Listening to Solve; Listening to Relate

I recently had a conversation with a friend that was facing a tough decision and was feeling a certain amount of distress over the predicament she was in. As she described her challenge and the difficult choices she faced, I did my best to be a good listener. I asked questions, tried to help her see possibilities, evaluate the pros and cons of each and come to some resolution on the issue.

I admit that I probably missed a few signals along the way that my attempt to help was causing more anxiety rather than less. So I was surprised when the conversation halted abruptly and she said, “You’re not getting it! How can you be so obtuse!?”

After searching my brain for the definition of obtuse—insensitive, imperceptive, dull-witted (ouch!)—I wondered how my sincere desire to help had backfired. It was at this point that my friend added, “The problem is, men listen to solve while women listen to relate.”

I don’t know how accurate the gender portion of that statement is, but I recognized immediately that at least in this example she was right. My friend just wanted to be heard, but I was trying to fix. I was asking analytical questions aimed at finding a solution, while she was looking for empathy and understanding.

In our business we’re all about helping our clients to listen – to their customers, their employees, and their partners – and then act on what they’ve heard. We’re big on the belief that more listening is a key to better relationships and better businesses. The idea that more listening can cause friction, rather than ease it, was one that I hadn’t really considered.

But there are several ways to listen, with different intents and purposes. Whether with friends, family members or customers, the key is to recognize the situation and the needs of the person you’re speaking with. There are many times, of course, the customer does need someone to help them solve a problem or respond to a challenge. In those instances active and inquisitive listening is appropriate. Asking broad questions and following them up with narrower queries to probe for detail is critical to gaining a complete picture of the customer’s situation and begin identifying a solution. Like the line of inquiry from an investigator, some questions are aimed at finding options and alternatives, and others are designed to eliminate them.

Sometimes, however, customers just want to talk. They appreciate sharing information with someone who is not a colleague, but still knows their business. They’re looking to learn, to understand, to share their expertise, or to build rapport with a trusted contact from a key supplier – to relate. There is no problem to solve, and no solution is necessary. The key to being a good listener in that context is to use questions to express understanding and expand the conversation, rather than limit it.

Since that conversation with my friend I’m doing my best to defy the stereotype. On one or two occasions I’ve actually asked my wife how she wanted me to listen—to help her make a decision or to be a sympathetic ear. I’m hoping to get better at this so that some day I won’t have to ask.

Business-to-Business Sales, Customer Feedback, Customer Relationships, Voice of the Customer , , ,

Communication is key – do you know what I mean?


I recently agreed to meet my coworkers for lunch near our offices. I casually told them I would meet them “down there” after completing an errand. “Down there,” to me, meant the nearby food court. “Down there,” to them, meant the elevator lobby on the main floor of our building—big difference.

I ran my errand and walked to the food court. They took the elevator to the main floor and waited for me. Time dragged slowly for both parties. I thought they were late. They thought perhaps I had forgotten them, been held up by something, or was just dragging my feet.

We finally found each other at the food court. There was much laughter about what exactly “down there” meant. No harm, no foul. But this could have happened with a customer, or an important supplier or partner, and involved a much more significant issue than lunch.

As with my coworkers’ interpretation of “down there,” it’s easy to misconstrue generic customer feedback about broad themes like “service” or “price” or “communication”—the type of one-word answers that often arise from surveys. Take “communication”: Is the customer concerned with the frequency of the communication he or she is receiving? The quality? Is the communication poor at a senior level? Or does it need work within middle management? Is it the tone of communication that is a problem? There are lots of paths to follow within such an extensive topic. And lots of opportunities to completely miss your customer’s point.

This is why the most effective voice of the customer initiatives are designed around getting precise, granular feedback. Face-to-face/interview-style approaches maximize opportunities for clarifying participant comments in real time. Combined with structured interviewer education and training on probing techniques, a conversation-based approach will help you best understand specific customer concerns and avoid jumping to inaccurate conclusions.

At best, nonspecific customer feedback offers very little guidance in providing actionable, tangible solutions for your customer. At worst, money, time, and effort can potentially be invested (and wasted) in an area that isn’t even a primary concern.

Is your company’s feedback initiative structured to capture your customers’ actual challenges and expectations?

Customer Feedback, Uncategorized, Voice of the Customer

Repairing Relationships with an At-Risk Account

Using the Customer Review process to rebuild confidence with a B-to-B account

The Challenge

For two months, an Account Executive at our financial industry client had been trying unsuccessfully to get in front of one of his key customer contacts. His customer believed they were receiving less than optimal service, response time was high, and personal attention to requests was low; in short, the relationship at this point was strained.

Once the Account Executive managed to secure a meeting, the customer contacts our client met with were on guard and unwilling to invest much time in the conversation; they agreed to one hour, maximum. At the outset, these contacts were entering the meeting with great reluctance, a significantly negative view of our client, and, very likely, plans to move on to a different provider.

The Solution

Our client had recently contracted E.G. Insight for development, implementation, and analysis of the Customer Review process (CRp® feedback process). An interview guide tailored to meet our client’s specific business needs was created, targeting the topics of most relevance to both our client and their customers. Issues such as service, delivery, quality, and value were discussed and numeric ratings captured. The process had been rolled out to a variety of our client’s customers.

The client team administering the CRp recognized that inviting this particular dissatisfied customer contact to participate could be a way to schedule what was turning out to be a very elusive meeting. The formal review process—rather than a casual business meeting—would demonstrate to the customer the seriousness of our client’s intent in meeting and listening. The structure of the CRp, and its focus on openly and nondefensively gathering feedback, helped the customer feel comfortable agreeing to meet. Our client was able to get back in the door.

Although the customer’s initial attitude was somewhat resistant, as the CRp began they started to open up. To the interviewers’ delight, the customer—previously not wanting to give more than an hour of their time—agreed to keep the productive conversation going. The interview lasted two hours. By the end of the interview, the customer contacts were described as “leaning on the table, thoroughly engaged and smiling.” They praised our client for their sincere engagement and willingness to partner.

The Results

With the eager participation of all, several effective action items and improvement suggestions were developed. Most of these plans were able to be implemented immediately, allowing quick resolution for many of the customer’s prior concerns. The conversation also served as a platform for additional constructive dialogue going forward.

In the words of the Account Executive involved with this interview, “Bless our having this process and being able to use it to get in the door.” She went on to praise the conversational format of the CRp and the effectiveness of using it with at-risk customers.

Best Practices, Business-to-Business Sales, Customer Confidence, Customer Feedback, Customer Relationships, Customer Trust

Is There a Magic Formula?

Is there a magic formula for turning detractors into neutrals and neutrals into shutterstock_284121614 magic formula 1supporters? I was recently asked this question by a long-standing client. My short answer was no. There is no magic formula because every situation and every customer contact is different. Contact A may be concerned about price, Contact B delivery, Contact C quality, and so on. Each person is bothered by something different that is very important to him or her. Each person’s issue may be causing them to be a less than enthusiastic supporter. Lowering prices will satisfy some, improving quality or delivery time others, but again there is no single, one-size-fits-all formula.

While there is no single best practice to accomplish this important task, there is an approach that has been proven effective over time. That approach involves listening carefully to customers, understanding what they are saying, and following through by taking action to address their concerns; it takes commitment and effort.

We believe the single best way to gather strategic feedback from customers is to (are you ready?) talk to them and listen to their words. Talking to your customers enables you to learn as much as possible about each customer’s situation, including among other things, What, Where, How and Who:

What is your company currently doing well to meet your customer’s needs?
Where do you need to improve?
How will your customer’s needs change in the future?
Who does it best in your customer’s opinion, your company or your competitors?

However, no matter how well you listen, it is not enough to simply speak with customers. The very act of speaking with them raises their expectations. They expect their time will be well spent. They expect something will actually be done to address their concerns. In short, once they speak with you they expect things will improve, they hope their jobs will become easier, they expect you will become better and more effective at meeting their needs.

Achieving the goal of turning detractors into neutrals and neutrals into supporters, like most things worth having in life, requires hard work. The questions for you to consider:

Are you willing to put in the time and effort required to speak with customers?
Are you willing to listen to their feedback?
And are you willing to follow through by taking action? Continue reading

Best Practices, Customer Feedback, Customer Relationships

First we count the votes and then we weigh them!

I first heard these words years ago while being informed that I had lost a sale: First we count the votes and then we weigh them. Everyone at my sales presentation voted for my proposal except for one person, the Vice President of Sales. I had 14 yes votes and one no vote. The one no vote carried the day; the sale went to my competitor.

Why am I reliving this painful experience? It illustrates a very important point when reviewing customer feedback: Not all customers and customer contacts are created equal. Some have greater value to you. Some have greater authority, greater credibility, greater influence, and greater potential. In short, some have greater weight.

When reviewing customer feedback, it is important to look at both what was said and who said it. Is the feedback from someone who plays a significant role in the decision process? Are they the decision maker? Is the person an influencer who plays either a major or minor role in the decision? Or is the person an individual contributor, whose role is important but not key to the decision-making process?

As your company plans actions to respond to customer feedback, it is critical to both count the number of times specific customer comments are made about an issue and weigh the comments in terms of who said them.

We all usually lack unlimited resources to deal with customer issues. Decisions about how and where to spend valuable resources to address customer concerns must in part be based on not only the frequency that specific comments occur, but also on the weight they carry. Smart organizations invest their limited resources where they can achieve the greatest return.

To achieve the best results, count your customer comments and then weigh them.

Customer Feedback