One Skill Every Entrepreneur Can Improve: Listening
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
During the sales or leadership training courses I deliver, I enjoy using an exercise called The repeater.
The principle is simple: I start a short sentence, then volunteer a participant whom I ask to first, repeat my sentence word-for-word (it is the critical part here), and second, randomly add words to it.
So for instance, I would say something like: Today, we are together to learn about sales. I point to someone, who would repeat the sentence Today, we are together to learn about sales. Then she would add anything of her choice like the weather is beautiful. The content doesn't matter.
Next, she points out someone else who has to recite the new extended sentence word-for-word – In my example, it would be: Today, we’re together to learn about sales. The weather is beautiful. And then add something extra to it.
We then move to another person, and so on.
It is very easy to lose track of the words if you don’t pay attention. But that is exactly the point of the exercise.
Participants' reaction speaks volumes: they sit straighter on their chairs, prick up their ears and get into an active listening mode. You can see they are using their entire body to listen.
The more participants, the more profound people's attention becomes because they don't want to miss out on any words.
It is fascinating. I encourage you to do this exercise at work with your leadership team.
You might come to the same conclusion as me. And that is:
People DO have the ability to listen.
Having said that, when was the last time you were truly listening?
In episode 29 of Inter:views Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code, Anita Toth, a Churn expert, explains that clients don’t leave for one reason only. It is a combination of several elements. She says knowing your clients start by listening to them.
For her, tools like heart maps and customer journeys are incomplete because they don’t tell why people do the things they do, or why they prefer one product versus another one. And, more specifically, they don't tell why your customers have left.
So, one of Anitha’s recommendations is to spend time collecting qualitative feedback from your customers (aka asking and listening) and then feed your marketing with the information you would collect.
Listening, I mean truly listening is a skill.
And like any skill, you need to learn it, then practice it to get better at it.
The truth is we never listen enough. Let me share 3 examples that demonstrate our lack of listening:
When our brain starts wandering around while our interlocutor is speaking, and we lose complete attention to what is being said.
When we are formulating our answer in our mind while our interlocutor has not finished talking yet.
When we quickly interrupt someone because we absolutely want to give our opinion. This usually goes together with example 2.
Are you guilty of any of those?
Imagine how such behavior can impact sales: missing opportunities, showing a careless or arrogant attitude to prospects, and imposing our ideas, among other examples. Customers frequently complain about salespeople not understanding their needs. How can they if they don't listen?
Darren Burke the founder of Outcast Foods says the following in episode 85 of Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code:
“Constantly listen to the marketplace and respond accordingly. Make sure your eyes and ears and mouth are working accordingly. Listen to everything. Ask questions. Our products and business constantly evolve with the changing landscapes and the marketplace we are doing business in.”
When was the last time you spoke to a customer?
You know the person that pays for your bills… And while we are on the subject, when was the last time your team members talk to a customer? And by the way, are there any people on your team who have never spoken to a customer?
Claiming you are customer-centric is one thing, but being customer-centric is another thing.
And it starts by ensuring your entire organization constantly listens to your customers, because 100% of your employees work for the same people: the real boss, the customers!
Don’t assume you are in your clients’ heads because you are not. If you want to test your assumptions, know how your clients feel, behave, and most importantly understand why they do the things they do, the best approach is to simply ask them, then truly listen to their answers and the words they use.
What is true for your clients, is also true for your staff.
How much time do you spend listening to them?
By default, an entrepreneur is a leader. And as a leader, your job is to grow your people. One of the best ways I know to do so is to listen to them. Because you must understand what they are really good at, which would enable you you to give them the right tasks and responsibilities. You also must understand their pain points and provide for their needs.
“It’s important as a leader in the business actually to be seen, and not be in some ivory tower, to actually talk to people, and listen to them and connect with them, and bring them into the business in the right way.”
That was Paul Baker, the Founder of Saint Pierre Groupe, in episode 46 of Inter:views, Cracking The Entrepreneurship Code.
Learn to speak less and listen more
I mean truly listen. And entrepreneurs are on the front line to lead by example.
What happens in a workshop where participants are forced to adopt a listening attitude through a fun exercise, can also take place outside.
As I wrote above, listening is a skill, and like any skill, getting better at it requires practice. There are dozens of occasions a day to train your listening muscle.
But listening is an attitude too. You need to switch your listening mode on. For instance:
Make time for people
Be genuinely interested in what they say
Clear up your mind from any possible interferences while you’re talking to them
And lastly, your behavior will always show your listening quality. Knowing that:
Learn to remove any potential distractions
Use your entire body when you’re having conversations (e.g. maintain eye contact)
Let your interlocutors finish their sentences
Don’t hesitate to ask questions to clarify comprehension
So, how well do you listen?
My guess is: you can always improve.
This article is an extract from my special podcast series The Entrepreneur Alphabet. Listen to the episodes on your favorite podcast channel or watch them on YouTube.