"Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply," wrote Stephen R. Covey, author of the best-selling guide The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. They're words to live by – and work by, if you're working or supervising in a customer service role.
Rather than just telling your customers what you offer and how you think it will help them, being willing and able to ask them what they need, listening to the answer and discussing how you can work together to meet those needs will set you apart from competitors, particularly those who talk more than they listen.
Listening carefully will give you insight into how customers are using your product or service and help you anticipate their needs in the future. And excellent customer service skills are all about not just meeting, but anticipating the customer's needs.
You also want to be able to continue building the relationship in a way the customer prefers: some will love your weekly e-newsletter, while others will appreciate the occasional call or text message about an upcoming sale or special offer.
One of our customers in higher education says he likes at least weekly contact with vendors, “so that I’m abreast of new products (and) features that can help me.” It's important to him to hear from vendors about developments in their industry that could affect him and his institution. For him, it’s about “give and take – working together.”
Listening is so important that Stephen R. Covey made it the focus of Habit 5 of his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
Covey encourages development of what he calls “empathic listening,” or listening with the intent to understand. In addition to giving personal relationship examples, Covey writes about how empathic listening can even help in sales: “An effective sales person first seeks to understand the needs, the concerns, the situation of the customer. The amateur salesman sells products; the professional sells solutions to needs and problems.”
Knowing more about customers’ concerns is also a key to innovation—together, perhaps you can come up with a novel process or product that solves a widespread problem or addresses a pervasive issue.
You won’t know what works best for them until you ask and listen to the answer.