(Watching the wonderful 60 Minutes interview Sunday night with David Kelly from IDEO reminded of this 2006 post.)
One of the things I’ve been trying to do better this year is listen to my customers.
It seems listening is a very difficult skill to learn. Asking a provocative question is one thing; listening well to the answer is quite another. Really listening depends in part on making yourself innocent again. Within any company, learning from what you are listening to means divesting yourself of all the baggage a brand has acquired over the years. It’s so easy to hear something a customer says and quickly respond, “We’ve heard that before” without really listening to what that particular person is trying to tell you.
Listening does seem incredibly basic. Yet the reality is that all of us are often distracted and don’t bring all of our skills or faculties to a listening situation. Have you ever left a meeting and wondered, “What did they just say?” When you are out listening to your customers, the first thing to remember is to clear your mind and enjoy the very human process of listening. This is a difficult thing for most of us to do.
The overall goal of listening is to see patterns where others see chaos, and to make meaning that is well grounded in both experience and intuition. To achieve this goal, you have to capture the Vox Populi, or the voice of the people. Here are some things to remember:
Concentrate – It is very difficult for companies to concentrate. There are spreadsheets to fill out; there are sales to be made and the bottom line to look after. How can anybody take the time to concentrate on listening with so much to do? Yet concentration is absolutely essential to effective listening. Be
Free From Anxiety – This is, possibly, the hardest thing for a company to do. As a businessperson you know how hard it is to not focus, always, on the bottom line. It is hard to not be anxious about getting a product or service to market. Likewise, it is also hard not to think about accomplishing specific goals when you are talking to a customer. This, however, is the only way to have a successful dialogue in which you are able to hear clearly.
Imagine – Aren’t all great companies started by someone with an amazing imagination? Look at Apple: it was Steven Jobs and his imagination that created the personal computer that fueled a revolution. Likewise, Nike’s Phil Knight spent his first few years selling shoes out of the back of a station wagon. They were both out there with their customers, listening and learning. They were imagining ways to solve problems, whether for computer users or runners. Every great company has a heritage of myth and imagination surrounding its start.
Empathize – At the foundation of most great companies is a group of people that embodies the passion and commitment of their customers and has a vested interest in doing things right; in essence, empathy can be defined as the ability to relate to customers in an intuitive manner. The most straightforward way to attain this is to be a passionate user of your company’s products. Understand – Understanding is not about simply downloading a bunch of numbers and statistics and then analyzing them from behind a desk. In this context, it means feeling an impact in the heart and soul. It is an understanding that comes from experiencing what's really happening.
Love – While many businesspeople might laugh, this is the start of great listening. Great companies don’t just like their customers – they love their customers, and their employees too. Look again at Nike and Apple. Both companies are on crusades with their customers to change the world. And their customers can feel the love. They recognize that these companies really care about them and want to spend time with them. It’s all about letting people talk and tell their stories without any screens or interruptions. It’s about slowing down enough to have the time to engage people in a passionate dialogue while in the context of their lives.