As organizations work to standardize customer service in order to become more efficient, they risk becoming less empathic. In pursuit of efficiency, we all have a tendency to stop listening to individual customers and just assume most have the same need.
Organizations pay a high price for not listening. SIS International Research reports that 70 percent of small to mid-sized businesses are losing money due to ineffective listening and communication. They estimate that a business with 100 employees, for example, spends an average downtime of 17 hours a week clarifying communication, which translates to an annual cost of over $500,000 each year. On a personal level, when we fail to listen, we not only miss the opportunity to connect and learn from someone’s story to show empathy and earn their loyalty, but we neglect to fulfill a great and basic human need—to feel understood. With so much at stake, it’s easy to see how Listening to Learn is vital to earning loyalty.
What Does “Listening to Learn” Look Like?
You may be thinking, “We don’t have time to listen to every customer’s story,” and of course, there’s some truth to that. If we are sincerely interested in earning someone’s loyalty, it often pays to slow down just a little bit and listen to learn.
Of course, this requires an awareness of when to do this. Think of how many people wander around a business—much longer than they’d like—because they can’t find what they’re looking for. Perhaps they are too timid to approach the customer service person (ironically, because that person looks too busy to be of service). When the customer works up the gumption to ask a question, the customer service person might look genuinely surprised and think, “Where do we keep shoelaces, anyway?”
Listening to Learn is not just a mechanical skill. It’s the result of really wanting to learn, of caring enough about another person to connect and listen for a moment.
Of course, “Listen to the Customer” is one of the most common clichés in business.
Everybody knows we should listen to our customers. Often, however, we hear someone talk, but we react without learning what’s beneath their words.
Many of us think of ourselves as above-average listeners. We’ve learned how to listen in management training, or in marriage counseling, or by reading a brilliant business book. We’ve learned the skill of active listening, where we fully concentrate, focus intensely, and give facial and verbal cues as we process what is being said. Active listening is an important and useful skill, but if our real intent isn’t to understand the other person, then it comes across as fake, and people see through it.
Listening to Learn comes from a heartfelt desire to truly understand other people. The more we understand, the more we can help; the more we help them, the more loyal they become.
The Listening to Learn behavior is rooted in the principle of empathy because it is about fully understanding and empathizing with the “story” of another.
Loyalty does not arise if we pretend to listen or half-listen while waiting for our turn to talk. It’s easy to spot when someone’s not listening to us. They talk over us, interrupt us, or simply dismiss what we’re saying. In customer service, any of these behaviors are just flat-out rude. But this is not what we mean by counterfeit listening.
Instead, counterfeit listening occurs when we pretend to listen, but other things are running through our heads. We counterfeit listen when we are thinking about our response, rather than trying to really understand, when we assume we already know what another person is thinking and therefore don’t need to give our full attention when we are nodding and checking our phone screen at the same time, or talking and texting simultaneously.
Why Aren’t We Listening to Learn?
Too often, leaders seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defense or rebuttal. Additionally, leaders can react quickly, get distracted during a conversation, or fail to make the time to listen to others. Finally, leaders can be ineffective at listening if they are competitive, if they multitask such as reading emails or text messages, or if they let their egos get in the way of listening to what others have to say.
Two reasons why many people aren’t Listening to Learn:
- We think listening isn’t work.
- We’re too distracted to listen.
We Think Listening Isn’t Work
If the surveys are accurate, Listening to Learn is not a focus because: “It’s too time-consuming, it isn’t productive, and I have more important things to do than to stand here listening to you.”
Do we think that if we spend too much time listening to people we’re “wasting time” and we’re not being “productive”? Well, maybe, if we only measure productivity by how busy we are. If we look at the metrics we’re responsible for, “hours spent listening” is most likely not one of them. As long as we define productivity only by the numbers we track, then we will continue to be insanely busy, with the emphasis on insane.
If improving customer and employee loyalty is really important to us, then Listening to Learn may be some of the most important work we do.
We’re Too Distracted to Listen
We are so side-tracked by mobile phones, tablets, and other tech devices, we fail to hear what’s being said. When we consider all the pinging, dinging, and ringing paraphernalia in nearly any situation, it’s not surprising that people complain that they aren’t heard.
Certainly, it’s tricky to balance all of the things coming at us from many sources at once. We’re talking to someone and the phone rings. What do we do? There’s not one simple “right” answer to this—the circumstances vary, as do company policies and personal comfort. In making this judgment call, remember the mindset of empathy and the skill of making a genuine connection.
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