We are the change

The competitive advantage of listening

Want to stand out from the crowd and impress customers and contacts?  A simple investment of your time to listen could just do the trick.

One thing I’ve observed with the rise in media channels, web and social media is that more people are broadcasting than listening.  We now reside in a loud din of thoughts, comments, sales pitches, ideas, tweets, social network updates and the like. Such is the volume of noise that people of all ages are developing selective hearing.  We have become adept at screening things out rather than listening.

In fact I think we’ve begun to accept that we rarely listened to.  We think nothing of people not replying to emails straight away.  We are pleasantly surprised when a tweet is retweeted, a blog posting commented on and social media updates acknowledged. We don’t expect people to call us back when we leave a voice message and we don’t expect them to remember what we told them the last time we met.  We assume everyone is busy and so we naturally let them off listening to us.  Interestingly though, we still carry on broadcasting.

Stand out from the crowd

This means that when someone does listen to you, responds to an email, voicemail, letter, tweet etc – they really stand out.  You’re grateful, you’re impressed and they certainly rise in your estimation.

Secretly, people like being listened to.  It makes us feel valued, it makes us feel heard and in a noisy world such as ours that’s becoming a rarity.  We remember and value those who listen to us and seem interested in what we have to say.

The competitive advantages listening bring in business

Put in a business context, if you take time out to listen to your customers or contacts, you are in a much better position to understand what’s going on with their life and current situation.  With this knowledge you can:

  • Offer help and solutions that resonate 100% with them rather than miss the mark.
  • Spot opportunities to add more value or sell other products/services, which you wouldn’t have otherwise discovered
  • Improve your existing product/service provision to better reflect your market’s changing needs and wants
  • Find ways to enable others in your network help this contact – benefitting and adding value to them in the process
  • Impress them so they recommend you to others

Take Jane, a law firm associate, who was having coffee with a friend.  During the conversation Jane’s friend mentioned she was bogged down in a research project assessing the viability of the Boston market, as her company was thinking of opening a branch there.  Jane knew that her firm had an office in the City and suggested setting up a conference call between her friend, her friend’s boss and Jane’s Boston office managing partner.  The call went well with Jane’s colleague giving valuable insight and tips to her friend’s boss.  In the end her friend’s company engaged Jane’s Boston office for legal advice when establishing their US branch. Jane was awarded a bonus for initiating this business.

What is listening?

Listening is not looking for what you want to hear so you can pounce and say your bit or deliver your sales pitch.

In fact good listening is hard to master.  Often we struggle to concentrate and let our minds wander off when someone is talking to us at length.

John Timperley of the Results Consultancy says, “Many pretend they are listening whilst going through the motions. They think they can get by without really ‘tuning in’. They develop the habitual nod of acknowledgement, the look of concern and the ‘front’ of understanding. Feigning interest is obvious and fatal to establishing a relationship with a customer or contact.”

John goes on to explain, “Listening is often confused with hearing. Hearing uses just one of our 5 senses to convey information received by the ears to the brain. Listening involves the process of analysing, interpreting, understanding and giving meaning to what has been heard”.

Good listening starts with the mindset I am genuinely interested in you and what you have to say.  I can only add value to you or contribute well to this conversation if I listen to you.  And you will only open up to me if you feel I am listening to you.

Of course it doesn’t help that we think up to four times more quickly than people speak. The consequence is that when we try and listen we can get ahead of the speaker. We try to think up solutions and ideas which we are keen to put to them to contribute to the conversation.  This may cause us to interrupt them in our pressing desire to reveal how clever we are or to solve their issues. Interruptions are likely to put off a client or contact participating in the conversation.

How do you show you’re listening?

In meetings and phone conversations it pays to consider the physical messages you are sending as your contact talks to you.  Whilst talking, your customer or contact is assessing these messages to gauge if you’re interested in what they have to say.  They will stop talking if they sense you’re not listening or look bored.

John Timperley has a number of ‘active listening’ tips which encourage a contact to keep talking.  These are:

  • Smile and make eye contact if you’re in a meeting – show that your attention is focused on them.
  • Nod, to encourage them to keep talking.
  • Agree with their comments, so that they know that your views are in alignment with theirs.
  • Play back their words or particular phrases they have used, to show that you are listening.
  • Adopt a genuinely engaged posture and disposition

Listening electronically

Of course we don’t always interact with people face to face. With our heavy reliance on digital media, listening electronically can really help you stand out from the crowd.

So consider monitoring and commenting positively on your valued contact and client’s blogs, social media posts and updates.  Show you’re listening and interested in what they’ve said and, if possible, contribute encouraging comments or helpful insight to the debate or discussion.

After any dialogue with them, diarise dates to go back to them on a particular issue they mentioned.  For example, if you’re the client’s accountant and they’ve said their AGM is in three months time, giving them a call a month before to check they have all the financials ready will impress them.  It may even secure you some additional work opportunities.

Another way to show you’re listening is getting a client or contact to share a positive story/experience to others in your network – perhaps in a case study format.  The intention here is to show them off in a good light and let others learn from their wisdom/experience. This also enables you to put them in contact with others in your network who may help.  This will add value not just to this contact but the others you refer them to.

In Summary

It’s likely that our world will get even noisier in 2012.  So consider using the power of listening to show to customers and contacts that you’re different.  It only costs your time and can really help you build a competitive advantage over your rivals.  Finally, if you are going to adopt selective hearing, make sure it’s not your customers’ and contacts’ broadcasts you screen out.

Wishing you all a very prosperous 2012.

About the author:  Michelle Daniels,  Managing Director – Extended Thinking.
An experienced and effective business development and marketing strategist, Michelle has built a successful career increasing top line growth for service businesses and organisations. She helps her clients turn their marketing, business development and thought leadership plans into reality with her ‘hands on’ support and practical advice.    A prolific writer, Michelle also combines creative flair with business nous to produce highly effective results.  She has written (and ghost-written) for many professional and business publications and is a chartered marketer and member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
Extended Thinking is a hands-on marketing and business development consultancy.  Bringing together great minds and great ‘doers’, we help our clients devise and implement plans that achieve real business growth.  Our clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds and sectors, but invariably are those who are too busy or lack the resources to action their marketing and business development plans.  We roll our sleeves up and muck in to free them up to do what they really want to do and are good at doing.

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  1. Aidan Booth says

    Hi Michelle,

    This post made a lot of sense to me, the one thing that turns me off any sales person/marketer is when they are obviously not listening and are always trying to force the discussion back to their sales pitch, whilst reading this I realized that I have been guilty of this myself since I started marketing online. Thanks for the wake up call!

  2. Jon Anscher says

    And listening is a great way to show people that you are active and involved in your field.

  3. Louise Barnes-Johnston says

    Well said Michelle! When I originally trained as a coach, learning how to ‘really’ listen was one of the most valuable lessons. I’m ashamed to say before that I used to be one of those who would just be waiting for my turn to speak. However now, listening has become second nature in many areas of my business and life.

    What you say about the rise in media channels is so true, and the result is that each message has to try to reach an incredibly short span of attention!

  4. Sherri says

    “Impress them so they recommend you to others”

    I think this is so important. In today’s world, as you say people are selling, selling, selling! But the easiest sale is a referral from someone you impressed. I can’t even count how much business we have gotten from referrals. I am willing to bet that it is more than our other means of marketing.

  5. Andi says

    What a great post that brings the age old wisdom about being a good listener to the business and internet world. Thanks for the insight!