Home / Human Resources / ‘Listening’ the Forgotten Skill

by Kevin Ryan

Have you noticed how quickly luggage can wear out? When you travel as much as I do, suitcases rarely seem to see their second birthday!

Recently, I visited a well known luggage store in a large suburban shopping centre to replace my travel-weary luggage. I was approached by the store manager and her friendliness and professional presentation could not be faulted.

“I can travel 100,000 kilometres in a year” I started, trying to make it clear I needed something heavy duty, “so suitcases don’t last me very long.”

time exWell, she launched into a most detailed explanation of heavy duty luggage: the breaking strength of rigid cases; comparisons between 600 denier and 1200 denier weave; relative merits of 10mm versus 15mm zips; and a whole lot of other stuff that didn’t even register. Obviously she was very knowledgeable about suitcases!

However, there was no enquiry about my past experiences. No questions about brand loyalties. Nor preferred styles. Nor even pet hates. She hadn’t checked to find out if the information she was giving me was making sense, or had any relevance to my particular usage.

Did she sell me a suitcase? I think you know the answer.

The sad thing for her was that she thought she was doing the right thing, showing me that she was more knowledgeable that the other luggage retailers in the centre. All she did though was convince me that I didn’t know enough to make a buying decision!

The sobering thought for many employers is that a lot of time and money is spent providing this kind of knowledge. And it often doesn’t result in a sale.

How different the experience is when people are aware of the value of listening. It applies in a sales context, in customer service, or internal communication within an organisation.

With an awareness of the forgotten skill of listening, perhaps our luggage expert would have recognised the verbal and non-verbal clues, spoken and unspoken signals that I was giving out.

Maybe she could have said something like: “Sounds like you’ve been through some suitcases in your time. What’s been the biggest problem?”

Or “With all your experience, what brands have you found to be better than others?”

Then she would have recognised that I had some very definite ideas about what I did and didn’t want. That I wanted specific advice on one or two points. And she would probably have sold me a suitcase.

In today’s world, consumers are better informed than ever before. I could have found out all that knowledge about the luggage with a search on the net. What consumers crave is human interaction with somebody who understands their needs.

And the best way you’ll find out needs is by listening.

Listening is the first communication skill we use as human beings. Ironically, it is the one that is the least studied.

Nearly half our waking communicating time is spent listening, with the remainder divided between speaking, reading and writing. Yet very few of the staff who interact with customers have had focussed training in this most basic communication skill.

So, what do you do? Here are some suggestions.

Firstly, give them some basic knowledge of active listening skills such as:

  1. Paraphrasing –  being able to repeat back to the customer in your own words what they have just said;
  1. Reflection of Feelings – most buying decisions are emotional decisions and those who are able to interpret a customers feelings, especially from non-verbal signals like tone of voice or facial expression, surely have the edge; and
  1. Open and Closed Questions – knowing the difference between these types of questions and the best times to use each type.

Secondly, establish a customer service standard that forces them to listen. Try this three step strategy:

  1. Focused Attention – as far as possible, give the customer your complete and undivided attention; face them front on and really listen by looking at them and concentrating on them;
  1. Check the Information – if you are not completely clear on what the customer needs, check back with them using, as far as possible, your own words; use phrases that connect with them like: “So, it sounds to me like you need something that will…”; and
  1. Ask Open Questions – these question types start with how, what, why, when, etc. and are great for getting information from a customer about what they want the product or service to do; try asking at least one or two open questions before showing the customer anything.

I can vouch for the success of the ‘ask two questions’ strategy in retailing.  You’ll know the system, and how simple and effective it is: insist your staff ask two questions before they explain anything about your product.  If nothing else, it forces staff to focus more on the customer, and quickly results in better sales conversion. 

The standard of listening skills in customer service is generally overlooked.  It’s easy to stand out with just a little effort.

Improve these skills in those who interact with customers and you will increase your sales and customer loyalty.  Think what it might do for all your staff communication.

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