Using Listening Ears
Parents reading this have probably said this, possibly thousands of times: Use your listening ears! A prompt from the AltMBA alumni network caused me to reflect on how well I use my listening ears, and what I really mean when I say it (besides, “for the love of God, can you even hear my voice?”)
Some of my favorite memories are of nights with my best friend on a beach, just talking. We had no place to go, and so we sat and talked listened to each other and the waves. Those conversations are part of how we know each other so well. Inevitably, we’d know each other a little bit better, even if you could argue that we already knew each other pretty darn well. Listening was about building and keeping our connection.
Sometimes the best listening can happen when we’re trying to learn something new. Assuming that it’s something we actually want to learn about (vs. say, how my kids view long division), then time and everything else falls away so that we can listen to what someone is explaining. If the person is a great storyteller, it’s even easier to listen and learn from them. One of my favorite professors in college once acted out part of “Clueless” to make a point about parallels with Jane Austen themes on class and love. I listened raptly for the full 50 minutes and walked away with a better appreciation of themes through English lit of the 1800’s.
Active listening is listening without imposing our agenda. It’s about listening for the sake of hearing the other person and building a connection with them. Active listening can teach us and change our perceptions of the world. The challenge is being able to turn on our listening ears regularly, and not just when we’re with our best friend or want to master a new skill.
Getting to great marketing requires active listening abilities. The best brands in the world understand the importance of knowing their target intimately and building a connection with them. These brands desire to learn what their customers want, and then build toward that. The people on these brands have to be great at using their listening ears.
Importantly, this isn’t about what “everyone” wants, but about your target. It’s about going beyond the surface words they say to get to the real insight. It’s rare that customers will be able to articulate precisely the product specs they want. I’m willing to bet that no consumer said, “I’d like to join a club for $100 a year to have someone ship things to me.” And yet, many of us gladly pay Amazon to have access to Prime because someone listened when customers said they were tired of worrying about shipping fees. I doubt any customer said, “I’d really like it if the camera on my phone grabbed the second ahead and behind the actual shot so that I could select the image I want.” But there was probably someone who realized that when people complained that the camera on their phone, “was ok, but takes as many good pics as bad,” that there was an opportunity to adjust how the camera captured the data and could improve what we think about our phone cameras. Active listening— or listening beyond the words said— has the potential to transform businesses and products.
Caveat: occasionally, the insight or idea can jump out at you in a moment based on something someone says. If that’s the case, write it down, star it, do whatever you have to do to capture it. I still remember the moment someone in a cold/ flu medicine focus group said, “I know I need to get more sleep when I have a cold, but I can’t sleep if I can’t breathe.” I nearly skipped the rest of the focus groups because that was it. That was the insight for our product relaunch that we needed. However, after a nearly 20 year career, this is the only time that I can remember where the insight was perfectly articulated as-is. Most of the time, it’s critical that we wear our listening ears when talking with customers or prospects.
Listening can be hard. I consider myself a good listener-- when I try. I can just as often say, “Huh, what?” But the good news is that we can learn how to actively listen, and we can get better at it by practicing. As an aside, I love that schools are now teaching growth mindset with sayings like, “Practice makes progress!” As marketers, we need to continuously practice our active listening skills. I’m by no means an expert, but here are some of the tips that I’ve learned along the way about using my listening ears:
Believe that the other person has something to offer. Even if your brain fights and wants to reject what the person is saying, remember that you’re there to listen. Trust me, your target audience has some characters in it, so this isn’t as simple as it sounds sometimes. In one focus group, there was a lady who whipped a red pen out of her purse and started marking up the concept board text. Even she had something to offer...namely grammatical improvements, but still. If we start with the assumption that this person is there to teach us and we are there to learn from them, listening is easier.
Put the device away. One of the things that I learned from working on a global team was how bad my habits had gotten during conference calls, and how little listening I was doing. After one call that I had driven in early to take, I realized that it was up to me to make these calls worthwhile and that checking the BBC News site was not going to help with that. Either participate by listening and engaging, or just skip it. If we’re not there to listen, we’re wasting people’s time.
Side note: yes, it can be easier to type notes on a computer. Go ahead. Just try to not flip over to Zappos while you’re doing it.
Process, but don’t react. Accept the information instead. This is hard. My suggestion is to pretend that you’re playing make-believe with a young kid: “Yes, I see the unicorn, and it’s beautiful and sparkly. Yes, we should use it to fly over the zombies approaching us.” We don’t tell the child we can’t see the unicorn, we go along. It’s the same as when people tell us what they think of the idea or work in front of them. “Ok, that’s their reality. Let’s play it out and see where this goes.” Getting to a new story or a new insight requires listening to all of what people have to tell you, and then trying to discern the pattern.
I feel compelled to reiterate that you don’t need to listen to everyone, but instead listen to who you care about, your target. I’m pretty sure that the marketers of “Godzilla” care a lot more about what my sons think than what my mom has to say about the ad campaign, and that’s cool.
Know what question(s) you want to answer. Please note, this is NOT the same as knowing what answer you want. This isn’t just for focus groups or structured market research-- it applies to any context where you’re hunting for insights or ideas. It helps to know what you’re listening for so that the energy can focus in the right areas. As an example, if you’re trying to figure out whether your main message is confusing, then you’re listening for clarifying questions, extended pauses as the respondent is trying to not look dumb, etc. That’s different than if you’re trying to figure out if your message is compelling, when you’re listening for excitement, or exclamatory statements, etc.
Sleep on it, then synthesize it. Active listening is work. For me at least, my brain has trouble switching from active listening to then sorting/ synthesizing it all. Regardless of whether the listening is happening in days of focus groups or in a one hour review of comments across social channels, I strongly recommend walking away and sleeping on it so that the recesses of the brain have time to do their thing. For the synthesis, do whatever method works for you or your team, but get to a written document of key learnings. It can be a brief, an executive summary, or key learnings presentation-- write to the format that will best serve the project. But by having a document to record what you heard, it will force the thinking around the listening. I’m a raging extrovert, so I literally need to talk it out. Others need to write it first and then share. Whatever works. The goal is to take the active listeners on the project and document what was heard and learned through the listening.
It’s easier to actively listen when the connection with the person matters to us personally or if we’re trying to learn something from another person. Getting to great marketing requires both of those things-- building a true connection with our target and learning from them about what matters to them. It’s worth the practice to be able to put on our listening ears more regularly so that we can hear what our target is telling us about how we can serve them to build world-class businesses or brands.
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