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Why We Can’t Hear Our Clients — 3 Ways to Fix the Problem before It’s too Late

Why We Can’t Hear Our Clients — 3 Ways to Fix the Problem before It’s too Late

I’m often asked how my work as a couple’s counselor prepared me for working with agencies. There’s no question that agencies and clients are in an entirely different relationship than domestic partners, but there are some common blind spots — and one big one is how we hear each other, and how we don’t.

Think about the last time you had a discussion with a long-time friend, partner, spouse, or associate. Can you honestly say you listened to everything that had to say? Likely, there was a point when you were not listening, because you’ve essentially already heard that point of view before. You’ve already listened to their discussion of a given topic, and possibly more than once. You don’t need to hear it again.

From the standpoint of any organization’s relationship with its clients, that behavior can get you in serious trouble. I call it “already listening” — as the listening and the not listening happens simultaneously. If you can’t really hear your clients, you’re losing the opportunity to understand them. No client wants to be misunderstood — and to circle back to the similarities between business and other relationships for a moment, no one wants to be misunderstood.

The impacts on an organization-client relationship could be fatal for the bottom line if communication is not carried out properly, not to mention your reputation. So here’s a primer on how to ensure your teams aren’t practicing this behavior — intentionally or not, and how to undo it before a relationship goes south.

The Scenario

Here’s a for-instance. Next time you’re in a meeting with your team and the client they’re handling, whether it’s a live meeting or a virtual meeting, watch their body language. As the client starts making a point, does your team start fidgeting or picking up a notepad? Do they reach for their iPad or a copy of the presentation? Do they hunch their shoulders or look away from the client? After the meeting, note the behavior to your team, but don’t call them on it. Just ask them what was going through their minds and let them be honest.

Something I’ve often witnessed is what happens when a long-standing client says, “I have just one problem.” From the team’s perspective, it’s likely not the first time the client has said it, nor is it going to be “just one” problem, and they’re tired of hearing it. If I ask the team about their experience with the client, they may say the client is too negative, too cautious, doesn’t seem to like their ideas, and that his one problem is actually a package deal, filled with the same litany of problems he always responds with. From the team’s perspective, there’s no other way to react. They already know what he’s going to say, and their body language conveys that they’re not interested in going through this dance again.

The problem is they may think the client doesn’t notice. I’m here to say they do. When I ask the client about his experience with the agency, it’s likely he says that the team doesn’t listen to his feedback. And as a result, he tries to group all his points under one topic — the “just one problem.”

Bring up the Potential Consequences

From experience I know that a client’s feeling they’re not heard, and a team’s feeling there’s no need to keep listening are a recipe for disaster. What comes next could be far more damaging, as the client potentially seeks another team and another organization who will listen. The first step is to make sure your team understands that if the pattern of their “already listening” isn’t fixed in time, it will have consequences.

Pretend it’s the First Time

As with couples counseling, the issue isn’t who is right — likely, your team is trying their best to come up with great ideas, and the client is doing their best as well. But from your team’s position, are they open-minded to the client’s ideas if they are sure they’ve heard it all before? It’s a useful exercise to have them imagine they are hearing something from the client for the first time. Remind them that whoever the client goes to next — after feeling unheard — will surely be doing just that if given the opportunity.

Look for the Differences

Despite your team’s conviction that they have already listened to the client’s points again and again, ask them to listen for the differences the next time. In other words, have them not only listen to the client, but listen to what the client expresses in the moment that isn’t exactly what the client said before. There will inevitably be differences — and that’s fertile ground for realizing why there’s more to be heard.

The sooner you can get your team to detach from the habit of “already listening”, the less potentially harmful the behavior will be. Unlike a marriage, the relationship of an agency or any other organization with a client is ultimately based on collaboration and transaction — if the team doesn’t deliver, the client won’t stay, and shouldn’t. But delivering isn’t just a matter of presenting great ideas that are bound to have results. Delivering also means demonstrating respect and honoring that client’s point of view. A skilled team will know how to adapt and shape that perspective for the best outcome — without making the client feel unheard. If you can take the team from “already listening” to “listening anew”, you’re on the way to improving your relationships with your clients.


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by Paul Cowan // Paul Cowan is a relationship specialist who had a successful career in leading international advertising agencies, then opened his own agency. As a psychotherapist he worked with individuals and couples and consulted with teams and organizations. Specializing in client relationships, he works internationally to facilitate change between agencies and their clients. He cofounded the Client Relationship Consultancy and the Customer Relationship Consultancy. His new book is Connecting with Clients — For stronger, more rewarding and longer-lasting client relationships.

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