearns, the basis for establishing rapport flows from the company's culture, which he says “is based on building a referral-based business. We want prospects to understand who we are as people and what our company believes as an entity.”

GRADUAL BUILD Sharing human experience with the customer is the essence of any warm-up, says Jerry Wells, general sales manager for Houston Siding Co., in Houston. “My philosophy is that there's no specific period for the warm-up. It's a warm, fuzzy feeling generated throughout the sales presentation,” he says. “It's a gradual building, like any relationship.

“First, you have to look and listen. Do that, and the materials to build a relationship with any homeowner are readily available, in virtually everything in the prospect's home and in the salesperson's individual experience,” Wells says.