Hear, Hear!

We all consider ourselves good listeners. But maybe we are not as good as we think.

When we surveyed JCK retail panel members about the importance of listening, we got an earful about how bad listening caused bad customer experiences. There was the store where an employee asked an overweight woman when she was giving birth. “If she was listening, it wouldn’t have happened,” the owner says. Or the store where the customer asked for H–I color diamonds but was shown F–G. They lost the sale. Or the store where a customer wanted an entire ring rhodium plated. The owner thought he only wanted the grooves plated.

And yet these problems are common. “I can’t tell you how many times a customer describes something we have and they are shown something else,” one retailer moans. It’s no wonder some now see listening as not just a routine activity—but a skill in itself. “I learned listening skills when I trained to be a volunteer on a crisis hotline,” says one retail panel member. “It was invaluable and life-changing. Better than any course I took in business for my MBA.” Why? Because selling is about meeting a need—and you can only discover that need by listening to the customer. Yet even the best sales-people don’t always do this. “Most people go into sales because they like to talk to people,” says a retail panelist. “It comes easy to them. Listening is more difficult.”

“Active listening” is the discipline dedicated to improving one’s listening skills. Proponents say it involves more than just “hearing” what someone has to say. “A good definition of listening might be that we take in or absorb what other people are saying to us,” says Don Carl, director of education for the Success Academy in Harrisburg, Pa., and a teacher of active listening and other team skills. “Hearing requires two ears; listening necessitates ears and a mind. Listening is work, brain work, and it requires both sustained and intensive effort. Listening does not come naturally to most people.”

He says active listening, like any skill, requires practice to do well. “The more you practice active listening, the better you become at it,” Carl adds. “It needs to be studied, learned, and practiced on a regular, daily basis.” Among the basics of active listening:

Eliminate distractions. “Most people do not completely listen, but rather are thinking ahead of time what to say or even daydreaming—listening to their ‘monkey brain’ in their head,” says one retailer. Instead, when you are listening to someone, really listen. Don’t daydream, let your mind wander, look at your computer or the TV, think about what you have to do later, or rehearse your rejoinder.

Practice good body language. Face the speaker, lean toward him or her, and maintain eye contact. “I often tell myself, silently in my head, while sitting in front of a customer, look them in the eyes and listen,” says one retailer. Sometimes your body language inadvertently delivers signals that you are not listening—even when you think you are. Things like fiddling with paper clips, nervous hand gestures, and looking around tell the speaker you are not paying attention to him or her.

“Encourage” people to continue speaking. Nod when they speak, or say things like “mmm-hmmm,” or “right,” or “Is that so?”

Observe the speaker’s body language and listen for underlying emotions. Try to get to the underlying emotion of what they are expressing. Focus on: “What are the speaker’s main points?” and “How do they feel about this?”

Restate things people say to show that you are listening. Say things like “You are upset because …” or “So you are saying …” and then restate the message in your own words.

Don’t interrupt. Let the speaker finish talking. “The worst thing is to anticipate what you think a customer is going to say,” notes one member of our retail panel. “You wind up giving the ranch away, or making them mad.”

If you don’t understand what the person is saying, let the person know that. While it is bad to interrupt, if you are lost, it is not wrong to ask questions. This shows that you’re engaged in the conversation. If a question occurs to you, write it down while they’re talking so you don’t forget.

Listening is particularly important in dealing with complaints. “If I do get a customer complaint, nine out of 10 times, it will involve the customer feeling the store employee didn’t do anything to solve their problem and just gave them the runaround,” says one retailer. So, when dealing with the disgruntled, try to understand the other person’s perspective. His or her point of view may not always make sense to you, but it does to that person, and you should put yourself in his or her shoes. Remove yourself from the equation, imagine the complaint is about someone else, and don’t be defensive. As much as you can, don’t get emotionally involved or judge what the person is saying. Simply listen for content.

Often when a person is complaining, he or she will say something inflammatory or outrageous that can upset you or make you want to interrupt. Avoid doing this, and let the person finish. Make sure the individual has told the complete and full story before you respond. When he or she is done, say something like “Anything else I should know?” The person may start talking again, which isn’t necessarily bad—sometimes simply expressing anger is enough to diffuse it. Even if you disagree with the person’s message, make sure you restate it first, so they at least know it’s been received. If at all possible, avoid arguing; it rarely convinces anyone.

Don’t be afraid to write things down. Carl advises this technique to beginning active listeners: “At every meeting you have, take a pad and pencil and record the proceedings, answering the crucial questions of who, what, where, why, how, and when. Pretend you are an investigative reporter, and note dates, times, and numbers associated with the meeting. After the meeting ends, as soon as possible, reconstruct what happened, filling in any gaps. If you do this on a regular basis, you will soon discover that your listening skills have greatly improved.”

Track your listening. Kellie Fowler, author of an e-book on listening skills available at MindTools.com, advises people to grade themselves regularly on how well they listened—by noting how effective their listening was and ways they could have listened better.

All this may seem like a lot of work—and it is. “Active listening is just that—active,” says Carl. “It is not a passive activity. When you have listened well, you will be tired after the experience.”

But advocates say it can be worth it—and yield surprising results. One JCK retail panel member tells of an experience with an unhappy customer, who swore repeatedly he never would go to their store again. But, says the owner, the man really wanted to keep shopping there. So they listened to him. And listened. And in the end, the man not only dropped his complaint, he upgraded by $10,000.

“Simply stated, I believe any time you fail to listen, the guest feels it,” notes one retailer. “And even if they don’t appear upset, you have failed them.”