The Art & Skill Of Customer Listening: session 5


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Customer Listening is at the centre of this series of posts.

To date, I ‘ve covered the role of listening in session one. Links between personal and corporate listening in session two.

Then there was a detailed definition of Customer Listening in session three. Most recently I covered the difference between hearing and listening in session four.

This session is about attention. (I’m hoping to keep yours in particular!)

Why I Write About Customer Listening

Before we start, I want to make a few pre-emptive points about the ‘why and wherefore’ around this topic of Customer Listening.

The first point concerns that increasingly popular phrase ‘actionable insight’ and all it implies. Yes I concur with the trending view that customer listening by itself is insufficient. Of course action and follow through is needed. Agreed. However planning and execution skills are common to all organisation even if they are often absent around VoC (Voice Of The Customer) execution.

In other words I see it as an issue of corporate will rather than ability. Listening though is a seldom taught skill and is not well understood. Therefore it is the missing link being focussed on here. I assume you know enough about follow through.

My other soapbox point is that I see close if not identical processes between individual listening and corporate listening (aka customer listening). It is my view that the former should guide the latter in terms of unearthing best practice and innovation. This is based on what we increasingly understand about the mechanics of the human listening process.

That’s why this session is about attention. We know what that looks like when teaching a class of distracted learners. Is there an equivalent within corporate Customer Listening?

Maybe. Think on this.

In many organisations, despite the flag waving around customer centricity, it remains the case that new customers get all the attention while existing customers can become ignored in the chase for sales targets. So why can’t organisation maintain their attention on certain customer groups?

One immediate answer of course is to incentivise the right level of attention. But I don’t think it is that simple. Or more organisations would have got that one nailed. Especially since everyone knows the mantra around why it makes economic sense to look after existing customers.

I think we need to dig a bit deeper. Some of the issues I’m going to explore around multi-tasking suggests we might be unaware that our efforts become spread too thin. The science suggests our brains are not natural multi-tasking engines. When we finally get this maybe we will rethink how to become better at focussing our attention on the needs and expectations of existing customers.

Ok. Enough scene setting. Let’s dive in.

The Temptation To Multi-Task & Why Focus Matters

One of the most important practical differences between hearing and listening modes is that multi tasking can only actually happen in hearing mode. Although many people think they can do it, you cannot multi task when in listening mode, anymore than you can sneeze with your eyes open. Or to turn this rule on its head, it is physically impossible to listen when multi tasking. Catch up with the previous post if you want to understand more about the key differences between these two states.

Let’s think through the implications of this assersion for both individuals and organisations.

Can you really fully listen to someone on the phone, while tapping on the laptop and keeping an eye on the cooking all at the same time? Although this is an example from home life, most customer service environments can easily match this level of distraction and encourage people to adopt multi tasking as the norm. Sometimes this is inevitable. You have to talk, search for an answer and key in customer details all at the same time.

Many would claim they work like this, plus some, every day. And anyway in today’s world is it not just a normal and expected way of getting on with things? But while it may be physically possible to juggle many tasks, what we are interested in here is the impact it has on the quality of customer interactions. Are you missing important clues to a customer’s state of mind or interest in buying something if any part of your attention is elsewhere?

Or is this a non issue because it really is possible with sufficient energy and experience to concentrate on more than a single conversation with a customer?

Maybe it’s a question of gender. Women have the reputation of being able to talk and listen while doing all sorts of things at the same time. Whereas men supposedly prefer to talk or hear about various things in succession rather than simultaneously. Is this just urban legend or is it rooted in observable science?

A well known brain-imaging study showed how a group of men and woman tackled the problem of identifying when a random series of nonsense words rhymed. The men used left hemisphere brain power only. The women used both.

Other research backs this up, showing that women also have more nerve fibres connecting the two hemispheres of their brains. Again suggesting that more information is exchanged between them.

So does gender make the difference between effective and ineffective multi-tasking? My answer is still no and I will explain why I think that is the case.

Every time an extra event is introduced into your awareness, your attention and focus are spread thinner until the concentration of energy needed for processing sounds into understandable ideas becomes too dispersed and so changes from a narrow band focus back into wide band. As we know from the section of the difference between listening and hearing, a wideband focus is great for hearing, but not for listening. These experts add further detail.

Let’s think about this some more. It is common sense that you need to pay attention when someone is talking if you want to hear exactly what they have said. So we know attention is one thing we need for successful listening. But what exactly is attention and how does that relate to the issue of whether someone can listen and multi task?

What Do We Mean By ‘Paying Attention’?

If you google the word Attention or look it up in a physical dictionary you will find it defined something like this:

“Attention is the mental process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of your environment while ignoring other things”

This gives us a major clue as to how we function as humans. One of the key ways we absorb information from the world around us is to put our focus on one thing at the expense of another. You can test this right now by looking at the screen on which you are viewing this post. Without changing focus, notice what you see outside the screen. It may be a desk, a wall or some other background. If you are within a short distance of the screen, the background will be visible but out of focus.

If you now look around you about 6-10 meters away, what you see appears uniform, but notice that to look at any one thing in particular in order to pick out its detail, you have to defocus slightly on the rest of what you can see. Try doing that right now.

It seems we use two ways of interacting with our world. Broad & Fuzzy or Narrow & Sharp. In everyday living we combine the two approaches constantly and expertly to move around and absorb what is going on. For instance it would make you physically ill to use Narrow & Sharp focus simply moving from your desk to the cloakroom. Imagine how much detail you would have to consume and how long the journey would feel like!

Much better to use Broad & Fuzzy just to help you get your sense of direction and then ensure you don’t bump into anything. But to do that you don’t need to know the colour or shape of the pattern on the carpet which Narrow & Sharp would give you.

In other words, although we can switch rapidly giving us the illusion of both depth and detail together within a single moment, we are forced to choose which mode to be in. Multi tasking creates the same illusion – that we can do a number of tasks at the same time and juggle our detailed attention between them.

I would agree that tasks which do not require large amounts of brain processing power can be done together. Boiling an egg and listening out for the postman is fine. However when communication tasks that consume large amounts of brain power are attempted together, something has to give. And at this point I would like to bring the first scientific evidence into my argument to illustrate that we have to prioritise in these situations.

What Does The Science Say?

The back story to this slice of science is worth knowing. For the last 200 years there has been an ongoing debate as to whether it was possible to concentrate on two things at once. By the mid 20th century, those that cared about such things, decided to get a little more scientific. So during the 1950’s, researchers started to experiment on whether a person’s attention could indeed be split.

For this they used a technique called dichotic listening. In a typical experiment, subjects would be given headphones which allowed them to listen to two simultaneous but different streams of words. The task was to try to selectively focus on one stream. The results showed that recall was not strong even on the stream that the subjects were asked to focus on. Even less was retained of the other stream. In fact participants were generally able to report almost nothing about the content of the other stream. Moreover, a change a language from English to German in the other channel usually went unnoticed. However, participants were apparently able to report that the sound was speech rather than non-verbal content.

This evidence caused a debate that is still unresolved today because the answer is not yet known. If you are trying to listening to a different conversation in each ear, which is an extreme version of multi tasking, does your attention shut down in one ear so that the brain can process exclusively on one stream of words? Or is the content of both ears being simultaneously analysed although only one can be consciously accessed by you?

Whatever we might learn about this in the future, it does suggest that we are quite limited in terms of what we can process when it comes to listening. A lot of brain power has to go into turning sound into something that has meaning to us as language. At the very least it reduces our communication flexibility since your response times slow right down or indeed stop when asked to do too many things at the same time.

Yet a professional communicator would no doubt pride themselves on being able to respond spontaneously in the moment since it is often that type of communication that wins a sale or calms down an upset customer. So does multitasking work in the world of professional communication such as customer engagement?

In the spirit of those dichotic listening exercises, I’ve built an interactive toy that lets you experiment with your own capacity to split your attention and still listen. I’ve called it an multitasking recorder. It has recorded a number of conversations that might be typically taking place in a customer service environment and be in earshot at any one time. Have a play with it. These are the instructions.

Still Not Convinced?

As a final part of my overall argument, I’m going to show you some recent facts and figures about the declining span of attention most of us now suffer as a result of living in the digital world.

The 1st study of 2,600 children found that early exposure to television (around age two) was associated with later attention problems at age seven. Another research study suggested that the attention span of most adolescents is about 11 minutes — roughly the time between commercials in a typical television show. This can also be backed if you talk to school teachers now at the age of retirement who will generally confirm that children’s attention spans have noticeably declined during their careers as teachers.

For more recent generations, the effects of digital media on attention spans may be even worse. Most internet users spend less than one minute on the average website. My own research for this post shows that the US authorities are now putting listening firmly back on the agenda as recent generations of college students collectively fail their grades in increasing numbers since they are incapable of the sustained listening needed for lectures.

The twitter generation might be currently considered the trailblazers of multi tasking global lifestyles. But it may well be at a cost. Maybe the world can be run on Broad and Fuzzy principles without need for Narrow and Sharp. We shall have to see. Many other research studies also highlight how ineffective multi-tasking is when compared with single focussed attention.

So if any of this fits in with your own observations, you will probably then agree that despite whatever your busy multi tasking mind argues, you know that if the task is to listen, everything else has to stop because when your attention is elsewhere you will have failed to listen at that moment.

As a final observation, you may have noticed that in conversations which are completely absorbing, nothing but the conversation can be remembered afterwards. In other words, hearing mode has been completely switched off. All energy has been transferred to full listening mode. Funny that!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Martin Hill-Wilson, Hill-Wilson
Customer Service, CX & AI Engagement Strategist - Chair, Keynotes & Masterclasses. Brainfood is an advisory and education service. Advice in terms of co-designing practical engagement strategies that balance customer and business needs. These are orchestrated from a blend of live assistance, self service and proactive contact using whatever optimised mix of voice, text and video works best across realigned customer journeys.


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