The Art of Listening and Its Impact on the Customer Experience

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“The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when one asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

I try to be a good listener. I really do. But I am totally guilty of violating (at least) one cardinal rule of good listening. I start mentally formulating my response while the other person is still speaking. According to the experts, it means that I am not taking in all that is being said because my attention in not fully focused on the speaker. I humbly agree.

It is no surprise that good listening skills are central to creating a memorable customer experience and achieving first contact resolution, but unfortunately, they are lacking in many contact centers. In truth, the pressure to keep talk times short weighs heavily on customer service representatives and most of us can relate to that. It becomes a daily battle to provide world class service when you have five minutes or less to enter the caller’s information, assess the problem, find an acceptable solution, and make closing notes. So, in order to wrap up a call quickly and meet metrics, we tend to assume what the customer wants rather than listening so we know and understand what the customer needs. This is evidenced in quality reviews as interrupting or talking over customers, failing to ask the right questions, and the inability to properly assess the situation. More often than not, the result is dissatisfied customers who do not feel heard and may have to call back multiple times before resolution is reached.

“There are people who, instead of listening to what is being said to them, are already listening to what they are going to say themselves.” ~ Albert Guinon

Self-Assessment. Some of the hardest work in developing good listening skills is self-assessment. We all have barriers to listening (Knott, 2008), but some may not be readily intuitive. For example, we put up walls when we think we are right and the other person is wrong. We also tend to speak and not listen well when we feel that we have to provide help right away. Some of us prefer to talk rather than listening, creating a barrier unto itself, and others of us are guilty of waiting for gaps in the conversation so we can jump right in with our words of wisdom (mea culpa).

Listening in the Workplace. According to Travis Bradberry (2011), bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence 2.0, “In the workplace there’s this idea that you always have to be doing something. People are emailing during conference calls and massive mistakes are taking place and it creates a snowball of misinformation. You don’t have to keep shooting yourself in the foot. This absolutely can be learned. It’s simply a matter of putting effort into it. “

Carter McNamara, PhD, writer and contributor to ManagementHelp.org (2012), explains that listening is a critical skill for all adults and it helps us to learn about others. It is an invaluable tool for helping to build strong relationships and develop essential rapport with customer, employees, clients, and employers. When we are listening, it is important not to think about what we are going to say while we are trying to listen because it forces the brain to leave the speaker behind, making it easy to miss or misinterpret key points the speaker is trying to convey.

Tenets of Good Listening. Based on extensive testing of more than half a million people, Bradberry notes that “the best listeners are unconsciously mimicking the people they hear. When you’re caught up with thinking about what you’re going to say next, you aren’t listening. But if you stop what you’re doing, and really focus on the person talking, you activate neurons in your brain and your body starts to hone in on the other person. This helps you retain more information.”

So how can we all do a little more listening and a lot less abstracting? Here are top tips from the experts:

Clear your mind. Focus when you’re talking to others. Pay attention to what you’re thinking when they’re speaking; if you’re planning out your response rather than listening to them, you need to work on your focus.

Actively listen and absorb the feedback. Don’t just react – be sure you are really taking in the information the other person is giving you. Ask questions or ask for specific examples for clarification and guide the conversation if it gets off-track.

Don’t argue, understand. Having a tough conversation? Don’t just plan your rebuttal – really listen, then start with where you agree and move the discussion toward a solution by asking them to help you understand their point.

Do not think about what to say while you are also trying to listen to the speaker. Your brain goes four times faster than a speaker’s voice. Thus, your brain can easily leave the speaker behind. Instead, trust that you will know how to respond to the speaker when the speaker is done.

Let the speaker finish each major point that he/she wants to make. Do not interrupt – offer your response when the speaker is done and paraphrase back the key points. If you do have to interrupt, do so to ensure you are hearing the other person. Interrupt tactfully. For example, you could say “Might I interrupt to ask you to clarify something?”

Attempt to listen 75% of time – speak 25% of time. This is one of the most powerful guidelines and its use depends on the situation. For example, if you are making a presentation, you will speak more. Otherwise, ensure that the other person speaks more than you do – and listen to them.

Ask others to provide you feedback about your communication skills. Often, people do not know what they do not know about themselves. One example is the team member who prizes him/herself on strong listening skills, yet regularly interrupts others when they are speaking. Without feedback, it is difficult to gain awareness and make necessary improvements in listening skills.

The good thing is that the path to improved listening is straightforward and the steps to getting there make a lot of sense. The challenge is that it requires attention and a concerted effort on the part of the team member and management team to learn, practice, and develop consistency in communication skills. Formal training, in-services, targeted feedback, and regular reminders about the power of good listening are all important to keeping it in the spotlight, but having team members listen to their own calls is perhaps the most insightful tool of all. Although it can be a cringe-worthy experience, it is an incredibly enlightening exercise that hits home quickly and raises awareness instantly.

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