3 Leading Companies’ Method for Listening to Customers


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In order to understand how customer-focused companies design processes for listening to customers, we need to start by thinking about the three types of listening:

  • Unaided or volunteer listening
  • Aided listening
  • Experiential listening

You can learn about the different types of listening in virtually any of my books, but here’s a breakdown for those just coming into these concepts:

Unaided or volunteer listening: This refers to companies who optimize feedback customers give as they interact with the brand. Normally, this occurs through channels such as traditional customer service, the website, and social media. The trick here — which we’ll address in a second — is how companies collect, organize, and then optimize their process of listening to customers.

Aided listening: This is about surveys that companies send out and how they use that information productively. There are many important caveats to this one, however. I’ll address the main one right now: there are dozens (if not hundreds) of companies in the world who spend millions per year on surveys, then spend weeks and weeks refuting the results. Typically, this means the company isn’t actually listening to customers and is more focused on optimizing the expertise of their executives. That has validity as a management approach, but not if you want to truly be a company focused on customer-driven growth. The way to avoid this mess around surveys is to move towards one-company leadership.

Experiential listening: This is about putting people in the shoes of customers. Make your employees do what you’re requiring your customers to do. See how easy/hard it is. Understand where the pain points are. Design better customer experiences from listening to customers. Some people correlate this with “user-centric design” and other terms, but really it just means driving listening activities through experience.

Now that we know a bit about the types of listening to customers, who’s out there doing this well?

Unaided or volunteer listening: Here’s an example from Hoover, the vacuum cleaner brand. A customer tweeted at them regarding a customer experience issue and, via social media, they listened, connected, and resolved the problem — as you can see below:

Listening to Customers Hoover

You’ll see many brands successfully using social to deliver customer experience and focus on listening to customers — although sadly, many other brands haven’t embraced this even remotely. As DataRank has noted, if you’re not doing unaided or volunteer listening? You’re missing out on a huge chance for research and trend knowledge, which can lead to business growth.

Another good example of unaided/volunteer listening in recent years was Lane Bryant’s #I’mNoAngel campaign, which emerged from a Victoria’s Secret ad claiming to define a woman’s “perfect body.” The latter ad got a lot of backlash on social media (as you’d expect) and Lane Bryant capitalized by developing a campaign around it. Now, yes — you can argue that Lane Bryant (which makes clothes for plus-sized women, typically) and Victoria’s Secret have different customer bases, and they do. But Lane Bryant drew a ton of positive attention to itself and gained brand-new customers (some of whom had never heard of the brand) in the process of using unaided/volunteer listening here.

Aided listening: I won’t spend too much time here, because above I outlined the core problem with surveys and analyzing surveys in the context of listening to customers. Listening is about three things when thinking in terms of customers:

  • Respecting
  • Honoring
  • Believing

If you get survey results back and they don’t align with your current thinking or strategy, change your current thinking or strategy. Yes, it’s hard and it will take some time and require a lot of work. But if you want to be customer-focused, you have to do it. If you get the surveys back and assume “Oh, this is wrong,” then all you did is waste a lot of money on the surveys. All companies can be guilty of this in different functional areas. The key is to overcome it and move all the decision-makers towards one-company leadership, where the customer is the apple of everyone’s decision-making eye.

Experiential listening: A good example here comes from Ron Johnson, who had success with helping Target develop new product lines — as well as developing the idea of the Apple Store. Johnson spoke to Stanford Business School a few years ago and talked about some of his early experiences in retail and what he learned, including this:

At Mervyn’s, Johnson asked to start at the lowest job instead of going directly into an office job at its headquarters. “I unloaded trucks for three months, and I got really fast at it,” he says. But he also learned how the merchandise got packaged, how it was on a trailer, how it was stocked efficiently, and how to make sure goods got to the floor. “It gave me lifetime knowledge, which I value today. So I can walk through a store and I see things, probably, that I wouldn’t see if I hadn’t done that.”

I’ve long been a fan of this approach — it’s very hard for sales and marketing types to understand the path of the customer unless they understand all facets of how the company gets a product to the customer. I’d recommend things such as:

  • Requiring executives to go out and fill orders during the holidays
  • Starting every new marketplace hire on either order-filling or in the warehouse
  • Individually calling every lost customer to (a) apologize and (b) learn what went wrong

Some companies gloss this experiential listening step over because they think doing warehouse work or order-filling is “beneath” an executive, who’s proven him/herself over years in the industry. I understand that mentality, but if you want your company to be really good at listening to customers — which will drive a customer growth engine, which will make you more money — then you need to put aside some of your experience-linked pride and understand the full path of a product or service to the customer. This will open your mind to new pain points you never imagined as an executive, and that will help your company grow.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. Jeanne, thanks for the article. I certainly agree with your advise on changing company’s current thinking or strategy if survey results don’t match up to it. Going even deeper, with Steve Jobs thinking: “You have to START with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology”

  2. Sofia
    Thank you very much for bringing that up. Our job is to understand needs and desires…and to recreate a new version of experience reality for our customers. Customers will only give you feedback for the box you’ve penned them in, with the current experience you are delivering.


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