Listen Carefully: You Might Make Someone Smile

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

                                    Stephen R Covey: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

It goes without saying that listening to customers is central to successful and sustainable business.   The new focus on the “voice of the customer” requires organisations to use all sorts of methods to hear what customers are saying about them and their services and products.  A myriad of new technology offers to help capture these conversations and issues from call centres, social media, email correspondence and anywhere that customers are talking.

Current technology is semantics-led: it captures words and phrases used by customers and categorises them for analysis.  How many people are talking about delivery failure for example, could indicate that a company needs to investigate whether there are service improvements that should be made. But in the previous post I argue that the easiets place to start hearing the customers’ voice is from the people employed to be in contact with them. The sensitivity and sophistication of these data collection and analysis units is second to none.  However, these listening capabilities have the portential to be used in an even more sophisticated and engaging way, though it is not perhaps as easy as it looks.

It is entirely correct that organisations  should be making efforts to listen to customers.

But it’s a different thing entirely to say that customers need to be listened to.

It is more than data collection: it’s an emotional experience.  When we are listened to, someone else stays quiet and attentive and demonstrates through their occasional linguistic contributions that they have heard us, understood us and empathised with us.

The real listener brings no agenda.  They don’t say “I know, I know”.  They don’t interrupt or share and compare their own similar experiences, and there is no checking the smartphone or looking past your head at something else.  There is just listening.

Be honest –  when was the last time that happened to you?  And when did you last really listen to someone else?

I am guessing that if we are truthful, for most of us it’s hard to remember that far back.  You see, listening is under-rated.  Even when we intend to listen it is easy to approach it in a simplistic way – we keep quiet for a while as we hear what someone else has to say.

Listening is much more than that and has more interpersonal power but relatively we give it scant attention.  We prize expression, persuasion, oratory, humour and the gift of the gab.  So we are far more likely to prepare when we know we will have to speak, than when we know we will have to listen.  But this is a mistake.  True, some people have a natural gift for listening, but it is also a skill that can be learnt and developed.  And it’s very easy to confuse hearing with listening and, as a result, pay ignore its finer details.  Just because someone can hear, it does not  mean that they are a good listener and all too often we fail to listen when we hear.

We tend not to do it much because it’s hard.  And it is hard because it requires us to:

  • put ourselves aside for the moment;
  • forget about our own needs to be heard or to connect;
  • ignore the drive to be funny, clever, interesting or right;
  • take a mental step away from our worries, our passions, our grumbling tummies, our deadlines, our priorities;
  • fight the temptation to advise, to sort out the problem or to try to minimise distress.  We have to be “in the moment”, – now usually called mindfulness – we have to be patient, quiet, still(ish), genuinely interested in the other person and not distracted by our demanding judgement and opinions.

And my goodness, all that listening can be exhausting.

Why should we make the effort to really listen then?

Because being properly listened to allows us the rare chance to express what is on the inside, and to have it authenticated.  Because another person has taken the time and trouble to set themselves to one side for a while and hear something about who we really are.  Because it helps us to learn about ourselves as it allows us to follow our thoughts through in the bright light of social interaction – sometimes we take ourselves by surprise by what we actually think.  Because it provides emotional validation and some comfort when we are angry or upset or scared.  Because it creates deeper connections and strengthens relationships between people.  Because we feel so much better about ourselves and the other person when someone has really listened to us.

So it isn’t hard to understand that organisations are also missing an opportunity for customer relationship building if they fail to choose customer service employees for their natural abilities to listen and empathise.  Likewise, an opportunity is missed if training doesn’t include an explanation of how important listening is and why, and what can be done to become a better listener.

But it’s a common occurrence.  Instead, organisations choose front line employees for their social confidence, their bubbly, outgoing personalities and their ability to communicate well, meaning their ability to talk well.  And they train them in what they can and can’t say and what they can do to help the customer.  Finally, their performance is evaluated by how proactively they manage and resolve problems or calls, and in call centres, how many calls they get through in a shift.

Is it any wonder that sometimes the real voice of the customer just can’t be heard?

Links and further information

Brenda Ueland “The Art of Listening

Wolvin, Andrew,D & Imhof, Margarete  (2010) “What is Going on in the Mind of aLlistener? The Cognitive Psychology of Listening” in Listening and Human Communication in the 21st Century, (Chapter 4)


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