Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Are we “listening” to or merely “hearing” our customers?

As frequently annoying as my English major history is to my co-workers and friends, it sometimes directs me to nuances in our communication and presentation that although possibly nit-picky to others, at minimum provide me with fodder for blog posts. As I was contemplating some fine-tuning of a social media and networking strategy and the implications of our corporate presence in the wild world of Twitter, it occurs to me that I have been suggesting that an option for many B2B first steps into the SMN world is to "hear" what their customers and others are saying, when I really mean we should be "listening" to them. As a common practice and in our customer relationship and support efforts, we use these words interchangeably when by any definition (you can check me) they really are quite different and depending upon which word we choose as the foundation of our strategy, may have very different ramifications for our success.

Briefly, (I won't bore you with etymology or origin), Merriam-Webster Online offers that the word "hearing" is suggestive of the process and biology by which our ears receive and transmit sound. "Listening" on the other hand, intimates a higher-level neural process of interpretation. If we have a loss of "hearing", we cannot process the stimuli of audio waves; if we lose the ability to "listen", in this context, I suggest that we are missing some key messages that our customers, prospects, and others are trying to transmit. As a direction for our participation in social media and networks and our customer conversation overall, this is a key difference.

I have been writing quite a bit about "listening" to the conversation of our customers, competitors, prospects, and general audience in the SMN world a way to assess perception of our solutions, begin to respond more interactively with various audiences, and fine-tune our messages and products. As B2B's are struggling with whether they should participate in the SMN universe or not and as they do, how they should measure the success of this effort, I think we often get trapped in the numbers game of "how many mentions" "how many followers" "how many leads" "how many prospects" "how many negative v. positives tweets" etc., etc., etc. While these are valuable metrics, I believe that they only provide a slice of the customer conversational dynamic. To me, the true appeal of interacting with audiences in ways other than through "Contact us" forms on websites, is that Twitter, Facebook, etc. afford us with a deeper level of information and idea exchange that is repeatable across many demographics and platforms. Instead of just counting the web hits on our new feature release page, we can assess the tone of the conversation about the release; compare different threads from tech-Twibes to Facebook Fan groups, to closed-user communities, to general user population groups. Conversation in this fashion provides us with a much richer picture of the reaction of our audience and we are using the SAME collateral, potentially, as we would in a static post on our website. I don't think this is as subtle of a distinction as it may appear and it is one of the many reasons I am so passionate about the potential of social media and networking in the B2B world; it imbues our professional conversations with a deeper and more compelling meaning and hopefully, casts the net of relationship possibilities wider.

In a broader sense, I think that the difference between "hearing" conversations about our solutions and "listening" to them can inform our customer support, sales, and roadmap strategies in much more intelligent fashion. I am not discounting the relevance of assessing the number of clients who want us to produce a webinar about the use of one feature v. another in our product sets, but I think that we may be much better informed, prepared, and relevant to their needs if we understand their various use models or proposed implementations of the feature in which they express interest. To me, this is the difference between "hearing" what they want and "listening" to it. Listening to the dialogue around us implies that we are prepared to engage in attentive and respectful conversations. We will ask intelligent questions. We will have some level of information about the other party's interests and demographic and we will reflect that in our responses and questions back to them. We will invite other resources and people to the conversation, as appropriate. We will NOT monopolize the conversation. And most importantly, we will not assume that people have any interest in what we are saying until they indicate so, so we will not continue to go on and on to the same people when it is clear that they are looking for any way to excuse themselves from the conversations, up to and including leaving the room and "blocking" us.


Does all of this sound like basic interpersonal etiquette? As I have suggested before, the principles for success in social media and networking conversations are founded in the manners with which most of us were schooled. Be nice; raise your hand; wait your turn; ask about the other person's interests and hobbies; say please and thank you, etc., etc., etc.

As always, my warmest regards,



Merriam-Webster Online


1 a: the process, function, or power of perceiving sound ; specifically
: the special sense by which noises and tones are received as stimuli
2 a: opportunity to be heard, to present one's side of a case, or to be generally known or appreciated
b (1): a listening to arguments
(2): a preliminary examination in criminal procedure
c: a session (as of a legislative committee) in which testimony is taken from witnesses3chiefly dialect
: a piece of news


: to pay attention to sound <listen to music>
: to hear something with thoughtful attention : give consideration <listen to a plea>
: to be alert to catch an expected sound <listen for his step>

1 comment:

  1. Hi Lisa,

    Astute observation!

    Most companies want to hear [implying watch, decide, control, respond to what we want to and ignore the rest]. Hearing belongs to a command-control regime

    There are very few that truly listen and engage.

    Listening is at the heart of community building - irrespective of the online/ traditional tools that we use.

    Listening is an art, quite like a good conversation, but thats another story.

    Good post and thank you for triggering this thought and 'conversation' :)


    Anita Lobo