“One must listen if one wishes to be listened to,” wrote the French moralist François de La Rochefoucauld, a reminder that is still very relevant for today’s businesses continually intent on standing out from the rest.

Although this need “to be listened to” is not something new, it does however appear to be much more complicated to do nowadays. Before things were fairly straightforward and simple with a very well mapped out Customer Journey. But today, companies are caught up in a sort of frenzy where their corporate identity is floating between a virtual and real world, where product/service personalization is becoming the norm and where sharing one’s opinion is only a click away.  

While most companies are indeed actively working on incorporating Customer Experience as part of their business strategy, often enough changing the mindset within the organization to effectively instill that empathy-ready culture, is harder to come by. That empathy-ready culture or that “listening” skill needs to go both ways. Decision makers also need to listen to what their employees have to say. In fact, it has been shown that there is a correlation between both listening needs in that when an employee feels that he has got their manager’s ear, they in turn are much more inclined to listen to their customers and report back key information. Yet as sensible as this may seem, companies still have a hard time wrapping their hands around this logic. So what happens is that as a general rule, companies basically end up meeting instead of anticipating the demands of their customers, says Eytan Hattem, the Chief Innovation & Business Solution Officer at Prodware. 

Expectations & Experiences: A Shaky Equilibrium

First off, let’s make sure we all agree on what Customer Experience means. Customer Experience is the sum of all the interactions a customer has with a brand at all the different touchpoints of the business. These interactions go from the discovery phase right through to the customer loyalty phase while anticipating the customer’s needs throughout. Each interaction, whether physical or digital, contributes in shaping, be it positive or not, a customer’s perception of the brand.  

But for Customer Experience to come to life you need to get your hands on a pivotal component and that component is called “Customer Expectations.” These expectations are made up of a unique combination of the values of a company, past experiences with other companies and with the company itself. A series of factors that will subconsciously trigger expectations that may well vary in time. However, it is the company-driven actions that will have the most influence on the customer’s perception throughout the customer journey. The company has to be on top of all the interactions and map a customer journey that caters to the different customer types.  

Customers and Employees…same difference

Most of the time, this is what happens: employees decide on different action plans or campaigns when addressing their clients but without really putting themselves in their clients’ shoes. They routinely, or because they lack the time, apply third-party strategies or follow certain guidelines. This perfunctory way of conducting action plans is detrimental to businesses.

In order to drive the business further forward and reach beyond the conventional way of doing things, it is essential for businesses to promote and shape a different corporate culture. Working on changing the overall business mindset by prioritizing Customer Experience first, then worrying about products and services, is the way to go. Whatever decisions are made, they need to be made with the client in mind. All initiatives have to be imbued with this new mindset and become an integral part of the business strategy.  

What’s in it for the client? Does this help the client in any way? What are my client’s challenges and what can I do to help? These are the kind of questions every employee should be asking themselves.  

And what’s more, the term “client” which under the Roman Empire meant a “vassal” or someone receiving protection, needs to be completely redefined. From now on, not only is a client knowledgeable but they bear a unique quality. A client is not somebody who just purchases a product or service, but is a potential partner with whom you should build a relationship. So to really be in tune with your clients you need to evolve from a purely transaction-based rapport to a relation-based rapport with an understanding that the term “client” has changed in nature and meaning.

And from an operational standpoint, focusing on improving internal processes cannot be the only answer to driving a change in strategy. A business has to go further and include the feedback of customers to help steer their strategy forward and not the other way around.

Three Steps to Effective Active Listening

For active listening to really have a positive and sustainable effect on customer experience, a company should follow the below three steps:

  1. First of all, it is one thing to be able to collect and gather customer feedback, through digital or more traditional channels, but you need to have a process in place to make sure that all the information is put to good use by addressing the process discrepancies once and for all. I mean if you’re not doing anything with all that valuable feedback then what’s the point?
  2. The second thing is that this all new and obsessive customer-centric culture that is definitely a “must” has to garner the buy-in of all the employees. This is important because trying to develop a customer-centric culture without, at the same time, lending an ear to the employees won’t work. Both are complementary and are connecting cogs of the same piece of machinery. This seems pretty obvious but a happy employee will better serve his customers because he will be much more inclined to show more empathy. This aspect should in no way be underestimated and will require a tailored Change Management approach.
  3. And finally, the company has to set up processes designed to monitor the usage of its products and services by its customers with data-driven indicators. The idea is to have a governance model that integrates a proactive approach enabling the organization to automatically anticipate and predict customer expectations.

Heading Towards a Cultural Big Bang in the Workplace

Although it is much more challenging, due to the different channels that need to be covered (purchasing, communication, and so on…), listening to your customers is crucial to your business strategy. The growth and even survival of your business depend on it. The 4Ps of Marketing are a thing of the past and the promotion of an actual Product, although important, has given way to focusing on the Customer. Coping with constant market volatility calls for building and upholding both a Customer and Employee Experience strategy. A major cultural shift needs to be undertaken and to materialize with new work habits, values, priorities, and so on. Having Company Culture Ambassadors can really help in fostering a consensus on this new culture. Because change is the new “constant” and is now the name of the game, you will need to cast the right people moving forward. You need people with an open mind and that are change-ready, showing great skill in adapting to the constant market evolutions.

In time, this new customer/employee-centric culture will have a significant impact on employees and more so, become second nature while even naturally influencing the new hires.

However, adopting a systematic approach that is aimed at listening to one’s customers, needs to be put in perspective because depending strictly on appreciating what customers have to say could also be risky business. Just because customers voice their concerns or ideas on how to cater to their needs does not mean that those ideas are good ones; customers could also have trouble expressing what their future needs might be. This is where the savvy needed to appreciate the bigger picture and see beyond the only customer feedback comes in. Just remember what Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Article initially published in marketing professionnel