The BEST Executives…LISTEN!

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The key to the success of any executive is the ability to listen and translate what he or she hears into action. People are in pain. Both your customers and your employees hope that you will hear them and understand their pain. Listening is not always easy. It takes practice and rehearsal. Market intelligence can provide the background, but you need to learn active listening skills, and practice them, in order to succeed as an executive.

Psychologists and sociologists have repeatedly found that people (your employees and your customers) are more motivated to avoid pain than to seek pleasure. Stanford University researchers (Knutson, et al, Neuron Magazine, January 2007) investigated how people were motivated to buy products. These researchers found that the customers were trading off the hoped for gain with the immediate pain of the price. These two emotions were located in different parts of the brain, but were rationalized to allow the purchase decision. Many examples of this type of logic exist in marketing and advertising: “Here’s to the road warriors with spines of steel and delicate backs” (Courtyard by Marriott), “Is your cholesterol out of whack” (Crestor by AstraZeneca), and “Unburden your back” (Kensington Notebook Computer by Toshiba).

The secret is to turn the pain of your customers into your gain. Ask yourself, do you really understand the problems of your prospects, customers, employees and boss, or do you just think you know? Each of these groups experiences their own frustrations and pains. So, what is the secret of learning what their pains are and how to solve them? Learn how to listen!

Start by asking about their ideal business partner, or an ideal employee, or the ideal boss. Then, listen for their passion and pain. Listen carefully to the exact words that they use. Don’t translate into company jargon. Use their language. Probe for their pain, but listen for their description of what would be their ideal.

Here are a few example questions that you may want to ask:

1. Describe for me the “ideal” experience with a ______ (your product or service). How do most companies compare with this ideal? How do we compare?
2. Describe for me a recent time that where the experience was less than ideal?
3. What is the biggest pain about working with a ______ (your product or service)?
4. In what ways can working with a ______ (your product or service) cost you besides money (time, hassle, effort, etc.)?
5. How does working with a ______ (your product or service) help you make money?

These are just examples. The idea is to probe for their passion. What are they interested in talking about?

The same technique could be used with employees, though the questions might be altered. What are their pains and concerns? What would an ideal job in your organization look like? What do the employees need to do a better job?

Active listening is the skill that you need to execute this type of questioning. Active listening involves participating with the customer in the interview. When you have heard them, summarize what you have heard to make sure you have heard them correctly. As Tom Peters described (Thriving on Chaos, Harper, 1991), “Listening to customers must become everybody’s business. With most competitors moving ever faster, the race will go to those who listen (and respond) most intently.”

Have you learned how to listen to customers with an objective ear? Do you understand the pains your customers have experienced? The most frequently cited reason for product and service failures is a lack of understanding of the marketplace. When employees are asked about their executives, they value the executive who knows them and understands them – the executive who listens. The executive who understands his or her market, customers, colleagues and employees is indispensible.

Executives are often trapped in “thinking silos,” where they keep thinking about engineering, marketing, sales, production, research, product design and support as disconnected. The result of this thinking is, of course, that these areas become disconnected. What can connect them? Without a customer, none of these silos exist.

Learning how to listen to customers and take action on their pain is not just the purview of marketing and marketing research. It is everybody’s job, as Tom Peters described above. This is the common bond across silos: What does the customer want? What is the customer’s pain? The data says that few executives succeed for long without a complete understanding of the customers and the market (The PIMS Principles, Buzzell and Gale, The Free Press, 1987).

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