Active Listening

A new application of the 80/20 rule

A few years ago, I had a very interesting lunch with a linguistics professor (Yes, I lead a sad life). His area of interest was AI speech recognition and understanding how we listen.

What he told me has stayed with me and helps to explain something that has always puzzled me.

Have you ever noticed how someone will answer a question that has not been asked?

You meet someone you know and start the conversation by asking, ‘How are the children finding their new school?’. They answer, ‘Yes, I’m fine, thank you’.

You may feel they are either not interested in you and your question or thinking about something else.

The professor explained that what we now term ‘active listening’ is counter to the way our brains have evolved to function. When we are in listening mode, our brain is hard-wired to do precisely what active listening discourages.

Our brain listens to the first couple of seconds of a conversation, evaluates the input “How are…’. Predicts the most likely outcome, makes a judgment – this will end ‘you’ and performs triage (Hmm, this is low priority).

Essentially the brain extracts basic information rapidly and uses it to generate predictions that help it interpret that input. References its memory bank of past experiences and selects the most appropriate response; then, the brain goes off to do other things.

According to current thinking in cognitive neuroscience, this mode of functioning evolved as the brain’s strategy to use its finite neural capacity efficiently.

So active listening, when viewed from this standpoint, requires the conscious override of the brain’s preferred way of doing things – it’s hard-wired need for efficiency, prediction and planning.

Listening isn’t just a listening thing.

For a Customer Service Manager looking to build or enhance a relationship, it is essential to appreciate the vital role nonverbal communication plays when engaging with your customer, helping to increase trust and clarity.

If your counterparty feels that you are bored, distracted, or annoyed, it is likely to undermine your active listening efforts.

Usually, people are unaware they are giving off negative nonverbal cues that others notice. On the other hand, working on your nonverbal communication and trying to ensure it’s positive can increase your credibility and trustworthiness.

And these non-verbal clues can be just as relevant on video calls. You may not be able to see hand gestures or other tell tale signs (shaking your knee or playing with your pen) that you are bored or disinterested; so facial expressions and head movements are critical.

Facial expressions are closely tied to our emotions – and are probably our most prominent non-verbal communicators.

I have covered eye contact before and the fact that, in some cultures, it can be a sign of disrespect, but generally, it is interpreted as a lack of confidence in your product; in the same vein, some head movements can be culture-specific for example nodding in agreement in western cultures. 

As a ‘bolt-on’ to active listening, observing head movement is a valuable way to gauge interest and understanding. If your customer is indicating a negative response, stop and ask if they are confused or have any questions rather than just ploughing on regardless.

80/20 rule of active listening.

I am sure you have heard this before, but the problem with most sales-related meetings is that the sales rep won’t keep quiet, and they keep on about how fantastic their product is or how their post-sales support is second to none.

An essential part of the Customer Success Manager’s role (something covered in some detail in the Practical CSM Framework) is understanding the needs and aims of the customer and their stakeholders.

The best place to acquire this data is from the customer, but how are you ever going to find out if you don’t stop talking and LISTEN!

Before we go on, let’s add a couple of Don’ts.

Don’t interrupt; this is very frustrating for the speaker; it gives the impression that you think you’re more important, that you’re not interested, or have time for what they have to say. 

Don’t jump to conclusions; avoid engaging in immediate judgment, prejudice, assumptions, rebuttal or criticism; hear everything the speaker says and take some time to think about your response.

The central tenet of active listening is concentrating your attention and energy on listening and understanding what is being said. I have heard it described as ‘suspending your frame of reference’ and trying to focus entirely on the speakers. 

In any customer success or sales-related conversation, you should aim to listen 80% of the time and speak for the remainder.

Remember that the customer doesn’t want to know what you think; they want to tell you what they think, feel, and are looking for.

And, as a customer success manager, who relies on an understanding of your customer’s needs and aims to design, manage, and deliver key project elements like onboarding, adoption and value realisation, you should be encouraging your customer to talk, not trying to interrupt and talk over them. 

The more you think about what you will say next, the less likely that you will fully understand the valuable information you are being offered and miss important clues.

A frequent result of failing to follow the 80/20 rule is that the proposal or solution you put forward may make sense to you but not to the customer, leading them to assume that either you weren’t listening (true) or were more interested in pushing what suited you (more commission or internal sales initiative) than their needs.

You may end up offending the customer, a position from which you may need help to recover.

Developing your active listening skills.

I have already mentioned that active listening is a conscious effort to focus on your customer and what they are saying rather than your surroundings and what you are having for dinner this evening!

One easy-to-learn skill that can materially improve your effectiveness as a listener is reflecting (sometimes called mirroring).

Put simply, this technique involves listening carefully, then repeating back to the customer more or less what they just said (it doesn’t have to be word-perfect).

The principal value of reflecting is that the only way you can do it effectively is to listen intently first, then retain as much detailed information as possible, blocking out everything else.

As an example:

“Can I make sure I understand exactly what you are saying, your aim is to increase revenue in your analysis software division, particularly in Scandinavia. Is that correct?”

By ending with an open question, you are inviting the customer to explain in more detail and potentially add value to any proposal; by reflecting back what they said, you are demonstrating that your complete focus was on them, which is flattering.

You could end the meeting by summarising the customer’s need or aim in a single sentence ending with something like “Am I right about that?”.

We live in an age of distractions.

Focus, focus, focus.

In an age of distractions, active listening can be considered a pivotal skill to learn and deploy, and also an art form. As a guiding principle, think of yourself as a mirror. Do your best to focus on what the speaker is saying, then reflect the essential details and emotions back to them instead of focusing on your thoughts and response.

A good listener can bring various qualities to a meeting, including compassion, empathy, and patience. Try to ask open-ended questions and avoid giving unsolicited advice. If you must or are invited to offer advice or guidance, do so gently. By practising these tactics, you can become a better listener and a better customer success practitioner.

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