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Listen and learn

The reason that chatbots will never catch on in delivering great customer experiences is because they don’t listen. Actually, most human beings don’t listen either. A microphone can listen. It can hear what is going on and to that extent it is in listening mode, but not in the way that matters. Active listening is something different. It is where the listener fully takes in what someone is saying. They understand what is being said and empathise with it. They may not fully agree with what is said but they can sympathise and feel for the individual. Being listened to in this way is a very special experience. It makes someone feel relevant.

The main problem with listening is that most people aren’t interested in what is being said. In fact, they can’t wait to chip in and hijack the conversation. Something may remind the listener of a story and they quickly interrupt and take over.

In 2009 a randomised study was carried out in the US and Norway to determine the effectiveness of therapy sessions. Of all the techniques used, the therapist that listened carefully and reflected back what the patient said was the most effective. Samaritans know this. The suicide counsellors are called "listeners" and are trained to actively listen. They disclose little about themselves and encourage and probe callers to open up on their anxieties. Without any diagnosis or recommendations, a caller feels much better when they have been listened to.

The problem we have in business is that managers and leaders are poor listeners. They are likely to deny this because it is on trend to say they have considered workers’ views. Business schools don’t help. A study of US undergraduates on business programs found that three quarters were trained in oral presentations, a fifth had some training on holding conversations but only one in 10 were taught how to listen. A business leader thinks that their job is to have a vision and lead. They want everyone to believe that they have the answers. After all, isn’t that why they have been given the top job?

Listening is for free. When someone shares their thoughts about a product or service there is sure to be something that can be lifted and used to advantage. However, a business must have a culture of listening. John King, ultimately Lord King, the former chairman of British Airways, had a reputation as something of a bully. Whilst he claimed to be a listener, he didn't like views that differed with his. He was not interested in persuasion so people soon learned never to bring him bad news. As a result, what was once the world's favourite airline began to lose its sparkle.

Customers and potential customers are among the most valuable sources of market intelligence for any business. If we train our staff to elicit opinions and engage with them, people will be more likely to bring good ideas to our attention. This is surely worthwhile with the added bonus that in being listened to customers will rate us more highly.


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