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Talk Less, Listen More: The Key to Truly Understanding Your Customers

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by: Todd McCormick (@TMcCormick2011)
28 January 2014

 “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them."
— Listening expert Ralph Nichols

The buzz in the business world today is all about the importance of being “customer-centric” — understanding our buyers, so we can deliver exactly what they want, when they want it. Sounds good in theory, but what about in practice?

Fifty-one percent of marketers say that building and maintaining relationships with customers should be the primary focus of marketing investments, according to a study by The Economist Intelligence Unit and SAS. Yet, only 19 percent “strongly agree” that their companies are “customer-centric,” and only 13 percent “strongly agree” that their companies truly understand customers’ wants or needs.

Here’s the thing: If we really want to have better relationships with our customers, we need to stop talking about them and start listening to them.

From the Mouths of Babes

Most of us learn the value of listening early on in life. Our parents impart all sorts of important life lessons — such as “don’t touch the hot stove” and “don’t cross the street without looking both ways.” Sure, we could learn these lessons through experience, but often at great personal cost. Listening, on the other hand, keeps us safe, comfortable, and out of trouble.

Children also instinctively understand the value of being heard. If you’ve ever ridden in a car with a 2-year-old, you know exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know about you, but I can only hear my son say “Dad” so many times before I have no choice but to stop what I’m doing and respond. Of course, when I do, he often has nothing prepared to say. Like the rest of us, he simply wants to be heard, to be acknowledged, and to have his voice validated.

As we grow up, we begin to understand that listening is also the key to building and maintaining strong relationships — at school, at home, and at work. If we don’t listen to our friends, we quickly find ourselves without any. If we don’t listen to our spouses, we wind up with marital troubles. If we don’t listen to our teams (and actively solicit their feedback), we miss out on opportunities to learn, innovate, and grow. And if we don’t listen to our customers, we lose them to the competition.

The More Things Change …

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits her and sells itself.” Renowned business thinker Peter Drucker wrote these words in 1973, in his book Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practice. And they are every bit as true today as they were back then.

Business transactions are, at their core, mutually beneficial relationships between buyers and sellers, which is why strong sales and marketing strategies aren’t focused on pushing product, but on creating value for all parties.

The key to delivering value to your customers (whether it’s engaging content, or relevant products and services) is understanding what they want. In other words, before they’ll listen to you, you have to listen to them.

This principle has been at the heart of marketing since … well, the advent of marketing. Of course, thanks to technology, most companies now serve far more people than businesses did 20 or 30 years ago. But our customers still want to be treated like individuals, not just one of many. They want us to know them — what they want, what they need, and what really matters to them. In fact, 54 percent of consumers would consider ending their relationship with a retailer unless given tailor-made, relevant content and offers, according to the CMO Council.

New technologies make this easier for modern marketers. With a robust marketing automation platform that tracks customers’ behaviors and creates individual profiles, companies can learn more about their buyers than ever.

But we must walk before we can run. Simply put, becoming a great digital marketer starts with being a great listener — online and off. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be highlighting some time-tested principles for effective listening. Along the way, I’d also love to hear what works for you. You can post your listening stories and strategies in the comments below, or share your thoughts with me on Twitter.

Related Resources:

1) Blog: “Are You Listening? How to Deliver What Your Clients REALLY Want

2) White Paper: “Creating Real-Time Individualized Campaigns Around Every Imaginable Buyer Behavior

3) Blog: “3 Reasons to Start Building Relationships Before You Have an Email Address

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