Once a week, I hope to interview someone with a unique perspective on listening. The first person I chose to interview was Mike Sansone, a global blog and business coach who is based here in Des Moines, Iowa. We met at Mike's remote office, a Panera, where Mike is renowned to hold meetings.
You can download the podcast, or you can read my transcript below.
If I could encapsulate in a single sentence Mike's wisdom about listening, it's that listening can't happen without humility. There's an openness, a willingness to "begin with the beginner's mind" that's necessary to listening well.
Brett: So who's the best listener you know?
Mike: That's a good question...
Brett: Or, who's a good listener you know that you would think of?
Mike: You know, I think of Drew McLellan.
Brett: Okay. Why Drew?
Mike: He pauses between what is said to him and his response, there's a pause. So even if he thinks it's baloney, the speaker says, "He's pondering. He listened." So I think of Drew McLellan.
Brett: So his pauses show you that he's listening.
Mike: By his activity, he listens. Other than that, except for other people in the room right now, I can't think of anyone.
Brett: Okay. What about companies... what companies do you think listen really well?
Mike: I think HyVee [a local grocery chain] listens.
Brett: I think I'd go along with that. Why HyVee?
Mike: Well, I think HyVee listens on the short-term and the long-term. I've seen - not experienced so much as I've seen - and heard other customers talk about instances but I also changes made to their operation based on what's said to them. You know, there's a new product, can you get it?
I think this one's gonna surprise... I think MediaCom listens. I don't know if they have the ability to act, but they've proven that they listen.
I think Best Buy does a great job of listening.
I think GoDaddy does a great job of listening. It's almost pre-listening. GoDaddy looks at whatever a customer's history is, and almost - what's the word I'm trying to think of - they almost anticipate what their customers are going to need and listen to that anticipation. So they're listening with their gut. They're listening with their experience. And then they reach out to the customer and say, "We've noticed this - we're listening. Tell us what you want. So if you have a domain name or if you only have one email and it's getting overloaded, they'll call you up and say, "You're kind of pushing the limit. You want to do something about it? And if so, what?" So I think they listen.
Brett: Gotcha. So like the notices that I get from GoDaddy where they say, "This domain's about to expire. Do you really want that?"
Mike: Exactly. And they call you too.
Brett: Yeah - I've been called in the past.
Mike: So I think they're anticipating and it's really an active listening. It's a pro-active listening.
Brett: It is. Okay, I agree with HyVee too because HyVee, when I've gone in there, they always ask me at the checkout, "Did you find everything you needed today?" Now Dahl's [another local grocery chain] does the same thing, but if I tell them, "No," they'll say, "Oh - well, what did you miss?" [and if I explain that] I couldn't find it in the store, [they say], "Oh, you know, we don't carry that."
But if HyVee does that, HyVee will say, "Well, hold on - let me get a manager." And then Joe the manager will come over and he'll say, "Hey, let me order that for you. I'll call you when it comes in. Let me take your number."
Mike: Exactly. You know, you just reminded me of a story. First time I went in HyVee here, I said, "Do you carry bread pudding?" The lady said, "No, but I have a great recipe. Can I make some for you?" Three days later, she called me at home and had bread pudding.
Brett: Was it good?
Brett: Ah... dynamite.
Mike: They didn't even sell it. I forgot all about that. I gotta blog about that.
Brett: That's great service. So how does Best Buy listen?
Mike: Well, first of all, they listen to the blogosphere. Anytime there's a complaint about Best Buy, they know.
Mike: And then they proactively - depending on the influence of the voice and the legitimacy of the complaint - they will try to correct things. They'll do whatever it takes.
Mike: So that's one way they listen. I think they also listen to their customers before they became customers. They heard people complain about getting things at CompUSA and other commission-based stores, and the customers would feel that they got taken. But Best Buy doesn't have commission-based pay, and I think that enables them to listen because there are no dollar signs in their ears.
Brett: Alright. I know that you have, on occasion, talked about companies that didn't perform as you would have expected in terms of customer service. And there've been times when that's happened, and you've been able to have the company listen to you. Like I know that Panera's reached out to you on a couple of occasions and that they've actually engaged you. And so you felt like they were listening when they did that. Right?
Mike: Yeah, eventually if you speak loud enough, people are going to listen.
Brett: Do you have an example, or would you be willing to share an example, of a company didn't listen well? Or where you tried to engage them, to help them, teach them, whatever the reason, and they weren't open to it at all?
Mike: Yeah. Borders.
Brett: How so?
Mike: Really, Borders had a large loss because they wouldn't listen. A conversation took place on an instance - and I hate basing whole things on instances - but there was an instance and they didn't listen, and so I wrote a note to the management explaining the larger picture. And they asked some questions. And I answered their questions about how it was a dissatisfying experience and how it might cost them X amount of dollars a month, which was way up there.
Mike: And they said, "Well, can we use your letter in training?" And I said, "Yours? Or your employees?" Because frankly, they didn't hear me. I was saying, "You're about to lose a customer." And their sole purpose for their call seemed to be, "Can we train our employees on this letter?" And my reaction was, "Are you not listening to me now?" Because I'm still saying, "You're about to lose a customer and all your goal for this call is just to be able to use this letter without being able to save the customer."
Brett: Not trying to make you happy at all...
Mike: Then I told them, "Here's what I spend - I even wrote them the numbers - here's what I spend at Borders per month. Here's what I spend at Amazon per month." Just in case you didn't know, they're both the same. And that's a lot of money per month. I haven't bought anything from either place since. Because they didn't listen.
Mike: Here's my take: what happens if they have another problem. Are they gonna listen? Where at Panera - I'm married to Panera - there've been challenges, there've been arguments-
Brett: But you worked it out.
Mike: But we worked it out. One of us took the high road, and we hug, and we break bread together. And we always will. I know what the result is going to be the next time we have a problem.
Brett: So how do you get through to the upper levels of a company? Do you find that it's the employee who takes ownership of it and moves it upward for you, or do you find that it's just you being persistent and loud? Where you're like, "Let me speak to your manager? Let me speak to [the next] manager. Let me speak to [the next] manager..."
Mike: No, caring for others the way we do, I understand on the other side of that complaint is another human being. So I never try to get loud, unless that person was the one to blame.
Brett: I'm not suggesting you're offensive.
Mike: No no, but if there's a defense up, loud is not going to go through the defense. You've either got to touch the fringe and do an end-around, or you've got to drop it.
How do you get to management if it's a listening company?
Mike: I don't... the customer doesn't have to train them to listen. The listening company will already-
Brett: Gotcha. It's already in there.
Mike: Well, either that or they will recognize the loss of customership. They will recognize the void. They will hear it from the fringe. What I mean by that is, rather than listen to the customer, they may hear it from a different touch point. A vendor that they use, you know. It will be a trusted third-party delivering a message.
Brett: Because in a large company it's not usually the management you're interacting with. So is it more the case then that they have to have a culture where there's listening?
Mike: Absolutely a culture, and I think a Nordstrom... you hear stories-
Brett: Nordie stories all the time.
Mike: Oh! Sometimes I think it's their PR department, but then I hear from people... you know, it's, yeah, it's amazing. Maybe it's their form of not listening, but they have one goal - satisfy the customer - whatever. It's part of their culture, it's well-trained. Everybody sings from that book. By the same token, it's gotta be a listening culture.
Brett: Do you think technology helps people listen?
Mike: I think it can.
Brett: Give me examples.
Mike: Well, the blogosphere and RSS feeds. An absolute must. Everyone's a content publisher. The blogs, you can dump your brain. We can vent. We can applaud. But basically it's a brain dump. It's a memory archiver. It's a venting agent. And if companies are not listening actively to the blogosphere and engaging that brain dump, they're gonna lose their customers. By the same token, voicemail, speed of call, I mean, when you call a big company, a national company, and it says we're too busy, your average waiting time is 18 minutes, and you get your bill and you see that they raised rates, why? So I could wait 16 minutes? They have to put the pieces in place to listen now.
Brett: Okay. What's an example of how technology hurts listening?
Mike: Yeah. I think we rely on the technology of the automated answering machine. Push 1 if you want to speak English, 2 if you want to speak Spanish. Push 3 if you want to do this, push 8 if you want to do this - 18 minutes later, now we have to wait 5 minutes for a human being. The voice recognition, however, is good. Sprint does this. "Hi, welcome to Sprint. Please enunciate clearly and tell us what your question is." At least I'm talking. I'm taking an action with my body and brain. I'm sitting here going like this [holding up fingers] counting on my fingers, figuring out which option I want. And then I gotta replay because I had to wave at somebody.
Brett: Yeah. I think the best one for me is 2... or was it 3? Oh crap.
Mike: Companies expect their companies to listen. Get this... I go into a store the first time. "Hi. Can I have a blank?"
"No, we don't have any of those."
"Oh, are you going to have them?"
"No, we've never carried them," with an attitude. And I want to say, "Oh, this is my first day working here. You've been here for a little while. You've been trained. I haven't."
Mike: It's not the customer's job to listen. They should, but it's not the customer's job to listen.
Brett: That's a really good point.
Mike: When I was in the property management business-
Brett: Do you think that with marketing we try to insist that the customer listen? Or make them listen?
Mike: Yeah. Absolutely. It's the culture too. It's the culture hierarchy. Like Panera... we'll take Panera as an example. Panera tells the young person who's working here, "Here's the process. The process is what keeps us going." And the person at cash register number two is told never to leave the station with the cash register unattended. So a customer comes up and goes up to cash register number one - because that's over in the bakery - and cash register number two is standing over there with the person saying nothing - waiting for the customer to come down here where he was told to wait. And the customer's over at the bakery saying, "Can I get some help?""No, I'm only open down here."
Mike: The customer didn't know that. But the young person working behind the cash register wasn't told that you should go to the customer and lead them. You see we don't lead the way unless we expect instant followership.
Brett: Okay. I was going to ask you, so when you work with businesses, you work with a lot of different businesses, I would assume that some of your coaching that you do with business is to help them listen better.
Brett: How do you do that?
Mike: Well, first I have to listen to what they want, what their goal is.
Mike: And then I ask how they can get their customer to assist them. So it's almost like, okay, your customer is your boss. Listen to them. Be trained by your customer. Don't be in such a hurry to talk. Everybody wants to post on a blog - those who decide, okay, I want to blog. And I want to blog today. And they want to know when they're going to get someone buying their product from their blog. Should have been blogging six months ago. The first step is "Go read other blogs."
"Oh, but I don't have time to read other blogs."
"Then why will anybody have time to read yours?"
You gotta listen first.
In foreign cultures, and I say foreign meaning cultures that actually understand what listening's all about - Paris, Mexico, Italy - the old countries. You go up to a conversation... you kind of hunker down. Listen for a while. And you'd be acknowledged, your presence. And then you'd clear your throat and say a little bitty thing. And people nod their head and now there's acceptance, and then pretty soon, you're part of the conversation. But if you came up and said, "Yadda yadda yadda - here's my opinion" right when you got there, that crowd would break up and lose you. And too many companies are trying to do that today in the blogosphere. Be in the marketplace - by the way, that's the same thing. You know, so there's gotta be a relationship. And the best way to build a relationship is to listen first.
Brett: Okay... so you teach people to listen better by first teaching them that they have to not say anything for a while, because one of the things that you do is you tell them, you know, "Go ahead and blog, but do it privately, not publicly, for thirty days."
Brett: In the meantime, let's build up your feeds. How do you help them determine what it is that they should be listening to?
Mike: That's a good question. Let me answer that question, but can I add on to that?
Mike: When we're kids, we emulate. The most popular saying for a toddler is "No." Why? Because that's pretty much the only word they've listened to for the last six months. "No." Right?
Mike: "Time to go to bed, Johnnie."
Mom gets all mad that Johnnie keeps saying, "No" - where'd he learn that from? Hello? Because every other word you said, "No." When we're growing up as human beings, we learn by listening. In fact, we copy what we hear. Which is probably why we read what we already sort of agree with. Anyway, that's another recording... as far as learning what to listen to, it has to be somebody with some influence. You know, what do you listen to? What's important to you? What is your goal? Second, what is your customer's goal? Are we talking blogosphere now? I can't get the blogosphere out of my head.
Brett: It doesn't matter.
Mike: You gotta listen. You really gotta listen. You gotta listen to what people are saying or writing - not only about you, but about your competition, about the industry, about anything. You know, if I'm a car dealer, I want to know why that customer hated that restaurant. Because you know what? I have a fast-food desk called "Parts." What can I learn from that?
Brett: Okay. You mentioned Drew McLellan being a great example. Do you think the reason he's successful in marketing is because he does listen well?
Mike: And he'll tell you that. If you don't listen to your customer, how do you know what to say?
Mike: If you don't know what's valuable to your customer, all you're doing is preaching. And what if that's not what they want? If I'm selling peanut butter and jelly... what if my customers want peanut butter and chocolate? Maybe I should get out of the jelly business.
Brett: Have it your way.
Mike: That's right. Either that or go preach to a different audience - the one that loves peanut butter and jelly. But why am I going to spend $10,000 on a full-page ad to a peanut butter and chocolate culture if I'm peanut butter and jelly? The only way you learn that is by listening.
Brett: I agree with that.
Mike: And marketers aren't liars; the customers are liars. But if the customers are the liars, listen to what they're lying about.
Brett: So what tips would you give to people to learn to listen better?
Mike: Know that you can learn anything from anybody all the time. Begin with the beginners mindset every time out. Get off your pedestal - you're gonna get a nosebleed.
Brett: Aren't you teaching humility?
Mike: Yeah! That's very well-listened.
Brett: Thank you :)
Mike: Really, that's it at a core. I mean, I can learn - there's a four-year-old kid here. I learned from him today.
Brett: Anybody, anywhere, all the time.
Mike: Anybody, anywhere, all the time. Whether it be a practice, a look, an innocence. I mean, kids are great because kids are so totally, brutally honest. We don't listen to kids - and I don't mean in the educational sense. Go to a mall and watch kids interact. Kids will be [playing] - all about self, until their peers come along. And then, they're totally different people. Do we do that as adults? And then you realize, "Yes!"
Brett: Yeah, we do.
Mike: And you're listening with your eyes at that point. And then all of a sudden the kid stands up straighter and you can see him - where do we get that from? It's very unlike the "No," because they emulate that. Or watching a kid watching the escalator, trying to figure it out. He's got a beginner's mindset. But now we're big companies and have RSS feeds and we don't want to figure it out.
Brett: We're there.
Mike: We stop listening. We're 65 years-old.
Brett: Look at our brand!
Mike: That's right. I've been in business 120 years, and I'm 65, myself. I don't need to learn anything.
Brett: We'll tell you.
Mike: Right. Exactly. And I say, "Hey - you want a Kleenex for that nosebleed you're about to get?"
Brett: I was going to ask you - how is it that Des Moines is getting well-known for being a really aggressive business community, or at least there's lots of ideas. Because when I was looking at the top marketing blogs, two of the twenty are here in Des Moines.
Mike: Well, I think number one, there's a void. Or a perceived void. I think the climate is right because there's availability. I think the climate-
Brett: A void where? I'm missing that.
Mike: There's a perceived void that we don't have enough of certain types of businesses here in Iowa. Okay? I believe it's only a perception. And I think it's everywhere. San Jose probably thinks, "We need more of certain businesses. We need to attract businesses to San Jose." I think there's a certain sector of people who realize that Iowa does not have borders that are impassable.
Brett: No fences.
Mike: Right - no fences. "Buy into the Circle" is a great saying. You know what? Sell into the circle is a reality. But it's reality happening outside our circle. In other words, businesses outside this "Buy into the Circle" are selling inside of our circle. Lamoni - the pizza guy goes and gets a haircut from the Lamoni haircuttery, who goes and buys a prescription from the village drug, who goes to Amazon - uh oh, there's goes our money. So there's money exiting [the circle]. There are some businesses like the top twenty marketing blogs that you see who say, "We need to start selling outside of our circle." And those are the companies that are growing globally. I am in Iowa doing business globally. Why? Because it's easy with the tools available to us. There are still Iowans who say, "YouTube's a great idea. Nobody in Iowa is doing that." Which is a false thing. They're not listening. There is somebody in Iowa doing that. It's called YouTube. It's a global business.
Brett: It is a global business.
Mike: And Iowa is part of the globe.
Brett: Okay. The last question I have for you-
Mike: Why do I talk so much?
Brett: Not at all. I love it when you talk. I wanted to know who the next person I should interview is - who's a blogger - who's good at those skills. I'm gonna guess who it is based on that I've heard the person's name a couple of times.
Mike: I've already said Drew McLellan so I don't want to say it again. I don't get paid enough.
Brett: We'll talk to Drew about that.
Mike: I think I'd like to be profound. I think Doug Mitchell. Have you met Doug Mitchell?
Mike: I think Doug Mitchell would be a good one to talk to because he's got a totally different perspective.
Mike: Mike Calwell.
Brett: Who's that?
Mike: The person in charge of business acceleration at the Des Moines Partnership. I should introduce you two. In fact, we're thinking about doing a business roundtable discussion and podcasting it. You have to be a part of that.
Brett: Okay. Well, let me know when that is.
Mike: He's a listener, not just to conversation, but trend. To... yeah, to trends, really. He's a complete listener, a universal listener. He's a business whisperer...