The art of REALLY listening to the customer

When was the last time someone really paid attention to what you were saying?

What was it like? Felt good, didn’t it? And you probably carried on talking, elaborating on whatever it was you were saying…

Listening is a hallmark of great customer service. Before you can help, you need to understand. What’s more, in a tense situation (a complaint?) the emotional temperature tends to drop when the customer feels listened to. Good listening creates a bridge between talker and listener, a connection. The result is usually more talking. Which means more information, more options and, in a customer service scenario, more potential solutions.

Why is active listening so important?

People often confuse ‘listening’ with ‘hearing’ and assume that it is something that they do automatically.  ‘Active listening’ involves not only hearing what the other person says, not just understanding the intended message, but also showing the talker that you have done so.  It’s this last element that has the effect of making the other person feel as if what they say is worth listening to, and therefore worth saying, which in turn encourages them to tell you more.

Listening is a skill. It can be learned, developed and improved. It is the key to truly excellent customer service.

Active listening skills

There are two key components to active listening: encouraging the talker to talk, and then using specific techniques to listen in such a way that they know you’re listening to them.

  1. Encourage the talker by…
  • Remaining silent
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Nodding
  • Smiling
  • Adding small vocal encouragements : “Uh-huh”, “I see”, “Go on”, “Mmm…”, etc.
  • Avoiding distractions – don’t doodle, shuffle papers or stare at the clock…
  1. Show you’re listening by…
  • Paraphrasing – repeating the message back to the talker in your own words, e.g. ”So what you’re saying is…”
  • Summarising – reiterating the key points of what they’ve said, e.g. “So the important areas for you are…”
  • Reflecting – acknowledging the talker’s feelings to show you understand what lies behind their words, e.g. “Sounds as if you’re worried about…”

Incidentally, the other big advantage of using these techniques is that you’re checking you’ve understood the message. Which prompts the talker to correct you if you’ve somehow got the wrong end of the stick.

Remember your body language

Albert Mehrabian conducted research at UCLA in the 60s which suggested that the words are not the most important part of a spoken communication or message. In other words, It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it.

Mehrabian found that any message breaks down as follows:

  • the words – 7%
  • the way the words are said – 38% (e.g. tone/pitch of voice, phrasing, etc.)
  • the body language – 55% (e.g. eye contact, facial expression, etc.)

The simplistic interpretation is that body language and tone of voice are far more important than words. Definitely not so. Words are the core of the message (and the more complicated the message, the more important the words used) but the way the message is delivered reveals the emotions and attitudes behind the words used and either confirms or contradicts them. What Mehrabian’s research shows is that all three interrelated elements can impact on meaning and you’ll need to consider all three to understand fully what the customer is saying.

So, while you’re listening, also think about the messages you are sending at the same time. You may not be speaking but remember your body language can be loud and clear.

“The reason that we have two ears and one mouth

is that we may listen the more and talk the less.”

–Zeno, Greek philosopher

To explore (and practise) active listening in more detail, including how to use it in your customer service, check out our one-day workshop “Successful Customer Service” or give us a call on 01582 463464.  We’re here to help!

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