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Hear This! Good Listeners Make Good Marketers

by Alf Nucifora

The response to a recent column I wrote on poor customer service resulted in an avalanche of reader e-mails. It's the most dramatic outpouring of emotion that I've experienced in five years of writing this column. It supports my contention that corporate America is not listening to its customers, many of whom have the urge to vent and the need to seek retribution. Trouble is, no one's at home in the corporation to take the message.

The best customer service organizations (few as they are) tend to possess four dominant traits. They have a culture of commitment and belief in the importance of the customer, commencing with a leader at the top who fanatically drives the message down through the lower ranks (think Nordstrom). They believe in repetitive training…in perpetuity (think the old Ritz-Carlton Hotels). They believe in constant monitoring of performance and attention to metrics (think GE). And they possess exceptional listening skills (think the Japanese upscale auto makers). Of the four, it's the listening that garners the least attention from most marketers. Yet, it's the one customer need that is most deeply felt, yet sorely missing.

Why Do It?

The data very clearly shows that customers will respond favorably to someone who listens. Seventy percent (70%) of customers who have suffered a bad experience will return to the brand if the problem is addressed in their favor. That number rises to ninety-five percent (95%) if the problem is addressed on the spot. A TARP Study reveals that nine percent (9%) of those who have a complaint and don't voice it, won't return to buy again. Hence, the importance of encouraging customers to vent…primarily through better listening skills on the part of the marketer.

Ironically, the American customer is essentially non-confrontational by nature. After all, it's not worth the energy or the angst to argue. If you've had a bad experience, simply move to another company, supplier or brand. There's always a surfeit of competitors that one can turn to. Then there's the issue of personality. Ours is not an intimate culture. Unlike our Hispanic brothers and sisters, we tend to shy away from intimacy, particularly in our commercial transactions.

Bottom line, marketers must force confrontation with their customers, get them to open up just like ex New York Mayor, Ed Koch, who whenever he met a constituent always asked the question, "How am I doing?"

How Can We Be Better Listeners?

Companies have to walk away from the "field of dreams" mentality that we so often see in the industrial, engineering, and technology sectors; a mentality that dictates that all we have to do is build a better mouse trap, with lots of bells and whistles and everyone will buy it. It's a mentality that says, "We know what the customer wants." This philosophy decrees that we design, build and market first, then ask questions later. That's how Detroit used to build and market automobiles until the Japanese and Germans set them straight.

Ed Gagnon, principal of Charlotte-based Customer Service Solutions, advises his clients "to be strategic listeners." Gagnon says that listening should be directed at turning an irate customer into an "I'm OK" customer. Get them to open up. Don't argue…it's not important who's right or wrong. Probe for details, particularly the customer's hidden agenda, normally an unarticulated concern or complaint that, for whatever reason, the customer is uncomfortable with, unable or unwilling to relate. And always confirm the understanding.

In environments where a complaint is not involved, marketers should always be proactively seeking feedback about performance, people issues, competition, changing customer needs, etc. Smart marketers will poll and probe their customers about new product design issues and how the existing relationship can be strengthened and optimized. It's like any other marriage. Our spouses know we love them, but they still like to be told.

Specific Listening Skills

The list is long but some of the obvious candidates include:

  • CRM: It's now an affordable tool for small business. As The Peppers and Rogers Group note, CRM allows a company to "learn more about a customer's needs and behaviors, and enables a firm to develop stronger, more profitable relationships with that customer."

  • Mystery shopping: Ideal for the retailer. An affordable technique that never lies because it takes place at that most intimate point at which customer and marketer touch.

  • Evaluations: A formal written process in which the customer or client evaluates the provider (ideal for professional service firms). There' is also the third-party independent consultant who confidentially audits the customer or client (about the relationship) and then reports back with the good or bad news.

  • Focus groups: Not the most reliable research technique, but still a simple and efficient way of probing for diagnostic information about the product or brand. Nothing hurts more than to hear a customer describe how ugly your baby is behind your back.

  • Relationship time: Getting together with the customer at off-site events, be they planning sessions or nothing more than a golf outing. These informal environments help level the communication barriers. That's when the client will tell you things that are often left unsaid back at the office.

  • Data capture: 1-800 Hotlines, mail back surveys, e-mail correspondence ("contact us"). All are variations on the same theme…how are we doing? Incidentally, it's not enough to capture. To Ed Gagnon's point, we must also act on what we learn.

We Americans are quite often accused of sucking the oxygen out of a room. We have a predilection to talk too much. But, in the world of marketing, it's the listening that delivers the best results…fulfilled customers who will return to buy again another day.

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