The Art & Skill Of Customer Listening: session 1

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If you are reading this on the BrainFood Extra site, you may have noticed that I summarise my overall focus as ‘Listening For Anything About The Customer’.

That remit has allowed me to write broadly about customer themed topics. The series you are now reading focuses on the other key word in that strap line, the topic of listening and in particular that of ‘customer listening’.

This is a phrase I’m sure is going to creep into everyone’s consciousness during 2011. Whether your bag is Social Media, Customer Experience, The Voice Of The Customer or just good ol’ CRM, I’d challenge you to find another competency that’s so central and yet so elusive when trying to make a success of any of these strategies.

The Art Of Listening Matters For All Types Of Customer Strategy

I’m going to explore the topic of listening in what I hope is an original way for those of us in the customer strategy community. We are going to be looking at the dynamics of listening first as a human competency and only then relate that back to an organisational version of customer listening.

You may well ask why that way round.

Well, although there is plenty of evidence that we are finally entering a long awaited phase of customer centric organisational behaviour, we are still groping in the dark as to what that actually requires from us.

One thing is for sure. Old ways of doing things won’t get us anywhere new. So I’d suggest that ‘letting in the new’ starts with opening up and becoming receptive: rather like re-tuning a radio from one station frequency to another.

But have you noticed how this often becomes the first stumbling block in customer centric transformations? All the right ideas get an airing, but are assimilated into old frames of reference. Thus we will discover in this series that hearing is not the same as listening. Unlike hearing, listening is a life skill that needs conscious learning. And guess what? Listening is much rarer than we like to imagine.

If that’s true on the individual level, then what chance that an organisation’s customer strategy is going to easily succeed without a strong foundation in customer listening!

Exploring What It Takes To Listen

My own hunch is that if we can identify what it takes for an individual to become good at listening, then we have a good chance of capturing the essence of the corporate competency as well.

And just for the sake of absolute clarity, let me state my own perspective on corporate listening.

Q. Surely now that Social Media is encouraging organisations to invest in listening platforms, the requirement for listening is met?

A. No. Having a bagful of algorithms and social media underlings sifting through the tea leaves does not automatically add up to corporate listening.

Q. Surely now that many have NPS scores and/or C-sat scores and these all seem to be trending upwards, surely we must be paying attention to what the customer says and are therefore listening?

A. Nope. A few organisations are clearly allowing the voice of the customer to penetrate into the heart of their organisational priorities, but how many truly customer mature brands do you encounter over an average week?

Understanding what listening is and how to cultivate it is not a done deal.

So this is my central question throughout the series. What do we actually know about what it takes to be a good listener? There is plenty of folklore, but interestingly as we will see, little scientific ‘proof’ as yet. That said, we are rapidly learning to see the physical processes involved in listening through brain scanning technologies and the cognitive insights they are delivering.

Unfortunately, much of that is still at primary research level, expressed in the language of academic study. So it has yet to become popularised and operationally deployed as new theory. One my aims in this series will be to try and decipher some of this exciting new insight for you.

Why Successful Communication Is A Major Achievement

I became fascinated with the whole topic of listening as part of designing an e-learning course last year on Listening Skills For Customer Service: yet to be released.

I’d spent the early part of my career in intensive experiential discovery around learning to improve communication. Many, many hundreds of hours in training rooms clearly showed that Listening was the central enabler to everything either working or crashing in the lifecycle of an attempted communication.

And thus was borne my lifelong tendency to find poor listening as the root cause culprit in most episodes of corporate, political and personal life. In my eyes being customer centric and being able to listen is a bonded statement. The one just cannot exist without the other!

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that a radical customer strategy would invest its first year’s budget in benchmarking and developing that organisation’s own ability to listen before spending time and resource on anything else.

Why?

Because if the organisation recognises that it is not customer focussed, it clearly has not listened in the past. And the truth is likely to be that they will remain incapable of doing without actively learning how to do so for the future.

I’m sure that medicine is too strong for most. But you know it’s no co-incidence that low customer sat is so often mirrored internally by low staff sat. And it doesn’t take many ‘little grey cells’ to work out why.

Just before we get into some of the more juicy stuff about listening and how it works, there is a special ‘extra something’ at the end of this post to make this whole exploration of listening a bit more personal and experiential for you.

It’s a quiz from the e-learning course I just mentioned, so you can have a bit of fun testing your own skills in listening. Trust me they are not as easy as they seem. Anyway just wanted to let you know that they will always be at the end of each post if you like to play first and read later.

But if you are still up for the first slug of material on listening, then please read on…

Our Strange Indifference To The Skill Of Listening

Although listening is something we can spend up to 75% of our day doing, especially in Customer Services, strangely enough it’s a neglected skill the world over. Can you remember ever being taught how to listen?

We know that unlike hearing, being an effective listener is a skill that has to be learnt. Yet less than 5% of our formal education is devoted to it, although researchers are now clear that the ability to read and learn is strongly correlated to a child’s listening maturity. So you would think that listening is the natural place to start someone’s education.

It is also known that listening is an attribute found in many examples of what we consider a satisfying life. For instance, being good at listening is key to being socially successful. This has been discovered through the analysis of so called ‘problem families’: such as certain categories of offenders, street gangs and other examples of groups who find themselves existing at the fringes. One root cause of their sense of alienation is poor listening.

For the rest of us living closer to the centre of society, listening is equally prized.

In business, it is always in the top 3 attributes that employers seek out in new staff. The customers’ sense of whether they feel valued or not, often comes down to their experience of if they are being listening too when it matters. The same is true for those in employment. Does the organisation care about me? Are my concerns and needs being listened too?

Back at home, in personal relationships between parent and child, friends, lovers or life partners, the key to happiness or disappointment almost always revolves around the issue of how well both parties listen to each other.

In healing contexts whether religious, spiritual or psychological, a core enabler of strengthening a person’s inner peace, self esteem and at oneness with their lives involves the act and therapeutic benefits of listening.

And finally in the most severe situations that people can generate involving violence, war or blind prejudice towards each other, the fault is almost always a lack of listening to the other side.

Those mediators that have to bring sanity to conflict situations rely on advanced, specialised forms of listening to allow both sides to confront the situation and take responsibility for moving forward. The reconciliation process is built from the foundations of listening to the other side’s realities and priorities.

So given its fundamental value to us, it is quite extraordinary how little we invest in listening as a skill and as a subject we understand from a scientific point of view.

Although today’s generation of research is rapidly fitting together the jigsaw, we still lack an overall understanding of how listening actually works based on evidence.

That’s not to say, there are not plenty of theories that abound. For instance you may have heard of active listening or the importance of empathy. Or maybe you are familiar with more traditional phrases like ‘always remember why you were given two ears but only one mouth’.

Our instinct around good listening practices might be strong, but we have yet to prove them objectively through research……

Ok that’s it for new ideas to digest. As this first post draws to a close I’ll leave you with the quiz and this question to ponder.

Why do you think we all miss the opportunity to invest in listening since it’s a life skill that clearly makes a big difference to the overall quality of life?

In order to take the quiz, click anywhere on the image below. Make sure you have your audio enabled either via speakers or headphones. iPhone users are out of luck I’m afraid since the quiz is built in Flash. Sorry!. You are welcome to retake the quiz as often as you want to see if you can improve your score. Watch out for more in future sessions.

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