The Art & Skill Of Customer Listening: session 3

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Welcome to another session on Customer Listening.

Last time we reviewed a definition for Customer Listening. We also investigated what ‘active listening’ really means. Finally we wrapped up with some take away questions; asking how well our organisations embody these listening competencies in key customer facing workflows.

The idea that underpins this series on listening is a simple one. Understanding how listening works for individuals helps us scope what’s needed for Customer Listening.

This 3rd session is about exploring what is involved in the listening process. Why? Because there is more going on than you might imagine. And the more we look into what is happening, the better we can define competencies and design workflows that are really up to the job.

As we shall see, effective listening is a truely demanding business, so it’s best we don’t fool ourselves that we are able to really listen to customers when all we are doing is poring over C-Sat or NPS scores.

We Forget How Much Listening Matters

But first let’s remind ourselves why ‘listening’ is such a big deal, particularly in this age of Social Business. For me, the whole debate ‘Social’ keeps throwing up is that ‘being human’ is now a central concern to customers. This implies it needs to become equally central to organisations if they are intent on keeping this growing segment of purchasing power.

By the way, the same need for the human touch applies to ‘Customer Experience’ which might be a more familiar topic to you. There is an increasing groundswell of activity around what’s become known as the ‘Voice of The Customer’. A new way to describe the act of listening.

It seems strange that this aspect of doing business has been something we’ve needed to rediscover. Maybe fifty years of globalisation has distorted our focus on what really matters to the end customer.

Added to which is the ‘once removed’ nature of doing business online. This has helped spark the whole recent debate around trust and the need for greater engagement and transparency. Both are currently seen as central to rekindling trust between organisations and their customers.

Maybe in future times, the impending ‘Age of Social Business’ will be remembered for re-introducing this focus on the human touch.

Here’s a question for you. If there was one single competency you could invest in and become truly great at, what would you choose for your organisation? Remember the challenge is to show the ‘human touch’ in how you do business. Think about it for a minute.

For me, the answer is always ‘listening’. That skill has the most juice, the most potential, the greatest transformative impact of all.

You may or may not agree. In fact, evidence says it’s definitely a minority view. Why? Well think about the bigger topic of ‘Communication’. In that context:

Where does all the attention and effort go? Into ‘speaking’ of course!

If I asked you to imagine two people communicating, which part of the communication cycle do you instinctively picture? Someone speaking or someone listening?

When you ask to attend a communication course, you are probably thinking about overcoming the frustration of getting all tongue tied when others seem silver tongued. Sadly, few of us see much social kudos in improving our listening skills. In fact being sent on a course to improve our personal listening comes over as faintly insulting to many of us!

Listening remains the invisible, unnoticed aspect of communication. A good communicator is taken to mean being good at talking and persuading. That’s what we see successful people around us do. Thus our appreciation of what it really takes to be a great communicator is lopsided and heavily weighted towards one aspect only.

Translate that back into organisational priorities and we can see how we’ve preferrred as brands to do all the talking. Customer communication has been a monologue, a broadcast, a self interested proclaimation. Because that’s our instinct as individuals.

Can this be so easily changed?

The fact is we are now in the Age of Social Discourse. Brands have to find authentic ways to join a dialogue that customers are already having amongst themselves. This is a game-changing trend. It means we are having to pull the fluff out of our ears and learn the art of listening. In many cases for the first time ever!

Notice the next time you hear someone take pride in being a good listener. They are likely to be different from most other frogs in the pond. And maybe prove to be greater fun to hang out with as a result! Look out for the organisational equivalent. Both remain rare though.

Enough with scene setting! Let’s get down to some detailed investigation of how listening works and impacts that experience of the ‘human touch’ we talked about earlier.

The Business Of Listening

Just to remind ourselves of one insight from the first post of this series. Definitions of listening are plentiful. So here’s the Brainfood version, custom made for this blog’s favourite topic: customers. One which you are most welcome to incorporate into your Customer Service competency framework.

This is the Brainfood definition of Customer Listening.

The goal of listening is to capture a full and accurate version of what is being said and then make sense of it in the exact same way that the customer intended.

I reckon this makes sense whether you are on a one-to-one voice call with a customer, a live chat session, a face face presentation to a group of customers. Or if you are decyphering a gazillion voices via your Listening Post as you try and tune into your ‘social’ customers. It’s all the same challenge.

Let’s break the definition down into its key ideas and see what emerges as we concentrate our attention on what each one means.

First off, notice that perfect ‘recall’ and ‘understanding’ are aspirational. They are the goal of listening. No-one expects to achieve goals every minute of every day. Ok, maybe you know a few people like that, but let’s face it, they are just too intense to be around for long.

So what’s the point then? Simply this. If you see yourself as a professional communicator, it’s a standard you will want to achieve as often as possible. If you are a leader of such people, you will want to support that ambition. If you are a social strategist, you will use that standard as a kind of North Star to get the best Signal:Noise ratio you can produce.

Let’s go deeeper into this idea. Each time the standard is achieved, you and your organisation are perfectly positioned to make the best possible response. What that looks like in a sales conversation or a service interaction all depends on the circumstances. But your options as a communicator are massively boosted whenever you’ve ‘nailed’ the listening part of the communication cycle.

If you want further evidence where the smart money sits check this out. It shows that the collective wisdom throughout history has recognised the importance of excellent listening skills.

So with that set of insights under our belt, let’s have another look at our definition of Customer Listening.
The next point as we move along the definition is the phrase “capture a full and accurate version”.

“Full” suggests nothing can be left out. “Accurate” suggests the auditory data being captured in our working memory is bit perfect. Or 100% the same as the original.

This is an idea that is simple enough to understand but difficult to achieve in practice! For instance, what percentage of customer conversations you get involved in would pass that test? You might try and wriggle out by saying you and the customer understand each other just fine, so what’s the big deal?

Well the reason why a perfect copy is needed can appear so obvious it passes us by. So let’s spell it out. Trying to make sense of what has been said using a partial, inaccurate version always increases the chances of misunderstanding and therefore should be avoided.

This is particularly important in the context of dialogue with customers where we need to be certain our version is the same as theirs. Complaints is an obvious example. But more generally if you claim to be a customer focussed person or brand then it’s your intent to get under the skin of what is being said by a customer. If so, you need to be making use of everything they have actually said.

It’s important to understand though that most of us, much of the time, discard significant chunks of inbound communication. We are so adept at this, we do it without even thinking and therefore without awareness of its impact on what we register has been said. In a later post I’ll touch on some of the evolutionary reasons why we need to filter the volume of external stimulus and how this impacts our capacity to listen effectively.

In fact getting it 100% right is seldom that easy, especially when distraction is introduced. Maybe you know the well known example from World War I of a message being sent down the trench line. The actual words said were “SEND REINFORCEMENTS, WE’RE GOING TO ADVANCE”. The words heard, as a result of the background din, were “SEND THREE AND FOURPENCE, WE’RE GOING TO A DANCE!

Notice both versions retained a meaning. But only one was accurate.

The next phrase for consideration is ‘make sense of it’. Again if that sounds easy, the internal processes that humans use to generate meaning are incredibly complex and sophisticated, even if the experience of doing it seems effortless.

As adults, most of us have forgotten just how smart we are at translating, in real time, a series of sounds into language we understand. Try listening to a language you don’t speak. Or play a song you know backwards. You will soon remember what it was like to be confronted by something you cannot make sense of.

Our ability to make sense of language is a challenge we confront early in life. Already by the age of 8 months, we have learnt how to use the differences in a person’s voice to help us make sense. At this stage in our abilities, we are just using the stress put on individual words to break the stream of sounds into separate sounding words which we then start to recognise.

Later we learn how different voice qualities in the speaker, such as their pitch, tempo and intonation, can convey differences in meaning. For example a statement versus a question. Or the kind of speaking style – an adult versus child. Or the emotional state of the speaker – happy versus sad.

So the huge complexity of making sense of what we hear is something we have to master at a very early age. No doubt that’s why the speed of learning in the first 24 months of our lives is never matched for the rest of our life.

Unpicking just how smart we are at making sense of sound is an important reminder of the huge organisational challenges in making sense of what customers are saying. Can we replicate our highly sophisticated sensibilites as algorithms and get anywhere close to replicating the skill of an eight month old human? Think about that the next time you are poring over the latest sentiment analysis.

That why all forms of customer listening which are not ‘one to one’ events between people need to come with a health warning. They are indicative at best and probably way short of the sense being originally conveyed. Accept that and they remain useful. Imagine they are accurate and you are peddling fiction as fact.

The last phrase in the definition is “in the exact same way that the customer intended”. This is something that builds on the previous stage of making sense.

For instance I can make sense of the sounds I’m hearing and recognise them as words, but I might not understand their meaning accurately. Active listening has been described as “an intent to listen for meaning” which captures the essence of what we are trying to convey here very well.

The problem with words is that they hold a different connotation for each person based on their own life experiences. Words have a unique effect in the mind of each person, because each person’s experience is unique. Those differences can be small, but the overall effect of the differences can become large enough to cause misunderstanding.

Another way of looking at the range of meaning that a word can have is contained in this well known research snippet.

Most people use around 800 words on a regular basis. Those 800 words however have 14,000 meanings. That’s around 17 meanings per word on average. The challenge is therefore deciphering which one is intended within a particular communication.

What we can learn from this is that the business of accurately understanding what another person intends to communicate is a major undertaking and never a guaranteed success. Consequently, the appropriate mindset for a professional communicator is that I can never tell you what you have said, only what I have heard.

Hmmm. I wonder how that insight might pan out as an advanced organisational workflow?

The other point that needs to be taken into consideration is that research has shown spoken words only account for 30-35% of the intended meaning being conveyed by the speaker. The rest is transmitted through nonverbal communication. This is why people say you have to listen not just with your ears but with your whole body. Some describe it as their sixth sense.

That suddenly makes multi-channel customer interaction sound a whole lot harder!

Let’s bring this last part of the definition to a close. Putting the speaker’s message into proper context is essential to duplicate the speaker’s original intended meaning. In practice we do this through a multitude of checking procedures that calibrate and confirm understanding.

Eye contact and body language provide some of the strongest indirect signals in face to face situations. When we don’t have those visual checks, we use direct questions to check understanding and maybe active listening techniques such as paraphrasing to signal what we have managed to understand.

Put It All Together And What Do We Have?

If all the phases of the listening process happen in the way we have just explored, then the goal of listening as defined here is also achieved. But our success in hitting that standard is pretty random. The understanding of what it takes to really listen is not widely known and therefore is not commonly practiced.

The follow on from this is that organisational listening is equally primitive in its effectiveness. So if your Voice Of The Customer effort has just won gold at Cannes, remember where you really are in the evolutionary cycle of things!

The other pragmatic observation is that the human race manages to get by despite this limitation. To which I say Yes but how much better could it be? And if real customer engagement is your ambition how much better does it need to be?

By aiming to make our listening ‘just exactly perfect’, we will find ourselves getting that much closer to recognising our customer’s communication priorities. Hear what is not spoken but is still being conveyed. And recognise the time and opportunity to deeply engage them and rebuild that trust which only the ‘human touch’ can generate.

That’s a real skill we had all better start nurturing if we are serious about this ‘customer’ thing.

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