On listening: the most underrated tool in your business toolbox

Sharon Tanton

The single most useful thing that you can do to inform your marketing, and indeed your whole business, is to invest in customer feedback. Talk to real customers; ask them the right questions and listen hard. Here’s how.

Secrets to content marketing success

“Listening is a powerful act: you have to put yourself out to do it.” ~ David Hockney

Marketing and business development have become so high tech, it’s easy to lose sight of the basics. With so many platforms, so many formats, so many ways of connecting, and of measuring performance it can feel overwhelming. In small businesses this overwhelm can lead to paralysis – ‘I just don’t know where to focus my efforts’. In bigger organisations this overwhelm can be absorbed into marketing activity that looks like it’s doing what it should be, but isn’t. It’s easy to fall into the trap of being busy, while straying off the straight and narrow. And before you know it you’re miles away from you should be.

Turning your business around to make it more customer focused makes sure you stay on track. Whether it’s your business strategy, your product/service strategy or your marketing communications and content strategy, if you see your business from the outside in then your direction becomes much clearer.

Organisations that really connect with people put their customers at the centre of all they do. How do you do that? By talking to real customers; asking them the right questions and listening hard. The single most useful thing that you can do to inform your marketing, and indeed your whole business, is to invest in customer feedback.

This listening/client feedback process is at the heart of all we do at Valuable Content. Whether we’re helping a client set their future strategy, find their story or work out what content will be truly valuable, customer feedback is the lynch pin that holds it all together. It’s invariably listening to customers which provides the insight that’s sparked the best ideas, on any project that comes through our doors.

Marketers and strategists too often go into a huddle in a boardroom to work out the next steps. We say – get out there, ask good questions and listen really hard!

Here’s where listening is invaluable, and a whistle stop tour of how we do it at Valuable Content.

Listen for strategy

The absolute business fundamentals. What services are you providing and for who? What do people use you for/pay you for? And why? What’s the true value?

Talking to a range of your customers/stakeholders about how, why and where they use you can help you get your offer and positioning straight.

This is as useful for a start up wondering how to lay out their first stall as it is for a large organisation with complex established services. Are you providing what people want? If you don’t know, ask them some good questions and listen hard to their answers.

Listen for story

How do you tell the story of what you do? What’s your business purpose?

That might feel like it has to come from you – it’s your story, right? But if it’s not grounded in your customer’s world too, it won’t resonate with them. Self-absorbed stories won’t win you any fans.

Listen hard to the challenges your customers are facing, and weave those into your story, so it feels relevant. Make sure you’re slaying the right dragons, or it won’t be happy ever after! More on telling your story here.

Listen for tone of voice

Tone of voice is one of those slippery things it can be hard to pin down. A warm and engaging tone of voice makes a huge difference to the way your brand is perceived. But what does that actually mean in practice? How do you know which words to use in your email newsletter? What language will engage your audience on your website home page? Listening to your customers is really helpful here.

Good, clear and simple language is your baseline, but to create a tone of voice that genuinely feels like it’s talking your customers’ language, use your customers’ language. How? Well, a light touch approach could mean listening to check that you’re not using any jargon that your customers never use. Ridding your website of internal focused language will make it more helpful and easier to understand.

Go deeper

If you want to go deeper, listen more. Record conversations with clients, work to unpick how their language is constructed, and reflect it back in your communications. What metaphors do they use? Which comparisons do they make? What patterns of words do they use to describe the before and after of the way you help them? This kind of information is marketing gold dust.

Listen to support change

Business doesn’t stand still. Listening supports strategic change. If you build listening into your business activities you’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to meeting your customers’ changing needs. Ask questions that delve deeper than a straightforward ‘how are we doing?’ into ‘describe the challenges in your world.’

It means you’ll have the evidence you need to change the way you do things or what you offer. Listening can de-risk change. It means a change of direction won’t be a stab in the dark, rather a response to your customers’ guiding lights.

Listen for content ideas

Our perennial favourite. The very best content ideas will come from your customers. Answering their questions will give you blog, video and podcast ideas for the rest of the year and beyond.

How to listen

We’ve honed a simple customer feedback process over the years. Here it is, in a nutshell.

  • Select a range of your best customers/clients and contacts. One call is better than no calls, but the more the merrier. A couple of examples: for a small business using customer feedback to help write their business story, aim for between 5 and 15. For a larger business using customer feedback to inform strategy decisions aim for upwards of 30.
  • Create a list of open-ended questions. You’re listening to understand their world, their challenges.  Make them broader than a simple, ‘tell us how we’re doing.’
  • Decide whether you want to do the calls yourself, or need third party help. We’ve done it both ways, and both are valid. Sometimes it can be easier for someone else to ask searching questions on your behalf, and sometimes it can be easier for people to answer honestly if they’re talking to a somebody independent and experienced.
  • Phone is better than face to face. It’s easier for you to ask the questions, and it’s easier for your interviewee to answer honestly without all that awkward eye-content and being polite malarkey! It’s faster too. You can get heaps of really juicy detailed information in a 25 minute phone call, which would take at least an hour face-to-face.
  • Set up a time for the phone call via email. Explain what you’re doing, and why.
  • Record the call. We use a service called Record My Phone Call but there are lots of recording options.
  • Transcribe the call, verbatim. You want the exact words, all of them. We get help typing up the calls – it’s lengthy, but worth it (and so far the automated services out there we’ve found to be rubbish). Your customers’ real words are infinitely more valuable than marketing persona guess work.

Do listen

“The biggest communication problem is we do not listen to understand.
We listen to reply.” ~ Stephen R. Covey

Try it, test your assumptions. You’ll be amazed at the value you get back – real gems of wisdom and insight – marketing and business strategy gold!

For those who have already experienced this process, let us know what you think. What did you learn from the process? Was it important? What changes did you make on the back of what you heard from customers?

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