Do Your Employees Really Know How to Listen to Customers?
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Do Your Employees Really Know How to Listen to Customers?

Do Your Employees Really Know How to Listen to Customers?

In their Harvard Business Review article, “What Great Listeners Actually Do,” authors Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman explain how most people believe they are better-than-average listeners. They reveal the myth of how people believe good listening comes down to:

  1. Remaining silent while others are speaking
  2. Using facial expressions and verbal sounds (“mmm-hmm”) to indicate that you’re listening to others
  3. Repeating word for word what others said. We have all been taught this practice and heard the following comment: “So, let me make sure I understand you. What you’re saying is... ”

Research suggests that these behaviors fall far short of superior listening skills. The article cites a study comparing the best listeners to average listeners and identifying the characteristics that make an outstanding listener:

-Good listening is much more than being silent. It is actually the opposite; people perceive the best listeners to be those who periodically ask questions that stimulate further discovery and insight. Sitting silently and nodding does not provide sure evidence that a person is listening. Good listening was consistently seen as a two-way dialog. The best conversations were active.

-Good listening included interactions that build a person’s self-esteem. The best listeners made the conversation a positive experience for the other party, which doesn’t happen when the listener is passive. Good listeners made the other person feel supported and conveyed confidence in them.

-Good listening was seen as a cooperative conversation. In these interactions, feedback flowed smoothly in both directions with neither party becoming defensive about comments the other made. By contrast, poor listeners were seen as competitive—as listening only to identify errors in reasoning or logic, using their silence as a chance to prepare their next response. That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener. Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.

-Good listeners tended to make suggestions. Good listening invariably included some feedback provided in ways that others would accept and that opened up alternative paths to consider.

This was my favorite part of the HBR article: “While many of us have thought of being a good listener being like a sponge that accurately absorbs what the other person is saying, instead, what these findings show is that good listeners are like trampolines.” You can bounce ideas off a truly good listener. In return, rather than merely taking your energy, they deliver energy and clarification back to your own thought process. They are active supporters, increasing your vertical movement and energy level for a metaphorical trampoline effect. It is a fantastic example of brilliance in the basics, because what could be more foundational to success than your customers feeling they’ve truly been heard?

Making this approach an integral part of your customer support vision statement is worth considering. When your employees learn and practice this style of higher-level communication, it will naturally lead to a superior customer service experience.

John R. DiJulius III, author of The Customer Service Revolution, is president of The DiJulius Group, a customer service consulting firm that works with companies including Starbucks, Chick-fil-A, Ritz-Carlton, Nestle, PwC, Lexus, and many more. Contact him at 216-839-1430 or

Published: August 15th, 2022

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