I’ve written a number of times on getting started in business and most of those discussions, at some point at least, lead back to the importance to small businesses doing market research first to understand who your customers are and what they really want.
I have come to the conclusion over my years in dealing with small business owners that some of them (the true entrepreneurs) are exceptionally good at the skill of listening, and others (let’s call them business road kill) haven’t a clue what listening entails and don’t ever do it.
To be sure, listening is a skill that can be learned through practice and attention to basic principles.
In the business sense, listening to customers means that you are first able to get them to tell you what’s on their minds and then you are able to analyze and evaluate what you heard to decipher the true message they are meaning to convey.
You see, a great many folks, including lots of your business customers, will either keep silent about their wants or they will express them in ways that are neither direct nor easily recognized.
Here’s an example: you ask your customer about the new product he purchased from you last month.
You want to know what he liked, disliked, if he had problems, how you can improve it, etc.
His answer to your question about how he liked the project is, “It was great. I haven’t done much with it yet, but I hope it will solve my problem in the future.”
Some business owners would let that feedback go.
The customer liked the product (it’s great) and he hasn’t had time to really use it yet (that’s not my fault.)
The owner feels he has fulfilled his obligation to follow up with the buyer.
At least the customer now knows the owner cares enough to ask for feedback.
In our example, the business owner heard what the customer said.
But did he really attempt to listen to what was being said?
My contention is this: a business owner can choose to let this kind of cursory feedback suffice for market and product research, or he can choose to dig a little deeper to get some more relevant and meaningful feedback about the use of his product and his customer’s satisfaction with it’s performance.
How do you normally play it?
To me, real listening means that you go beyond just hearing what someone says to you on a superficial level.
You analyze and evaluate that first information to understand if that’s really what was meant, or if the message was not really what it appeared to be at first.
To better understand the skill of listening, consider the following steps (which are done mostly by the subconscious mind) that are almost instantaneous in their execution.
Those of you that have been married will quickly recognize the importance of this process and the dividends honing these skills will bring to your human-to-human relationships.
1. Solicit focused and specific information from the customer. The more specific you are in asking customers exactly what’s on their mind, the better and more relevant will their feedback be in return. Ask general questions and you’ll receive general (and mostly worthless) answers.
2. Be prepared to receive and record the feedback for future use. Most of us have failing memories. Don’t rely on yours to come through weeks or even days from now. Try to put systems in place that will record and preserve comments, suggestions, and questions from your customers. Such a database can be an invaluable tool in both product creation and customer service.
3. Pay close attention to what is being said. Make sure that any breakdowns in communication don’t happen simply because you were distracted or thinking about something else at the time.
4. Analyze the comment both in terms of what was said and how it was said. Think about the circumstance surrounding the customer’s mental, physical and emotional state and how it may have influenced or colored what was said.
5. Evaluate the feedback you received against the things you understand and know to be true. Does it make sense? Was the comment based in fact? Should I discount this feedback because I know the giver doesn’t really know or understand the issues involved?
6. Provide an acknowledgement that you heard and understood the customer’s response, even if you aren’t totally truthful about “understanding” what was being said quite yet. People want to be listened to; they want to be understood. You can give your customer both visual and verbal clues that you were listening and you will process their feedback.
7. Put to use the feedback that you get. If you don’t act upon the suggestions and comments you solicit, what good are they? When you have used the feedback to make a change in your business or product, let the customer know that he had an important role in refining your execution or offerings.
As you consciously practice these steps or skills of listening, you will get better and better at understanding the needs and wants of your customers. Improved listening skills will always be appreciated on the home front as well.
To your online business success,