I took a Listening class in college (yes for credit!) and I learned there are two kinds of listening: passive and active. The class covered the psychology and behavior of listening to in-person conversations. However, as with most of this social stuff, the underlying principles of how listening works ends up being roughly the same online – after all, we are human in both venues. What I’ve realized, after many years in this “new” listening space that includes socially-empowered customers, is that it’s actually where in the conversation you start listening that distinguishes the value it can bring to your organization.
So, here’s an easy way to think about it – reactive and proactive. If you are just doing one, you are missing out on some seriously good stuff. Let me explain a bit …
- Reactive listening delivers incremental feedback (today)
- Proactive listening delivers game-changing discovery (tomorrow)
With reactive listening, you’re not really involved in a conversation; you are having ideas come at you with very little in the way of context and underlying needs. Online, reactive listening (most of the time) takes the form of web monitoring – either for key words, your brand, your competitor’s brand – on Twitter, Facebook, blogs or using suggestion-box-type online communities, such as MyStarbucksIdea.com or Ford’s “your ideas” site. So, you can see when someone’s really mad at you and respond, or get ideas for where things are wrong with your products or services and how you might do it better. You’re getting feedback and suggestions about things you could improve, or possibly some reaction to new product features. Good stuff and useful, yes, but it’s incremental. It’s about what’s already happened. It’s about what customers already know today.
Proactive listening is totally different. You are out there engaging directly in conversation, even starting the conversation. You are posing questions, answering questions, creating ideas together, exploring unexplored spaces. You might even be searching for something you haven’t even thought of yet. What you get is something totally different – we call it ‘discovery’ – and it’s focused on tomorrow -the possibilities of what could be.
But before you can get to discovery, you have to do a lot of work building relationships and earning trust. We do this for every community we build for our clients – we work on creating ‘social glue’ for each member, a reason for them to be a part of it. And that reason needs to connect to their lives somehow; they need to get intrinsic value for showing up. So, you don’t create a tampon community to talk about tampons; you create a community of teen girls to talk about their lives, habits and needs with each other; ask them to help you know them – and along the way you are guaranteed to learn something about how to do better with tampons.
Over time, by continuously listening, asking and doing for these customers, you get real relationships. This conversation becomes the foundation for the relationship. Each time they do something, you need to tell them how it helped you or made you better (even if you didn’t implement it, you should explain why) or build on their thoughts and ideas to demonstrate that what they are sharing is of value to you.
You would not believe the stuff customers will share with you if they truly think you are listening. Their hopes, fears and dreams can become the inspiration for your next big move.
What’s different here? When you have this relationship with your customers, when they’ll go beyond what you’d imagine any sane person might do to show you their lives, you get insight and understanding about what’s relevant and important to them. When you are proactively listening, you hear things that you wouldn’t just stumble upon while searching your brand alerts. You learn what’s next, what’s new with your customers and how they’re changing.
By purposefully finding ways to walk in their shoes, you get beyond what customers simply tell you they need. Instead, you’re uncovering latent needs, insights or white space, and then, knowing that, your company can go solve for it. Right out of the gate, you are relevant, rather than simply reacting once they’ve voiced an opinion. This doesn’t mean that testing and immediate feedback are unnecessary, but it does mean that equal emphasis needs to be placed on more open-ended discovery to think about the future.
Proactive listening is about getting into the hearts and minds of real people. And weaving this process into the fabric of how you do business. The result of doing this right can be game-changing. But you’ve got to get out there and ask, wonder and explore…then shut up and listen.