“The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” -Ralph Nichols
Some years ago, we worked with a leading technology firm to help them strengthen their customer relationships and improve their competitive position in the market.
They had asked us to do deep-dive customer relationship assessments, which included numerous individual interviews, with their top 10 customer accounts.
They also asked that we analyze a few of their lost customer relationships. Our client’s team identified one particularly contentious relationship within what was formerly their largest customer account.
But when we suggested that we talk with the key decision maker of this lost customer account their responses were similar:
“She won’t see you.” “She won’t talk to you.” “You’d be wasting your time.”
The woman to whom they were referring was the EVP of what had been their largest account. After reviewing customer service-related background information, we picked up the phone and called the EVP, and — not too surprisingly — she said she would be happy to talk with us.
The Story Behind the Story
We met and, after ensuring we were there to be objective listeners, she said, “Let me get this right. The firm that hired you is paying you to learn what they could do better?”
She then spoke to us for hours.
Within reach of her desk, the EVP had a binder full of records of service problems, documented complaints and rebuttals. The binder also included progressively angrier emails and notes she had written to our client. The binder also contained standard (rather than customized) responses from our client. It was clear from her comments and the documents in her binder that our client had either been unable to hear or had simply stopped listening.
As we spoke, she pulled in other co-workers who had been negatively impacted by the poor relationship and asked that they share with us their negative experiences. She was desperate to be heard and for us to understand the extent of their frustration.
It is a common phenomenon.
The Cost of Poor Listening
So ultimately, were the hours of unresolved service issues, lost opportunities, and ultimately the loss of the business relationship expensive for both companies?
Absolutely! But the higher-cost was surely paid by our technology client.
The good news, though, is that learning from that experience was probably the single most valuable lesson for our client because it provided example after example of how the firm had failed a strategic customer and what they needed to do to avoid those mistakes in the future.
They now understand what it means to deeply listen to customers and by doing so — reduce costs and add value.
The Best Time to Listen Is Now
Many business relationships become difficult or downright unbearable — and result in being very expensive — because one side fails to clearly articulate its needs and expectations while the other fails to listen.
- How much could your suppliers learn if you made certain your needs and expectations had been clearly communicated?
- How much could you learn from your customers if you started objectively listening to them on multiple levels today?
- How much could you grow if you started truly listening in business today?
Reach out to your customers, put time on the schedule and make a real effort to objectively listen, and hear what they’re asking of you and your team. There is gold to be mined through deep and careful listening.
Photo courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Burg.