“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)
Listening is a developed skill. Rarely have I seen any truly successful person who did not have to work to cultivate the ability to listen completely. The biggest obstacle to good listening is actually accepting the notion that listening requires the listener to CLOSE HIS MOUTH. You can’t TALK and LISTEN at the same time (although I have tried it). In order to truly listen to someone, you must quiet not only the voice in your throat, but also (and more importantly) the voice in your head. Envision the voice in your head as the conductor in an orchestra of thoughts, emotions, impulses and responses that are always being organized and prioritized in order for you to “make your point”. In moments when I was not listening very well, the only thing I was focused on was the NEXT thing I was going to say, almost to the complete exclusion of what the other person was saying at the time. Quite simply, I was doing what Stephen Covey calls: listening “to reply” instead of listening “to understand”.
Quieting the voice in your head makes listening an act of submission. It requires you to lay down your own agenda and truly open yourself to another point of view. It doesn’t mean you will necessarily agree, but it does mean that you could risk changing your mind, or altering your viewpoint. This is frightening to those who are so egocentric, or insecure, that they cannot reap the benefit of a view that they themselves did not originate.
As business leaders there are two very important voices we must give priority to in our quest to be successful. The first is the voice of the customer, and the second is the voice of the employee. Today I will talk about the voice of the customer. We will then take a look at the voice of the employee next month.
The voice of the Customer
In the world of business, there are a myriad of things that can go wrong. Let’s face it, many of the things we do in business would be unnecessary if things didn’t go wrong! Every day we use our best judgement to make important decisions. Sometimes these decisions are based on direct communications. Sometimes these decisions are based on assumptions. Things move fast, and in the midst of the storm “urgency” many times trumps “logic”. When that happens, you have to “guess right”. When you don’t it’s costly.
How many times have we moved heaven and earth to arrive at that customer location before the deadline, only to find we brought the wrong part?
- How much diesel have we burned sending a rental to the address listed in the computer, only to find that the customer work site is in another city?
- How many customer have we disappointed because our solution did not solve their entire problem?
Some would say that these examples are the result of not asking the right questions. In many ways I would agree. The customer you are speaking to (who is usually also pressed by the urgency of the moment), may be unclear or even guessing himself. This heightens our need to be prepared and know what questions to ask. My point however is one more about “posture” than process. When are in the position to ask the right questions, are we listening attentively to the answers? I would contend that the more intently we listen, the better questions we tend to ask. If we truly understand the costs involved with getting it wrong, we must do our best not to adopt the customer’s sense of frenzy and panic, and instead focus on the data needed to make the right decision.
This can be done effectively by doing what I call “ascertain and confirm”. When you are engaged with that customer, keep your voice calm and ask your questions at a steady pace. After three or four data points, confirm the answers that you received from the customer. This may seem repetitious and a waste of time, but this is what I have observed:
- Doing this focuses the customer on the DATA instead of the DEADLINE. This helps to calm him, especially when you keep telling him that you are doing this in order to “get it right the first time”.
- In slowing down, and properly reviewing the data you tend to notice anomalies or think of follow up questions that can be crucial to success. Shouldn’t that serial number have a prefix or an alpha code? Usually a unit that size has an attachment, does yours? Is that an 18 “volt” battery, or an 18 “cell” battery?
It’s impossible to adopt this posture of active listening and give ourselves the opportunity to keep probing, if we continue to make assumptions, and allow the urgency of the customer to hijack the entire process.
Sometimes the voice of the customer is not driven by urgency, or an immediate need. All of our customers have certain expectations of their suppliers. This goes beyond the safety protocols, and training requirements. I call it the “if only” quotient. If only my supplier would just do ___________, then we would be much more satisfied. Sometimes the customer is well aware of, and can readily define the “if only” quotient. Other times it takes significant effort to establish just exactly where that itch is that isn’t getting scratched. Over the years, I have seen multiple attempts to try to identify the “if only” quotient in my own dealership. Phone surveys, postcards, and statement stuffers all seem to generate the same dull result. The chronic complainers have a new venue to complain, and the rest ignore the survey. I get it! If there is one thing I hate about buying something new for myself, it’s that I will be asked to complete a boring, one sided survey that takes far too long and does nothing for me.
It’s not that these questions are irrelevant. Most surveys however focus on asking about the “things that we have already done”. How did we do? This is a good question, but it doesn’t ask the more important question: What other meaningful thing could we do for you that nobody else is doing? I have seen this question in some of the surveys that I have participated in. I do what most customers do. Leave it blank. Why? The problem is that even as the customer, I may need some help in isolating the issues and problems that any particular supplier may be able to solve. I may in fact not even KNOW what those problems are.
I suggest taking a different approach to producing meaningful ‘if only” quotients. Instead of blindly questioning the customer, could we not grease the wheel by first identifying the common issues and problems your dealership has had a hand in solving for other customers in the same industry?
Look at the challenges your business has solved for all of the industries your business serves. You may be serving the paper industry, the beverage business, 3PL’s, lumber, recycling, or farming (just to name a few). How can those successes be replicated across your customer list so that everyone in that industry gets the benefit of that solution? Simply illustrating how you have solved common problems for that particular industry can be enough to get the creative juices flowing in the mind of the customer. Before long, you may have hit upon one or more “if only” quotients that if acted upon, will build a profile of value no blind survey ever dreamed of.
Listen to the Voice of the Customer. If they don’t speak, keep engaging them until they do!