Management Imperative #2: Make Listening An Enterprisewide Skill

Companies need to operate in environments that are more dynamic than ever before. What’s causing all of the changes?

  • Shifting consumer needs: Increasingly, Baby Boomers are getting closer to retirement while Gen Y are becoming a more important segment of customers and employees. The combination of these demographic shifts and the unique needs of both aging consumers and younger consumers creates a shifting set of demands on companies.
  • Increasing competition: Across most industries, competition is becoming brutal, thanks in part to the transparency and reach of the Internet which provides instant access to information and alternatives. Even historical monopolies and near monopolies like telephony, TV service providers, and banks are seeing more heated competition.
  • New capabilities: Technology is enabling new offerings and business models. For instance, Service-oriented architectures and business process management applications allow companies to make faster and broader changes to how they operate. At the same time, Web and mobile applications dramatically increase the opportunity for interacting with both larger and more targeted groups of people.

These changes generate an onslaught of new opportunities and threats that challenge firms’ drawn-out planning processes and hierarchical command-and-control structures. To succeed in this fast-paced environment, firms must master a new skill that I’m calling “Enterprise Listening” which is defined as:

The continuous processing of feedback from key constituents

Here are some ways that executives can cultivate Enterprise Listening:

  • Listen in a variety of ways. Companies need to listen to customers in a lot of different ways. To start, execs should identify opportunities across these five areas: Relationship tracking, interaction monitoring, continuous listening, project infusion, and periodic immersion.
  • Listen by example. Senior executives can’t expect their organizations to care about listening if they don’t practice it on their own. That’s why senior execs need to actively listen themselves. The executive team at Alaska Airlines, for instance, takes turns calling back key customers who have had a service problem.
  • Listen to employees. In many cases, key insights about the market can come from front-line employees. So companies need to make it easy and rewarding for employees to share their insights. A key reason for Zara becoming the largest clothing retailer in the world is the insight that salespeople provide about shifting fashion demand. 
  • Listen for soft voices. Not all important insights come from volumes of customers or prospects. Sometimes, feedback from a few people represents an important emerging trend. So companies need to examine isolated responses with an open mind.
  • Listen to online communities. The Internet enables fast, dynamic interactions across groups of people. That’s why companies should develop online communities of their key constituents. Kraft, for instance, tapped into an online community to define and launch its successful South Beach Diet product line.
  • Actively encourage listening. To keep everyone across the company focused on listening to customers, get in the habit of talking about customer feedback. Execs should consider asking these three questions about any project: Who are the target customers? What are their goals? How are we helping them achieve those goals?

The bottom line: Enterprise Listening allows firms to embrace change.

P.S. Here’s a link to all 6 New Management Imperatives

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I am a customer experience transformist, helping large organizations improve business results by changing how they deal with customers. As part of this focus, I examine strategy, culture, interaction design, customer service, branding and leadership practices. I am also a fanatical student of business, so this blog provides an outlet for sharing insights from my ongoing educational journey. Simply put, I am passionate about spotting emerging best practices and helping companies master them. And, as many people know, I love to speak about these topics in almost any forum. My “title” is Managing Partner of the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm that helps organizations become more customer-centric. Our goal is simple: accelerate the path to delighting customers. I am also the co-founder and Emeritus Chair of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org), a non-profit organization dedicated to the success of CX professionals.

13 Responses to Management Imperative #2: Make Listening An Enterprisewide Skill

  1. ian mapp says:

    Well put Bruce – I especially like the ‘soft voices’ aspect; along with employee feedback the most often overlooked part of enterprise listening.

    I work for a software vendor in the customer feedback arena and we have recently adopted a term from Seth Grimes (founder of Alta Plana Corporation), that of the ‘responsive enterprise’. He says this “The responsive enterprise starts by listening; by determining what customers are saying and seeking ways to turn this information into paths around business obstacles and difficulties.”

  2. Bruce Temkin says:

    Ian: I hadn’t heard of the term “responsive enterprise,” but I like it. I’ll likely introduce a term to describe organizations that adopt all 6 of the management imperatives that I’ve outlined. It’ll probably show up in the epilogue after I’ve written posts about all 6 imperatives. Thanks for your comment.

  3. I’m really impressed the effort to bring active listening into the business world. Listening is the bread and butter of counseling and it can be employed to the benefit of any person/organization. With consumer choice as high as it is now, a company that listens to it’s customers can become a first rather than a second choice.

  4. Bruce Temkin says:

    Hi Dustin: I like the counseling analogy. If companies thought more about how they were “helping their customers” (like a counselor) instead of how they are “selling to their customers,” then they’d be much more inclined to listen.

  5. ian mapp says:

    The counselling analogy also works around another key point – customer service is personal and individual. It sounds obvious, but many organizations forget that customer service means serving the customer and you cannot do that until you have listened to them and actually heard what they are trying to say about their needs, wants and expectations.

  6. Bruce Temkin says:

    Ian: Yes, you’re right. I was just showing one example of an interaction; the counseling analogy works across many types of interactions — especially customer service. While we’re on the topic, I’m reminded of the C.A.R.E.S. model that I’ve defined for customer service: Communication, Accountability, Responsiveness, Empathy, and Solution.

  7. Graham Brown says:

    Listening can be crucial in emptying a whole set of product development ideas. I’ve blogged about your post here over at the Crowdsourcing 101
    http://www.youth-marketing-buzz.com/2008/10/buzz-words-crowdsourcing.html
    In particular, I talk about how BMV and Zara amongst others institutionalize the listening process as a part of PD

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