The Gift of Listening

All of us in business are very busy these days, especially during the holidays! It is the nature of the season. We all have way too much to do. What is the one gift we can give our colleagues, friends, families, and particularly our customers? We can take a moment to set everything aside and sincerely listen to them. This is one gift that is free and would be greatly appreciated.

I have lost two very close friends within the past few months. For both of them, their greatest gift to me was a warm and caring smile, a friendly welcoming face. They both listened well. Often, that was enough to lessen my anxiety and help me to reflect on possible next moves for my problems. That is truly a gift they have both left with me.

How can we share the gift of listening?

This gift requires discipline. I often tell my students that carrying on a conversation may only require the use of 60% of your brain, 60% of your attention. You can use the rest of your brain to drive a car, perform another task, plan your next activity or figure out what you want on the menu. A gifted market researcher can appear fully engaged while carrying on several additional tasks besides interviewing a customer or leading a focus group. But, what if we become "tabla rasa," as described by Rouseau, and let our customer, colleague, friend or family member write on the blank slate of our consciousness? What if we unhurriedly listen?

Think about the last conversation you had with a customer, investor or friend. Reflect on the conversation. Who initiated it? What was the purpose? Were all of their needs being met completely? Did you let them know you understood their concern? Did you lessen their anxiety?

 Ask yourself the following questions: 

1. Was I using active listening techniques to understand the customer? Did I use both non-verbal and verbal feedback to encourage the customer to share not only what interested them, but more importantly, how they felt about it?

2. Where was I focused, on their agenda or my own? Did I completed understand how their story affected them and their company, or was I thinking about how it affected me. You do not have to agree with them in order to understand how they feel. Often, if they know you understand them, it can greatly lessen their anxiety. This is a huge part of the gift of active listening (especially with those who may be angry with you).

3. What was I able to learn from their body language and their tone of voice that would not have been obvious if I werereading their statement in the printed word? Remember, they are giving you the gift of their thoughts. None of us have time to do that unless we care about the person with whom we are sharing. What was the message someone would see in the conversation even if they could not hear?

4. How can I apply active listening skills to my next interaction with a customer (or an investor, a spouse, a friend or colleague)? 

5. Did I give them the gift of my complete undivided attention?

You can learn active listening techniques from my book, Pain Killer Marketing. The more you practice, the better you will become at being a good listener. Give the gift of listening to your customers and others this holiday season!

Listening to Social Media: Is It Worth the Investment?

In a previous newsletter I teased you about an example of a problem with a single unhappy customer going viral. I heard this story this past July from an Orkin executive at a meeting here in San Diego.

Orkin Pest Control has a team that monitors social media.They had a customer who believed she had a problem with rats and engaged her local Orkin office. She packed up her pet hamster and visited her sister while the Orkin people took care of her problem. She returned home in a couple of weeks. Soon thereafter, her hamster died. She was angry. Her son went viral on social media with the story.

Within a few hours, the Orkin team had discovered the story in social media. They acted quickly. The Orkin office the woman had contacted returned to her home and explained that they had not used any poison, but merely sealed her home to keep the rats out. They did not leave anything that could have caused her hamster's demise. The son recanted his story on social media quickly. Complete disaster for Orkin on social media was averted. How many potential customers could have been lost?

What is the lesson in this story? Are you monitoring social media with respect to your company? Would you be nimble enough to respond as quickly as Orkin did? Do you have resources dedicated to such an effort? Can you afford to do so, or, can you afford NOT to do so?

There are CEOs and CMOs that not only monitor social media, but take part in it as well. Some, such as Tony Hsieh of Zappos, may spend an hour conversing (mostly listening) with customers in an online chat room. He and others at Zappos hear the Voice of the Customer directly. This can create an exciting corporate structure of loyalty to the customer. 

I'm still shocked by a survey from a few years ago that stated that 75% of senior managers and above in the US never talk to a customer! How about you?

Business Lessons from March Madness

As we finish off the second quarter this year, the hockey and basketball seasons are drawing to a close. The relative lack of attention being paid to the NHL and NBA playoffs caused me to reflect on "March Madness." Offices everywhere were excited and talking about this college tournament, even people who were just barely sports fans. Are people really that interested in college basketball?! I think not. Is the NCAA really that smart in marketing and promotion? I'm not so sure. Certainly, this phenomenon has caught the attention of marketing professionals (for example here).

So, what marketing lessons can we learn from the excitement surrounding this event? 

It has been estimated that companies lose well over $100 million in labor costs with employees watching games duriung  working hours and teasing each other  during the early rounds of the  tournament (check here). Other  "business experts" have suggested that  companies embrace the tournament and  use it to build morale and have fun.  What will you be doing when March comes around next year?

What can we learn from March Madness?

In reviewing dozens of blogs and articles written about the meaning of March Madness for business, I found the blog by Jonah Berger, a Marketing Professor at the Wharton School, worth reading.

Dr. Berger highlights three psychological aspects of the tournament that build excitement for people. Since one of my master's degrees is in Experimental Psychology, I could relate to his point of view.

Three lessons of March Madness for businesses:

1. Cinderella sometimes wins. This year, Harvard a #14 seed, won its first tournament game ever, Wichita State upset top-seeded Gonzaga and a #15 seed (Florida Gulf Coast University) made it to the Sweet 16 for the first time ever, People were fascinated with the performance of these underdogs. Americans love to root for the underdog. 

Teams that are slightly behind often wind up winning. Analysis of NBA games shows that teams that trail by 1 at halftime actually perform better than teams that are 1 point ahead at halftime. LeBron James, for example, performs better when his team is behind late in the game.

Perhaps a good way to motivate people would be to compare your company, your personnel or yourself to those that are just ahead. People and teams work harder when they perceive that they are behind, but close. As you move forward, you will eventually be far ahead of where you are today.

Regardless of who your key competitor(s) is(are), how will you motivate your employees to pass them? You might begin by asking your employees what motivates them and their perceptions of the competition, as well as their perceptions and the customers' perceptions (your customers and theirs) of where you are superior to the competition.

Michigan basketball.jpg

2. Rivalries can be both good and bad. UNC vs. Duke, Michigan vs. Ohio State, Cal vs. Stanford...the college rivalries abound! Red Sox/Yankees, Dodgers/Giants, Bruins/Canadiens...they are everywhere in pro sports as well. While rivalries and competition can motivate and lead to outstanding performances, they can also create unsportsmanlike behavior that can get out of hand, such as the Giants fan who was nearly beaten to death after a Dodger game last year in LA.

Some companies like to fan the competitive flames internally for promotions and raises. This can motivate some to perform exceedingly well. It can also drive others to behave inappropriately.

We would suggest that you look at your own rivalries. Where have you been successful and where has your rival succeeded (a Won/Lost analysis)? How do your own employees feel about your successes and failures? What might be done to win more often, in their view? In our experience, a number of employees have an exaggerated sense of your failures, but they embrace winning.

3. Be wary of success. Some coaches seem to do well and often get into the tournament, without getting very deep into it. Other coaches always seem to do well in the tournament, even without a top-ranked regular season. What are the keys to this kind of leadership? Many coaches believe that a loss late in the regular season may actually help them teach their players humility and not to rest on their laurels. Coach K at Duke states in his book that the key to success for a basketball player is the ability to forgive himself for a bad play or mistake and say, "Next play," to focus constantly on what it takes to win.

Everyone wants to be successful. When your business grows, how do you maintain the hunger and motivation you had as a small company? It is tougher to keep a larger company from becoming complacent. In psychology, people become risk averse once they have become successful. Companies tend to do so as well. How do you maintain focus on the qualities that achieved success as you grow?

As Dr. Berger says, "So next time the boss complains about you ducking out early to catch a game, tell her you're just doing research."

Hurricane Irene - Lessons for Business

Hurricane Irene is moving through eastern Canada and out to sea just as fast as the storm moved into North Carolina, New Jersey and New England, leaving behind a mess to clean up. Over 20 people died in only the third hurricane to make landfall in New Jersey in the past 200 years. There was an estimated $7 billion in damages; however, it could have been much worse. As bad as it was, some of the predictions and fears for destruction in highly populated areas were not realized. This photo is of flooding in New Jersey.

New Jersey flooding

New Jersey flooding

What lessons should business take from this? Our view is that predictive metrics played a key role in reducing the deaths, injuries and destruction. The forecasting of the Hurricane Center was very accurate and timely. People had warning. Flights were cancelled. Airports were closed. Transportation systems were shut down. Every attempt was made to save life, property and infrastructure. People throughout the region were asked to evacuate low lying areas, for example. Public officials were able to predict where flooding was likely and thereby prevent loss of life. Damage occurred, to be sure, but the precautions reduced the impact of Irene significantly.

What we have advocated for businesses is to have internal predictive metrics that can predict behaviors and outcomes with customers. One prime example from our presentations and book is the idea that if popcorn is less than 10 minutes old in a movie theater, it will taste fresh and the customers will like it. That metric was derived through research and used to predict how customers would react to the popcorn based upon how old it was. We are not comparing the impact of Irene to popcorn, but the idea is that predictive metrics can save disasters and minimize negative impacts for businesses.

Developing predictive internal metrics for businesses is both an art and a science, just as it is for hurricanes, but it can be done. Our book outlines the basics of approaching this problem. For every issue that is important to your customer (like the freshness of the popcorn in a movie theater), there should be at least one internal predictive metric (such as a kitchen timer that is set for 10 minutes near the popcorn popper in the movie theater) that can warn the business when things are going awry, so you can take action (throw the old popcorn away and pop another batch), hopefully before your customers notice a problem. To see a couple of videos about this process, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.

Are you prepared for disaster? If a Hurricane Irene type of event were to approach your business, what precautions would predict that you have minimized potential damage to you and to your customers? What internal predictive metrics would you monitor? What actions would you take?

As we also discuss in the book, the House of Quality and other techniques can be used to not only find and document those predictive metrics, but also to decide which ones to act upon and how. We will leave that discussion for a future blog entry.

The Art of Conversation

Tuesday, January 4, 2011  blog entry for Pain Killer Marketing


The Art of Conversation

As a marketer and market researcher, I often wonder about the effectiveness of various communications techniques. Obviously, the marketing and advertising world is going through very rapid changes these days. Many of us are struggling with measuring the effectiveness of social media advertising, finding the correct messaging for online media and similar issues. My training was "in the good old days" of telephone, mail and face-to-face customer contact. Are any of those techniques as effective today as they once were?

My specialty is "Voice of the Customer" techniques and executive interviews. I often ask myself, what happened to the art of conversation? Very little emphasis is given to this topic in major universities these days (I teach at a couple of local universities in San Diego). Is this a lost art? Does anyone care? I think not.

One of the highly-touted benefits of Blogging and online conversations is the interactive nature of the discussion. There is an ebb and flow, point and counterpoint. However, I lot of what I see and read seems impersonal, sometimes aggressive and downright nasty. Does the level of animosity expressed online translate into interpersonal conversations face-to-face? Sometimes I think the anonymity of "talking" online creates distance that enables people to express some thoughts much stronger than they might in person.

So, what about the Art of Conversation? There was a television commercial for an airline a few years ago that said the message of this piece well. The brokerage was losing clients. The CEO called all his executives into the board room and talked about losing a client that had been a client and friend for over 20 years. He said he was not going to call the client, but get on a plane a visit them, face-to-face. He handed out plane tickets to everyone else in the room and asked them to visit lost clients. Basically, their job was to listen...and learn! They were to be humble, to appear humble in their dress and body language. They were not to be "experts," but to listen to what the customers had to say about their dreams and how their expectations had not been met by the firm. I loved that commercial! Have we been teaching our market researchers how to listen well, with their whole bodies? Do marketers and ad men use customer language in their messaging, as if they were speaking to customers face-to-face?

Perhaps I am a bit old fashioned, but I strongly believe that face-to-face conversations will always have a valued place in the marketing world, despite the world of social media. What do you think?



Do You Come From the Land Down Under?

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Do You Come from the Land Down Under?

It is nice to be quoted. I was alerted today that someone in Australia has published one of my articles for Australian business people to read. It shares some thoughts that were first expressed at (Be sure to check out that website. You may want to search for "Chris Stiehl" there and see some of what I have written in the past.)

One of the advantages of being published is that people can comment on your thoughts and your work. That enables an author to direct the discussion, to put a position out there and see what interest it sparks. I appreciate my thoughts about salespeople being shared in Australia. I cannot wait to read any responses from "The Land Down Under."

So, what was the point of the article? Salespeople are often blamed and measured, not often listened to or studied. I have seen salespeople being required to spend hours a week filling out reports and paperwork (OK, it was mostly computer "paperwork"). The salespeople were unhappy about this. They understood management's need to "measure" their activity, but wished that the measurement could be less intrusive. Instead of sitting at a computer desk, they felt they should be out selling!

The very best salespeople listen well. That is the key attribute. It can be shown that faster and easier tracking or reporting techniques not only make salespeople happier and more satisfied, but it also makes them more productive, in dollars and cents, their key measurement.

Management needs to listen to the salespeople just as if they were another segment of the marketplace. What I would recommend is that each company consider obtaining a "Voice of the Salesperson" in much the same way that customers are researched - collecting their needs in an open-ended research effort, possibly using an objective 3rd party to ask the questions and obtain their needs. Then, set about meeting those needs. The sales force is the voice and face of the company. Treat them as a valued resource.


Take Time to Stop and Listen

Joshua Bell playing in the DC subway.

Joshua Bell playing in the DC subway.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Take Time to STOP ... and Listen!


You may have read about this. Joshua Bell, the world renowned violinist, played incognito as a "street musician" for an hour in the DC subway as an experiment for the Washington Post.

He played six challenging Bach pieces, as passersby hurried on their way to work. Over a thousand people rushed by. A few people gave him money, and about 6 stopped to listen. Only one person recognized him.

Various people, from time to time, would pause or slow down and admire his talent. One three year old boy didn't want to rush past. He kept stopping to listen. Finally, his mother pulled him away. He was turning his head the entire time. Bell collected $32.17 for an hour's performance. There was no applause or recognition of any kind. Just silence. He had played a violin valued at $3.5 million.

This was a performance by one of the world's best musicians, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made. Did anyone notice? Just days before, Joshua Bell had played to a sold-out theater in Boston, where pretty good seats went for $100 each to sit and listen to him play.

Is there beauty all around us if we stop, look and listen? How much are we missing by rushing through life? Are we in too much of a hurry to appreciate beauty and life? Are only innocent children open to this kind of experience?

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer for their feature article about this experiment.

Take a moment today, right now, and appreciate life and sounds around you. You are not here forever. You have an expiration date.

As we have argued in this blog before, are you truly listening to the world around you? Learn how to do that, and you will be successful in business, and in life!