The Art and Skill of Customer Listening
As in all areas of life, the art and skill of listening matters.
Our work life certainly demands it. In fact customer listening and co-worker listening (new term?) are now core to keeping corporate headlights pointed in the right direction.
Given that’s becoming accepted wisdom, it’s both strange and unfortunate we don’t know a great deal about how listening works. Or for that matter find ourselves well educated in becoming good at listening. Either personally or organisationally.
Back in the day, I was lucky enough to absorb 27 sessions of communication skills training. Every week for three hours. All practical work. Building stamina and capability to listen. I seem to remember doing that twice over for some reason. Maybe the second was an advanced version. I then unwittingly repeated the whole cycle when I moved from rookie to apprentice trainer. Glad I did. I still experience benefiting from that investment today.
In today’s world, full of transformational themes such as Social Business and Customer Experience Management, customer listening has emerged as a hot topic. Listening platforms (Social Media Monitoring) and Voice Of The Customer (VoC) are fast becoming mainstream investments. Thus listening, in one form or another, appears to be pretty much established as a mandatory start point for delivering valued change.
Maybe that’s why session three in this series proved more popular than I’d expected. Having caught up with many of the people that re-tweeted it across their own networks, I’m pleased to tell you that the topic of Customer Listening has broad appeal across pretty much all front line cultures. Sales gets it. Customer Service gets it. Marketing gets it.
That is to say they recognise how it impacts their own ambitions. And of course “social” versions of those functions double get it. Even Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff is going nuts for it. And he is never one to miss an opportunity!
This tells me there is a hunger to find out more. So in that spirit, here are some further insights I picked up as I went digging into the research literature on listening.
By the way for those new to this series, a quick pointer. The underlying assumption is that organisational listening is a version of what individuals do. Therefore understand the human process and the competencies for any organisational model become clearer.
If you can live with that notion, read on.
Why Listening & Hearing Are Not The Same
Although there is a common belief that customer listening is on the up, I’m not so sure it’s listening that taking place. Instead I think we are doing rather more hearing than we might imagine.
This is what I mean.
The terms hearing and listening are often used interchangeably in everyday life. Normally that is fine. But in order to learn how to listen effectively, it is important to understand the differences between both activities.
Although hearing is a complex process, it is essentially an automatic, passive activity. It is possible to hear sounds without consciously engaging in the process. Whereas, listening requires a conscious effort from you in order to make sense of what another person is saying.
Think of it like this.
You have the ability to use your ears and your brain in two modes. Hearing mode and listening mode.
Each has its own purpose and both function in a different way. Hearing is a ‘wide-band’ process. Listening is a “narrow-band” process. We will get into what that means later on once we have grounded more of the story as to why ‘listening’ and ‘hearing’ are not the same thing.
Here is another difference. Unlike listening, which is a skill we have to develop throughout our lives, everyone gets born with their hearing capability switched on. From then on, providing that physical equipment is not damaged, we spend the rest of our life able to hear. Nothing to learn, we just do it.
For instance, ever wondered why you don’t have the equivalent of eyelids for your ears? Just not needed as an ‘always on’ faculty.
What Hearing Is Good For
A quick soundbite of social history.
Humans learnt to hear before they learnt to listen to each other. It’s an older, universal skill. Early on in our human evolution, hearing was a more urgent survival skill than listening. Hearing could locate danger before eyesight and therefore was vital in the never ending struggle to stay alive.
You have remnants of that instinct within you today. For instance have you ever wondered why a person can sleep through the louder sound of a train passing nearby and then be instantly awake because of a faint noise from their child’s room?
The mechanics are this. Your hearing prioritises events for you. Or to be more accurate, your hearing turns down the volume on sounds that are non-threatening. The result? You become better at picking out those things you do need to respond to from the overall inflow of sound you constantly process.
That night time train is a regularly experienced sound. Your child’s cry is different. It is unexpected and is registered as potentially urgent. And since you are hardwired to protect your offspring, you respond by waking up. Unlike listening which needs your conscious attention, hearing allows you to tune in even during your sleep.
This is the upside of the way your hearing works. It filters out irrelevant sound for you then alerts you when something’s important. Similar to the way a firewall keeps away unwanted stuff but lets through the right stuff. Or the way that social media monitoring filters the signal:noise ratio of online chatter to an acceptable level.
But the downside is that hearing is all about the overall landscape of sound. It has one mission. Regulating how much sound filters through to your conscious attention. It does that to keep you sane. If it stopped playing this gate-keeping role, imagine how you would feel if everything your hearing picked up then demanded equal attention from you? You just could not keep up. Even with a gallon of Blue Mountain coffee inside you!
We face the same issue with social networks. Trying to pick out the voices that matter to our individual organisations.
For the sake of mental comfort, your hearing turns down the volume. Thus making that landscape of sound you walk through every day, more “background” and less “intrusive”. Why? Because your attention span is finite and easily drainable. Similar to a rechargeable battery in fact.
This means your ears only tend to message your brain with alerts on sounds that fit a certain profile. For instance sounds that suggest the need for immediate or emergency action such as the cry of a child. It’s a kind of exception based reporting that actually works!
OK that’s enough on hearing. I’m sure you are getting the idea. Let’s wrap up this part of the story keeping this summary in mind.
The role of hearing is to keep you safe. It filters all sounds allowing the everyday ‘soundscape’ to become just a background feature in your awareness. Without directly focusing on it, you know it’s there. But you can’t make out individual sounds without switching into listening mode.
What Listening Is Good For
You move into listening mode as soon as your attention becomes focused on a particular sound. This demands you redistribute some of your energy from the ‘wide-band’ configuration of hearing into the ‘narrow-band’ of focused attention. Thus triggering the start of the listening process.
In doing so something significant happens.
One of the great qualities about your hearing is that you have seemingly unlimited stamina and capability to hear. No doubt you’ve noticed that you don’t get tired from hearing in the same way that you get tired from listening. That’s because the energy to fuel listening is much higher octane. Since it burns up faster, it runs out faster and so you get tired much more quickly. If listening is the sprinter, then hearing is the long distance runner.
Maybe this is why we end up just hearing customers rather than listening to them. Since we don’t appreciate the dynamics, we don’t budget sufficient energy and resources to focus the required level of attention that listening demands. I’m sure the same can be said of co-worker dialogue.
Anyway back to the description. That higher grade energy you use up in listening certainly goes to good use. Listening is all about discrimination which is a process intensive activity. Consciously sorting out the sounds you want to focus on and discarding the rest. It’s an energy guzzler. This explains why you can zone in on a particular conversation within a roomful of noisy people all talking ‘nineteen to the dozen‘.
And this is how you do it.
Energy is first consumed making the conscious effort to exclusively focus attention onto that conversations’ stream of sounds. More is then spent distinguishing the separate voices within the conversation. Finally you convert the ‘noise’ of each speaker into something meaningful with a final ‘burn’ of concentration.
At the conclusion of this amazing processing feat, you experience sound becoming language and move into a state of connection or relationship with the person who is speaking. This again takes energy. In fact some people experience increased heartbeat or feel hotter as symptoms of being in listening mode.
As an adult you can do that whole sequence amazingly fast. If you have young children in your life as I currently do, then you can witness that struggle up close over their first couple of years of life. It’s often slower but remains quite amazing synaptic gymnastics! But the point is this. Whatever your age it’s an energy draining process when you are really listening.
By the way, the reverse is also true. Get too tired or distracted and conversation can quickly deconstruct into streams of sound, stripped of meaning.
Implications For Organisational Listening
Let’s quickly re-summarise.
- Hearing is a physical capability we are born with. Listening is a skill developed throughout a person’s life
- Hearing uses a ‘wide-band’ focus that scans and filters all sounds. Listening uses a ‘narrow-band’ focus that tunes into particular sounds
- Hearing is an always on function. Listening is a short term conscious choice requiring far greater energy
- Connecting and relating to others only happen through listening
So now we have compared and contrasted the act of hearing with the act of listening what can we learn?
The first nugget is this.
Understanding what another person is saying is a conscious act of will.
It needs energy to focus attention. I suspect this is why today’s social customer is profiled as being so insistent that there is a real ‘clunk click’. Something more than an exchange of sound needs to be happening between them and the brand.
Associated questions then come to mind. In your organisation, how many times are customer interactions conducted in listening or hearing mode? During face to face sessions. Over the phone in the call centre. Categorising a customer’s social stream for sentiment scoring.
A tough question to answer of course but worth asking if only to raise the next question of how to get better. One practical way is to give greater kudos to listening. The chairman of Social Media pioneer Best Buy is recently quoted as saying listening skills are crucial to having a thriving business. Horrah! Good for him and the attention this creates in the C-Suite.
So get on with it! Identify and recognise the listeners in your organisation. Create a leaderboard. Offer a two week trip to ‘Paradise Island’ for the family of the best listener. You know, the normal motivational stuff. Maybe even make it a mandatory, tested competency for certain roles. Try customer and co-worker listening roles for instance!
The next point is to call time on ‘fake’ listening.
It is no secret to say that we’ve all learnt how to use hearing in pretence of listening. It’s less energetic for a start. Behaviourally it looks similar. That is until your instinct kicks in and any sense of rapport and conversational rhythm is replaced with an experience of being ‘handled’. Humans find this profoundly irritating and offensive. Either when practised by ‘nearest and dearest’ or organisations.
I’ve said elsewhere that the hallmark of listening is to pick up on what is not even been said. Logically this is nonsense. But emotionally it rings true. If you stop and wonder why this can be, there is something facinating to be learnt.
Communication does not occur exclusively via an exchange of words. Embedded in any idea is the initial experience a person had which gave rise to that idea. Conveying that across the communication chasm is as important and often more important than being able to recite back the words that make up the idea. Being in a state of listening allows us to sense that experience and actively use it in the process of turning sound into meaningful dialogue.
This dynamic lies at the heart of organisational listening challenges. Picking out the real message.
Interestingly Steve Jobs had similar insight about product innovation. His instinct was to ‘listen to’ the latent desires of an audience. He knew all the good stuff sat just under the surface. Unnoticed by those who were content to merely hear customer feedback. Given the example Apple has provided over the last decade, I’d say that listening in this sense is a proven enabler of differentiation. Apple’s market cap says the rest.
Conclusion. Pretending to listen is a loser’s game. Both personally and professionally.
My next point is to question the value we ascribe to the listening platforms that are currently hot assets in the race to build social businesses. I wonder if these are better called hearing platforms?
Social listening command centres that are entering the league of ‘big data’ volumes sound impressive and no doubt have ROIs to ‘prove’ they work. But I’m always struck when I talk with experts from that space how often they mention that a human filter is needed. In fact sentiment tracking in quite a few social media monitoring solutions boast that it is real people who do the categorising.
By the way this is not a Luddite reaction. I’m a vocal supporter of analytics, whether voice or text and see automation as a crucial enabler of scaling listening capability over anything but the smallest of customer bases.
Even today’s versions of organisational listening are not to be sniffed at. They move the game on. According to a Forrester research study on behalf of Dell (summer 2011), companies that implement listening and digital engagement initiatives see better customer satisfaction scores, loyalty and brand metrics. Nice to see that causal link being made!
Yet only 6% of those surveyed said their companies’ listening and engagement initiatives were “Very Integrated”. All of which makes me think that most corporate listening is still more akin to hearing.
Why? Because a ‘lack of integration’ is the organisational equivalent of needing to pay more attention. In other words, ensuring the right people are listening to the customers’ voice after it has flowed over numerous workflows and possibly been further distorted through analysis or sanitised into Powerpoint. Bruce Temkin‘s recent findings on the maturity of VoC (Voice Of The Customer) efforts shows the same issue. All hearing and insufficient doing.
Conclusion. We are still inventing workflow that allows an organisation to maintain their attention on what is being said by important stakeholders. Given this is still work in progress, it helps us move forward faster when we know this and recognise our true level of competency.
I have one more observation before signing off. This time about the organisational value of bringing this distinction between listening and hearing up to conscious awareness. It’s directed at HR and L&D leadership teams. The topic is a certain culture transformation. The very same one they have been charged with for a while now. Delivering the customer centric culture. If ever they were handed a poisoned chalice…
Anyway, we all know cultural change starts with mindset management. In this instance, the target is appropriate and inappropriate attititudes towards customers. Here’s the example that triggered this insight for me.
Someone in the rail industry I was talking with described the cultural journey they were on as moving away from the view that customers were ‘self loading freight’. As an industry outsider I was both amused and appalled. But on reflection every market has its own version. An unofficial ‘in-house’ perspective that objectifies and de-humanises their customers.
It then occured to me that this is a common problem with an important heritage. Previously we have had to tackle embedded attitudes towards gender, race and age in the workplace. We have done this by gradually unpicking the assumptions that enjoyed being socially acceptable until challenged. Derogatory language towards customers behind their backs is therefore just another clean up job.
But where does the hearing/listening bit fit in? The facilitated discussion goes something like this.
Relating to customers as ‘self loading freight’ (insert your own market specific prejudice) is easy to do when an organisation is just hearing them. Why? Because we know that hearing functions as an automatic, impersonal background activity. It is only when we engage through listening that customers become real, individual and start to matter. At that stage we naturally grant them the respect they deserve.
Of course that discussion takes time, re-inforcement and a good dose of communication re-skilling to deliver a sustained mindset shift. But you get the idea I’m sure.
Conclusion. Raising organisational standards around hearing and listening should be adopted as a key mission by culture transformationalists as part of the solution to banishing unhealthy in-house mindsets about customers.
So in bringing this session to a close, let me drum in the key messages one last time since we all know repetition is the mother of learning.
Hearing and listening are different ways of using the same physical equipment – our ears and brain.
One mode is more instinctive, the other more conscious and deliberate.
One is more orientated to protecting our most basic needs. The other allows us to learn and therefore evolve who we are.
Hearing keeps us alive, listening and being listened to can change who we become in life.
Organisational listening need not be a pale imitation of these dynamics.
That’s it. I’m done. Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.
I am a long standing member of the UK customer service community. I’ve served as consultant, facilitator, director and CEO for a variety of brands. I also participate as conference speaker and blogger in my role of passing on best practice and next generation thinking in customer service and social business. I currently work as an independent under the Brainfood brand with a range of ...
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