When I was invited to write about client listening, something I feel passionately about, I decided to go back to basics. I stumbled by chance on the ancient Chinese character for listen – ting – and given its roots hundreds of years BC, I thought I would start there.
Now, I do not hold myself out as knowing any Chinese, so I hope I am staying true to what was intended all those years ago! Those of you who have come across Ting before will be smiling knowingly. I promise, those of you who haven’t will be straight on google to find out more!
The first of the elements is “ear”. That we need to listen with our ears perhaps comes as no surprise. The simplicity of doing this though, is sometimes overlooked. How many times have you been in a client listening meeting with a colleague who is more interested in speaking (and demonstrating what they know) rather than going in with the sole intention of hearing what is said? Steve Covey’s habit of seeking to listen to understand rather than to reply jumps to mind.
I believe that to achieve deeper client listening we should seek to hear more and speak less.
The second element of the character sets out that we should look with our eyes. Those who have read anything about the importance of non-verbal signals will not be surprised by this. Thinking again about this action in the context of client listening, I wonder how many people go into client listening meetings and there only concern is to jot down all that is being said? Perhaps they have a list of questions that they are working through. Perhaps they are concerned about making sure that they have a true record of what is said and don’t want to misrepresent the client when they go back to the office and share the words with the client team? How often are the non-verbal actions of the client saying and sharing more than the words that are being spoken? My fear is that these are missed.
If we want to achieve a deep approach to client listening verbal and non-verbal must come together.
Undivided attention or oneness
I think that few would say that they enter a room for a client listening exercise without giving the client their undivided attention. However, what does this mean and how to we achieve this in practice? I have seen this described as focus and it draws me to think about my learnings as a coach. One of the first things you learn as a coach is that you must move from active listening to deep listening. One of the ways you achieve this is through focus. How many times do we enter a conversation with our own agenda, or with other thoughts playing on our minds? How many times do we use a client listening exercise not as one to learn, but as one to sell?
Perhaps if we listen to clients with a clean sheet of paper, and no agenda, we would be better able to hear what the client is trying to tell us.
I have seen this element of the Chinese character translated in different ways. Some translate it as mind, others scholar. The meaning, I believe, relates to respect.
One of the first things I was taught about the customer/client relationship – in my first Saturday job at a supermarket (and this article is about going back to basics!) – was “the customer is always right.” Now, I am not sure this phrase is what the Chinese had in mind but for me it comes from the same sentiment. What they were trying to express is that you should respect the wisdom of the person who is talking.
In client listening, how often are we trying to justify what has been said rather than respecting the view that is offered? Fees are a great example. Hopefully it isn’t often that a client will say something like “I felt that I was charged for something that I shouldn’t have to pay for”. But, were they to, would we jump in with a response and challenge, or would we respect that view and go away and work out how we could improve as a result?
To achieve deeper client listening we must respect what is said.
I have deliberately left this one until last. That we should use our heart to feel in a client listening exercise is perhaps outside of the comfort zone of some. Some may struggle to see its relevance. However, again, this concept isn’t new in the area of professional services. David Maister introduced intimacy in his Trust Equation. People buy from people. Relationships, and professional services companies are founded on a network of them, are about people. Emotion cannot be boxed up and remain the preserve of friends and family.