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Listen Up!

If you're like most IPs, you love to hear yourself talk. After all, why shouldn't you? You're an expert in your field. You've paid your dues. You've bailed out of the corporate nine to five, and you're most decidedly your own person. Your clients are falling all over themselves to pay you the big bucks to tell them the best way to market their brand-new, heart-attack-waiting-to-happen triple bacon cheeseburger, how to slip a few more tax deductions past an underpaid and overworked IRS auditor, or how to design a truly bitchin' e-commerce site. Life is good.

Or is it?

There's really nothing wrong with IPs who talk -- after all, in many cases that's exactly what their clients are paying them to do. The problem is IPs who talk, and talk, and talk, and who forget to listen to what their clients have to say. That's a recipe for losing clients, not winning them. Lose too many clients and guess what? You're going to find yourself in some deep kimchi sooner than you can say Pyongyang five times fast.

But it's one thing to listen, and it's another thing altogether to actually hear what's being said. According to the guys and gals whose job it is to figure out such things (oooh -- that sounds like a fun job), we only hear about 25 percent of all the stuff our clients, associates, friends, spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, or significant others happen to say to us at any given time. This means that 75 percent of everything someone else says to us never makes it into our brains; instead it gets tossed out like yesterday's egg salad sandwich.

One of the easiest ways to develop good client relationships is to listen to your clients -- really listen to them. This doesn't mean simply nodding your head every time your client says "Are you following me so far?" or sprinkling in a random "uh-huh" or grunt for good measure. This means opening up your ears, focusing on your client, and Listening -- with a capital L.

Ron Zemke, a guy who knows the topic of serving clients the right way, and author of the popular Knock Your Socks Off series of books, has some pretty good advice for those of us who like to hear ourselves talk a little too much for our own good. In his book, Delivering Knock Your Socks Off Service, Ron (and co-author Kristin Anderson) writes that there are a variety of obstacles that can get in the way of your really listening to what your clients have to say to you. If you can recognize and remove these obstacles between you and your clients, you'll be a better listener, and your clients will love you to death.

With apologies to Ron, I've trimmed the list down just a bit, and picked out the points that I like the best:

  1. Interruptions. Don't you just hate it when you're meeting with someone, and the whole time you're talking he's tapping away on his keyboard and clicking away on his computer mouse -- maybe hearing one in every ten words that you say? Join the club! Interruptions like these -- or when your pet iguana (and office mascot) Fido slips out of his cage and makes a run for the border -- all add up to lousy listening experiences, and pissed-off clients. And pissed-off clients are clients who find someone else to do your job for them!

  2. Daydreaming. Yeah, I know you're really looking forward to that ski trip with your sweetie pie next week, but your clients are paying you a big pile of money to listen to what they have to say -- the least you can do is give your clients your undivided attention. Save your daydreams for when you're off the clock (or at least until you hang up the phone).

  3. Attitude. As the old saying goes, "Attitude is everything." What kind of attitude have you got when it comes to listening to your clients? Do you think that you know it all, and they don't? Do you think that you can't possibly learn anything new from them? Do you often wonder what planet they're from? Big mistake. If you've got an attitude problem when it comes to your clients, it's going to get in the way of your ability to listen to them, and your client relations are guaranteed to go right down the drain -- along with your clients.

  4. Noise. If your work environment is too noisy or is filled with too many distractions, then you're going to have a hard time listening to your clients. Sorry, but this means turning down the volume on that groovy new 400-watt surround-sound stereo system you had built into your personal computer, and taking a moment to listen up! Don't worry -- that Carpenters CD will be there waiting for you when you get off the phone.

  5. Technology. Those same guys and gals who figured out that 75 percent of the words that people say to you don't ever get anywhere near your brain have been busy bees in other areas, too. These diligent researchers also found out that less than 30 percent of communication is verbal, while the overwhelming majority -- more than 70 percent -- of communication between you and your clients is nonverbal. So, what happens to that 70+ percent of nonverbal communication when you receive an email or voicemail message from your clients, or communicate with them via a two-way pager or the latest whiz-bang gizmo du jour? It's gone -- never to be seen or heard from again. As useful and hip as the latest communications technology is, there's really nothing like a good old-fashioned face-to-face client meeting to open up the channels of real communication between you and your clients.

So, starting right now, make a pledge to stop talking so much, and to spend more time listening to your clients. Every time you catch yourself dominating a conversation with your clients, pinch yourself -- hard, if you have to -- and back off! And, if you really want to score extra brownie points, then acknowledge that you've actually heard what your clients say (while complimenting them on their incredible insight and wisdom) and take notes like crazy. Finally, incorporate their thoughts into your own and deliver the product or service that you know they want. While you may not always agree with what your clients have to say, let them know you care enough about your business relationship (and them!) to listen.

And don't forget: a happy client is a client who keeps signing your checks and dropping them in the mailbox to you.


We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Peter Economy if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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