In many ways, the key to social marketing is listening. In a social marketing world, the way we listen to our market is far more important than how we speak to it. We need to listen to customers to understand their needs, identify how to promote products and services and stay current on trends influencing the market. Today’s organizations cannot simply engage in selective listening. They must listen in an intentional, ongoing, active manner that takes advantage of social media, product and brand communities, customer support, technical service, sales personnel and other employees, intermediaries and stakeholders with customer contact.
Active listening is critical because it provides insights from the customer’s viewpoint. When employing active listening strategies, companies continually stay current on what customers are talking about–their concerns, frustrations and feelings. When customers know someone is listening and sincerely interested, they develop trust, admiration and loyalty. Moreover, the information that customers share allows us to walk in their shoes and experience a different universe. Eventually, customers become more open and forthcoming with ideas that create value. In time, these customers become advocates who share their positive experiences with others who become customers.
Unfortunately, many times businesses do not make the most of opportunities to listen because employees do not know how. When listening opportunities present themselves, business personnel need to listen between the lines by focusing on words, feelings, expressions and tones. This isn’t easy because such focus requires restraint, discipline, empathy, understanding and problem-solving abilities.
Barriers to Active Listening
Even when opportunities to listen present themselves, barriers often stand in the way of being better listeners. Businesses today are understaffed and employees are overworked. They simply do not have the patience nor time to listen. Some businesses may even think that listening is unproductive. Instead, they target maximizing the number of phones answered in an hour or number of customer visits in a day. Needless to say, people don’t get raises for simply listening to customers; nor do listening metrics appear on performance reviews.
Another barrier to effective listening is a tendency to project one’s own opinions, ideas, prejudices, inclinations and impulses. When this happens, because you are not listening, you are likely to offend the person who is communicating. While communication rarely takes place in controlled settings, the most conducive environments are free from distractions and permit the two parties to focus solely on transmitting and receiving accurate information.
As markets become increasingly diverse and global, language is increasingly a barrier to active listening. Fortunately for Americans, English is becoming the international language for business, science and engineering. Even so, understanding people who speak English as a second language can be challenging, even though a number of tips and tricks for that problem can be used. But when the challenges of effective listening are too great, companies should be prepared to hire a language translations services provider that can accommodate their needs.
The Power of Passive Listening
Today, forward-looking businesses use the power of social media to passively listen to current market gossip and rumors and pick up on emerging trends concerning problems, products, and competitors. Businesses monitor blogs, online user groups, and influential market and industry journalists for the latest opinions and information in the industry. While some sites provide valuable insights and honest opinions, others may provide tirades and rages from unhappy customers. Monitoring these sources in total can provide a snapshot of the market by identifying trends, relationships and satisfaction. International companies can also track how opinions vary between countries and develop hypotheses and implications for research.
As sites that cater to specific interests, online communities are proving to be a treasure trove of deep consumer insights. Participants on these sites engage in online conversations that discuss trends, brands, products and ideas. In some instances, a company may create or sponsor a community, while other communities develop organically. The comments and conversations that visitors, members and influencers of these sites share reveal cues about their specific likes, dislikes, wants and needs. For example, one online community, 3fatchicks.com, hosts thousands of conversations regarding diets, meal plans, supplements and products related to the $20-billion-dollar weight-loss market. A manufacturer of blenders might consider following this site for conversations related to consumer perceptions of Ninja, Vitamix and other competitors. Conversations may range from reliability, maintenance, best places to buy and the validity of their weight loss and healthy lifestyle claims.
To make the most of communities, most companies benefit from passively following conversation and not participating in exchanges. By simply listening, companies can gain amazing insights from participants on these sites who are often very forthcoming. They not only allow marketers to keep a pulse on the market but, more importantly, to identify new opportunities to grow their businesses.
Listening tours offer another opportunity to listen to customers. These tours involve going out and meeting customers face-to-face. Basically, companies ask customers direct questions about what they like, dislike and want improved. When planning a listening tour, it is best to develop a set of questions that can be used as a guide. Instead of rigidly defining a set of questions, allow for some flexibility in how they are asked. A good question guide includes questions designed to learn about your customers, their likes and their dislikes and how they evaluate the overall value of your product or service. By using open-ended, unstructured questioning, you should try to engage people in free-flowing conversations that reveal insights into emotional and rational decisions and choices.
Once you ask your questions, pause and allow your customer to answer. Avoid any temptation to interrupt. Make notes of each customer’s suggestions, recommendations, ideas, likes and displeasures. To ensure you captured the responses accurately, restate what the customer indicated to verify that you correctly captured the essence of the conversation. Following these recommendations will reap desired rewards for your company and your stockholders.