Ready, Set, Listen!
I have a colorful word on my desk as a reminder to do something that is not always top of mind for me. It simply says: LISTEN.
As fast-paced professionals running departments or full-fledged businesses, managing people, projects, schedules, and products, listening can sometimes fall off our to do lists. We are rushed and busy people. We have decisions to make. Plans to execute. Visions to construct. Details to attend to. Places to be. Meetings to schedule. We don’t have time to really pause and listen well. While we may see the value in making time, few of us actually do.
True listening takes an unbusy mindset and an unhurried presence. Listening takes concentration. Listening takes fortitude. Listening takes an open and careful spirit. Active listening is just plain hard work. We must schedule listening time on our daily calendar.
I am reminded of a typical fast-paced doctor’s office visit. These days the patient needs to be ultra prepared if she wants to make the most of her ten minute maximum office visit. Her questions are ready, her internet information is in hand and the pharmaceutical ad for the wonder-drug-with-all-the-side-effects is ripped out of the magazine. The doctor tries his best to diagnose the patient by asking all the right follow-up questions and skims her internet printouts. As the patient answers with vague replies, prescriptions are written, tests are ordered and the time together rapidly comes to end. As the doctor’s hands are on the examining room doorknob and his body is semi-exiting, the patient more often than not will say, “By the way, Doctor…” and proceed to tell the doctor what is truly bothering her. The doctor steps fully back into the room, sits down and begins to listen to the real reason she has come to see him. The true conversation begins.
As brand builders, we don’t want to be like rushed doctors. We need to be ready for these “by-the-way” conversations at the very start of our company-wide interactions with our customers and not hope that they happen by chance. We need to seek out these “by-the-way” listening opportunities with both our employees and our customers and our partners. As author Sue Patton Thoele reminds us: “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.”
We need to be intensely interested brand listeners. Listening well can certainly help us expand our brand spirit. The insights and perspectives offered by our three significant resources – our employees, our customers and our partners – can lead to true breakthroughs.
What percentage of your time do you spend listening to these important people? And, just how do you do that?
Brands can practice active listening in a variety of different ways. Here are two examples of ways companies can make listening a priority:
Face Time From the Top
Brand leaders must model this behavior for all their employees. In one of his first business books, Tom Peters encouraged leaders to practice “MBWA,” that is, management by wandering around. Those who stay hidden in their offices too busy to look up or out and engage in personal customer interaction are really just plain missing out. They send a subliminal message that customer knowledge is good rhetoric and appropriate for “customer service people” but not an integrated brand practice.
Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, CEO of Lego, the world’s fourth largest toy company, regularly meets with adult fans of Lego. In a Harvard Business Review conversation with Andrew O’Connell, he stated: “An amazing number of grownups like to play with Legos. While we have 120 staff designers, we potentially have probably 120,000 volunteer designers we can access outside the company to help us invent. Perhaps most important, these super-users can articulate the product strengths and weaknesses that young children may sense but can’t express.” These interactions have become so important that Lego has created two customer-driven programs: Lego Ambassadors and a Lego Certified Professionals program. These active customer listening programs not only keep the CEO in the loop but all members of the Lego brand team.
Fortune magazine interviewed Best Buy’s CEO Brian Dunn about how he stays connected to staff and customers. “He posts questions to an employee website called Water Cooler, tracks customer sentiment on social media like Facebook and Twitter, attends focus groups, and invites customers to the company’s leadership meetings. “One of my roles as CEO is to be the chief listener. I don’t believe that the model is that there are a few really smart people at the top of the pyramid that make all the strategic decisions. It is much more about being an all around enterprise and looking for people with great ideas and passionate points of view that are anchored to the business and connected to things our customers care about.”
Papa John’s founder John Schnatter went out on a nationwide road trip to personally deliver pizzas to celebrate the company’s 25th anniversary. He combined this with a hunt for his original 1972 Z28 Camaro which he sold in 1984 to finance his first Papa John’s restaurant at the age of 22 (and yes, he found it!). After 25 years of running the world’s third largest pizza company, Schnatter still never tires of direct customer interaction. He prioritizes face time with his customers and has even incorporated the acronym of P.A.P.A. (People Are Priority Always) as part of the brand’s core values.
As a brand leader, how much face time is built into your listening schedule?
Do you ever wish you could just pick up the phone and pick a few of your customers’ brains? Maybe take them out for a long lunch and bounce a few ideas off them for their reactions? Or just sit back and let them tell you what’s top of mind for them? If so, customer advisory boards are just the listening tool you need! Companies of all shapes and sizes are tapping into the wisdom of their customers through this listening method.
McDonald’s launched a mom-driven Quality Correspondent program where moms from across the country go on McDonald’s field trips to learn all about the company’s inner workings and behind-the-scenes happenings. Recent trips have focused on the Happy Meal, from toy development to menu choices, and the making of McCafé, McDonald's new espresso-based coffee line. These moms then report back to customers their findings via blogs and posts on mcdonaldsmom.com website. This transparent mom-to-mom sounding board allows McDonald’s to see first hand how their brand is being perceived and what is top of mind for moms in making fast food choices for their families.
Online clearance outlet, Overstock.com, took a broader approach with its sounding board, opening it up to a 300-plus active member group. Calling it the Private Lounge, Overstock.com reports in Retail Touchpoints that “in its first year, the community has helped revitalize their Club O loyalty program, refine its popular television advertising, reinstate some of its customers’ most-missed web features and reinvigorate their holiday shopping sales.” By regularly and actively listening to a broad cross-section of its customers, Overstock.com not only stays in touch with its customers’ changing needs but relies on this sounding board to help tweak its promotional strategies.
How can you create a sounding board either formally or informally?
I don’t believe we can ever listen too much. Make this a year of deep and active listening for your brand. You won’t regret it!