Good strategies rely on a deep understanding of customers.

Much of the time we assume that, in general, we know what other people think, so why bother to listen? Psychologists refer to this social-cognitive skill as “Theory of Mind.” Humans create stories or narratives that explain the behavior of others, based on theories of what we imagine is happening inside their heads. “Theory of Mind” informs a great deal of our interaction with others and, in fact, we wouldn’t do very well in social situations without it. But, applying this kind of mind reading to strategy work doesn’t usually yield optimum results.

I work with a client who is a leader in creating university software. Sales of their new software product weren’t doing well and they didn’t understand why. My advice was to go on a listening tour and talk to targeted potential customers, with the explicit directive that they simply listen, and not sell.

The senior manager’s quick response to me was “that would be a waste of time; we already understand how these people think. The sales team is out talking to them all the time, and we even hired a former university software buyer to join our marketing department.”

From his perspective, his prospects simply didn’t understand that the superiority of the software functionality and unique pricing model could lead to enormous savings for them. And with his final statement, “We just need to work on messaging and do a better job of telling our story,” it became clear that they weren’t prepared to listen quite yet- to my advice, or to their customers.

A year later my phone rang. They were ready for that listening tour. As we travelled the country together and engaged with 20 potential customers, we heard how risk averse they were. My client was able to deduce that the product was actually too innovative for this market.

Together we developed a plan to launch a bridge product that was easier for universities to adopt. Once their comfort level increased, they could introduce the more innovative add-on features. After implementing this change, their business started to grow and thrive like never before.

A listening tour is time-consuming but not as time-consuming as implementing the wrong strategy. The best listening tours go beyond listening to just one type of customer. Don’t go just for the customers who are easy to reach or those who already love your products. Be persistent and keeping hammering away until you have talked to a truly representative sample.

There are many keys to a successful listening tour but the most important one is to stop talking and listen. This sounds simple but is actually incredibly difficult for most people. It is hard to visit a customer and not want to sell them something or, at least, extol the virtues of your company and products or services.

To listen, you have to stop talking and make space for the other person to share their ideas. Don’t correct them or suggest answers. Resist the urge to fill the uncomfortable silences. Most difficult of all, don’t hint at what you want to hear.

What are you assuming about your customers and how they think?   How could you do some deep listening to check those assumptions?

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More Information: Interested in more information on listening in a business context? I recommend this article from the Center for Executive Excellence on the five levels of the listening. 

I also suggest checking out this TED Talk with a broader societal perspective on listing. by Julian Treasure – Author of How to be Heard: Secrets for Powerful Speaking and Listening.

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