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Alf's Articles

Will You Please Shut Up And Listen!

by Alf Nucifora

"Silence is golden". "Be seen and not heard". "The meek shall inherit the earth". The golden rules and Biblical admonitions all talk to the benefits of listening, as distinct from pontificating. Yet in these times of bombast and braggadocio, where everyone feels entitled to his/her fifteen minutes in the spotlight, it is now obvious that the art of listening has been leeched from the American character.

In the media, TV pundits, of the O'Reilly and Hannity type engage in the homicidal pastime of death-by-decibel. Any gaggle of politicians gathered together soon results in oxygen starvation for those unfortunate enough to be assembled in the same room. This drive to be heard, to foist one's opinion upon the other, is nothing more than the equivalent of barging in line, of breaking into the queue. The behavior is probably symptomatic of a need to be heard and acknowledged, perhaps even loved. Explanations are best left to the sociologists.

For the business practitioner, the failure to listen ultimately results in business loss or failure. It's one of the primary reasons why, in a nation where the practice of business generally provides the "best practices" for the rest of the world, the consumer is still exposed to inferior customer service, and brand fatality is not uncommon.

The "hows" of listening

The rules of good listening are based on a platform of courtesy, good manners and common sense. It doesn't require the experience and training of a business ethicist or management guru to appreciate the need and value of the "do unto others" philosophy that drives good listening behavior.

  • Always invite the other party to speak first, whether in a phone conversation or in a meeting. Resist the urge to dive in and dominate, to control the dynamic. Step back and provide a clear path or opening for the other person to begin the conversation. The resulting benefit is a better understanding of that person's frame of mind, where she's coming from, what his needs and desires might be. It's called "understanding the customer".

  • Show genuine interest in the person. Be solicitous and empathetic. That's easier said than done given the variety of personality type that one experiences in the customer base. But we tend to do better work for those we understand and like. It's also the reason that we should never bad-mouth clients and customers behind their backs. If their money is good enough to take, the least we owe them is a corresponding respect, accompanied a willingness to listen and serve…with a smile and with appreciation.

  • Always decipher the personality of the other person. Some customers and associates are fast on their feet, constantly moving at hyper-pace, always one step ahead of the crowd. Time is a precious commodity. Too many words or actions in the social or business discourse are considered an unnecessary waste of time for these focused Type A's. It's the reason that I always begin my phone conversations with the question, "Is this a good or bad time to talk?" It shows appreciation of and respect for the other person's time, and provides assurance that my call and message will be received in the most favorable circumstance.

    Contrast that behavior with the slow and deliberative breed that feeds on time and analysis, needs the affirmation of varied input and opinion, and seeks constant revisiting of the issue until no stone is left unturned. The point is that each type demands its own special mode of listening. One size does not fit all. Good listeners quickly assess the opposing personality and modify the listening behavior accordingly.

  • Know the other party in advance. Do the research before you begin the conversation. For example, prior to a cold call, always conduct a web check and ask around for background and anecdotal information about the party or company. Showing that you've done your homework is the best form of flattery and the surest way to win the heart and the pocketbook of the prospect and customer.

  • Don't be afraid of silence. Avoid the urge to fill the gap. Let silence work to your favor. As psychiatrists will acknowledge, silence forces both parties to ruminate. In a business transaction or interaction, it serves the purpose of prompting the other party to say what's on his/her mind. In marketing, as in life itself, knowledge and information are the ultimate power.

  • Beware of multi-tasking. Good listening demands a concentration and focus on the other person, and on what's being said. Resist the urge to be silently contemplating the next item on the agenda as you discuss the current. Overt behavior such as clearing email during phone calls is the antithesis of good listening, and exceptionally boorish behavior to boot.

  • Always proffer assistance. The most compelling words in any conversation, at either beginning or end, are "How can I help you?" That's the ultimate end result of good listening, and the nexus of need expression by the customer and need satisfaction from the marketer.

As one who's consulting practice lives and dies by his ability to listen, I am constantly surprised by the arrogance, obliviousness and lack of listening from those who sell to me or even worse still, pay for my services. It reminds me of the old David Ogilvy line, "Why buy a dog, if you're going to do your own barking?"

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