Are you really listening to your customers?

Are you really listening to your customers? In this article guest blogger Teresa Cottam looks at why it’s important to use the right listening style to maximise the benefit of customer interactions to your business.

Many of us will have been on training courses over the years to improve our performance and career prospects. One course I remember very well had a component about listening skills. At the time I remember thinking this was pretty obvious stuff: as time went on I realised, however, that many people are not good listeners. What’s more, many businesses are even worse listeners; and the sad thing is that communications service providers (CSPs) are often amongst the worst.
 
I’m sure that most of you will argue that you do listen to your customers. The question is do you listen effectively? And do you squeeze the maximum business value out of what you hear?
 
I believe that improving the way an organisation listens to its customers can massively improve the performance of any CSP, but particularly of small, medium-sized and rising telcos (SMARTs). SMARTs are usually closer to their customers and improving their listening will see fast results. Moreover, for SMARTs the customer experience provided is frequently their most important competitive differentiator.
 
The hallmarks of poor listening
 
There are many ways that an organisation can fail to listen effectively. Here’s just a few examples:

1. Your processes are based on problem-solving – this means you seek to gain the information you require to resolve whatever issue is at hand (fix the fault, sell the product, deal with the complaint). This shapes and constrains the conversation. You judge your CSRs on metrics like how fast they resolved the problem, so you aren’t motivating them to gather other types of information that might be useful for their business. This style of listening creates clock-watchers. 

2. You provide insincere responses – when a customer complains to you, you have designed your response to be placating. “Don’t worry we’ll sort that out for you.” However, the response can be perceived by the customer as being superficial. Did you attempt to understand how it really made them feel or to empathise with them? Was the response a human one or one derived from a script? This type of listening produces placating responses where customers are essentially “fobbed off” (and they know it).

3. Your CSRs are hearing but not listening. Listening is a skill, and being able to identify information that is of business value is an even rarer skill. If you have demotivated, low-skilled and low paid CSRs then you are unlikely to be able to glean the business value out of the interactions that you would ideally like to see. Often unskilled and demotivated CSRs become “action oriented” listeners. They push the customer towards their conclusion, and the customer is left feeling they weren’t properly listened to even if the immediate issue is resolved. 

4. You’re too departmental. You may have a fragmented customer service infrastructure and you’ve probably got a siloed approach to customer service, customer centricity and business information. I often meet CSPs that have optimised their customer service departments to be “customer centric” but this is a silo within their company (the customer silo). The rest of their organisation continues to be technology-centric and inward looking. This approach creates the “in one ear and out the other” style of listening. 

5. You struggle to identify and utilise the business value of the interaction. Even when you’ve succeeded in being empathetic and gleaning more than just problem-solving information, can you ensure that important insights are stored, analysed and acted upon? Do they get to the right people throughout the organisation or are they trapped in a silo somewhere? This problem becomes even more thorny as you rollout more and more customer service channels. This is a “can’t see the big picture” style of listening and it means you are leaking large amounts of business value. 
 
How to get it right

So what should a SMART be doing to optimise the value from interacting with its customers?

1. Have a culture that places value on customer insights, and processes that support these being analysed, stored and utilised. 
2. See interactions as relationship building and not just problem solving. 
3. Create an infrastructure that breaks down silos and supports the sharing of information no matter which channel the interaction is in. 
4. Help drive customer centricity throughout the organisation – all initiatives should have the customer squarely in the middle. Always ask: “how does this help our customers?” and “Will the customers really value this?” Doing this will show you that many “initiatives” deliver no customer value and are done for purely internal reasons. 
5. Don’t just rollout social channels as another me-too channel. Instead harness the opportunity to create a more sticky relationship with your customers and to understand them better. A true social media strategy will fundamentally alter the way you do business from a “build it and they will come” approach, to a customer-centric approach. In some ways social media is “just another channel”, but in other ways it is not. Social media offers a powerful way of engaging with customers, understanding exactly what they think about you (the good, the bad and the ugly), and what they want from you. It’s then up to you to deliver that. 

Key messages to SMARTs
 
Social media and social CRM have created a new business risk for SMARTs. New technology (such as sentiment analysis) means that larger rivals can now potentially act like a SMART by better delivering against customer need – therefore eroding a critical advantage. However, larger rivals will take some time to implement the changes necessary to become customer centric and to exploit social media and new technologies. SMARTs should act now to maintain their critical customer experience advantage and ensure they engage their customers fully before someone else does!
 
Teresa Cottam is the founder and Research Director of Telesperience, a UK-based telecoms software analyst company. Telesperience focuses on how CSPs can improve their operational efficiency, commercial agility and the experience they offer their customers. You can find out more from the Telesperience Website (www.telesperience.com) and the blog Microsperience (www.microsperience.com).