In a recent article, McKinsey Quarterly highlighted a very important message for C-suite executives – listening better is not just good for morale, it is critical to better performance – for the executives as effective leaders and for the company’s bottom line. The executive’s guide to better listening shared a few excellent recommendations to get better at this challenging skill and bring employees into strategic decision making earlier. I think it is worth sharing the advice, and giving some thought to how this guidance might extend to customer listening.
The article highlights the importance of listening at the front end of decision making to drive better strategic outcomes. At the same time, as author Bernard Ferrari points out, many executives take listening skills for granted and focus instead on learning how to articulate and present their own views more effectively. He goes on to say that missing the ideas and insights of other employees can make the difference between success and failure in strategic business ventures. The three behaviors he recommends executives adopt include:
- Show respect – make it clear you think others have something to contribute
- Keep quiet – practice staying quiet in conversation – speak 20% of the time and let your partner speak the rest
- Challenge assumptions – seek to understand and question the assumptions lying beneath a conversation, putting aside your own beliefs to hear the possibilities
What struck me in reading this is that this is equally relevant advice for business leaders to take with their customers. To continue on Ferrari’s point, the imperatives to improve listening skills with customers are just as compelling. As we have seen in the media recently, it is crystal clear that not listening comes at great cost. Bank of America’s debit card fee debacle and the Netflix giant business model misstep are two highly visible instances, but they are just two of many such examples.
Better listening through the right kinds of engagement
As we have seen with the range of executives we work with, engaging executive clients mandates a deep form of listening. Here are some approaches that work.
Show respect by bringing your key customers together to advise on strategy, next moves, and plans for your next venture. If you make it clear that you think your customers have something useful to tell you about your business, you will get back all of the insight you need to make the right bets going forward.
Customer advisory councils or boards are one of the most effective engagement tactics to show respect to your customers’ ideas and input. Executed successfully, they provide a unique forum designed especially for listening and engaging. And the commitment and investment of establishing a council provides the gravitas to convince your customers just how serious you are about listening to what they have to say.
Keep quiet by setting up forums where you remove selling from the conversation. The sales conversation is one of the hardest times to avoid jumping in to talk about your company’s strengths and benefits. The compulsion to make your points and close the sale often overtakes the ability to listen in these situations. If you create an environment for customer conversations where selling is explicitly off the table, you will find it much easier to simply listen, and experience a greater degree of candor on the part of your customers as they talk. These settings can be formal or informal; one on one, or with a group of clients. The key to success is explicitly creating a sales-free time for conversation and exchange.
Challenge assumptions by forcing yourself to look at your approach and your strategy from the customers’ lens. Of the three behaviors, this one is the hardest one for company executives because it is their assumptions and beliefs about what the company is and can be that have got the company where it is today. To suggest otherwise to customers might appear to reveal weakness or uncertainty. Creating setting where you can let down your guard and think a little differently together with customers, will help you elevate the agenda of listing and see what your customers recommend and share back.
These are a few suggestions to help your company become a more effective listener to your executive clients. Do you have other ideas that have worked for you and allowed you to listen better to your customers and bring them in to your strategy and decision making?
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