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Listen Well Interview with Doug Mitchell
Continuing my Listen Well series, I recently interviewed Doug Mitchell, a successful guy who likes working at startup companies. Doug had some keen insight into listening, and his chief point is this: to listen well, you really need to suspend yourself and see it from the other person's perspective. We also talk a bit about the struggle to listen well while multitasking - no easy feat.
You can read the rest of what Doug had to say below, or you can listen to it. Panera is in the background.
Brett: Hi Doug.
Brett: I'm here with Doug Mitchell, who has his own blog. And he is a vice-president of a company and he is working remotely a lot of the time. He works with a lot of different dealerships. And Mike Sansone handed Doug off to me and said Doug would be a great person to talk to about listening so I'm talking to you today.
Doug: Great. Sounds good!
Brett: So, you have an interesting job. You don't work in an office like everyone else does.
Doug: That's exactly right. I work at my home office and I share time with various coffee house offices around the Des Moines metro.
Brett: Such as Panera, where we are.
Doug: That's right.
Brett: So, what is it you do in your company?
Doug: I manage a relationship between our company and - specifically - Caterpillar, as in the tractor company, and their 50-some-odd North American dealer network. I handle all aspects of that, whether it's getting the resources to manage that relationship in terms of marketing, whether it's telling our company back at the office to write software code to make something work better - and what we provide them with is a solution, a dispatching or transportation-style solution that helps them run their businesses more efficiently.
Brett: Gotcha. So, what's your background? How'd you get into this?
Doug: My background is mostly technology, mostly software, but not from a technical point of view - mostly from a marketing business development point of view.
Doug: I started right out of school in 1994 with a computer memory manufacturing company, progressed through the sales ranks, so I started to understand the technology industry - the bigger picture - and I kind of grew out of that sales job. Went to work at AT&T for a while, got to understand a little more of the Internet side of things. So then, got bored, didn't enjoy corporate America any more, didn't want to climb the ladder for the next 15 years, so I jumped ship and started with a software startup company that told me that we have one month of salary to pay you. If you can write a business plan and we can get funding, you'll have a job. And if not, probably you won't.
Doug: So, these guys I had known before, but it was a very good relationship and we put our heads down and we wrote a business plan and we got the funding and within about 45 days we had a million bucks in the bank, which was amazing back then.
Brett: Wow, yeah.
Doug: We launched that company, and grew it up, and got it sold off to CNET, the online marketing company. They bought that and another one that we had sort of launched in parallel. So, very exciting. That's how I came to love the startup environment.
Brett: Right. So, how did you get from there to the current position that you're in today?
Doug: After the companies were sold, back in California, where I lived, that when those two companies were sold, I spent about 6 months thinking about "Hmm... what should I do next?" That was some of the most enjoyable time I've ever had. I golfed about 5 times a week and said, "What should I do?" Ultimately, I couldn't figure it out. I said, "I don't want to jump right back into something." So actually, what I did, this is something that I've written once about it, I took a job as a store manager of a Starbucks right in my town.
Doug: I spent about a year doing that. I connected with my community, I met all kinds of - the same kind of community you would have here [waving at Panera, where we sat]. I met people in international business, people that worked at home. Of course, they came and worked there [at the Starbucks]. And I actually almost launched a company with some of the guys as funding - you know, it was fantastic. And we can talk about that any time you want. That was a great opportunity to just learn about - I mean, it was a high-volume store with 25 employees, so it was fantastic. I kind of grew tired of that. It was a short-term thing, and I was going to move from California to somewhere, either where family or friends were located - that's what my wife's stipulations were. So, we were about to list the house when Dispatching Solutions, my current employer, they called me up. I had known in a previous relationship, had done a little bit of work for them. They said, "We're ready to take this company up and grow it bigger. Do you want to give it a shot?" I said, "Well, I'll give it a try, but I'm gonna move at some point, and I just want you to be prepared for that." They said okay, fine, let's just do this. So we did, and I did, about two years ago now in October. We came here from southern California. Moved here by choice. We stayed away from the places where family are located - not because we didn't want to be near family, but because the areas weren't too exciting. And we had very good friends that were born here, moved here to the Des Moines Metro, and we visited and absolutely loved it. We chose here. That's how I ended up working remotely for Dispatching Solutions and living in Des Moines and loved it.
Brett: So you're a husband, you're a father, you've been part of a startup company as an employee, you've been a manager with a Starbucks, and you're a VP today. Across all of those experiences, how would you define listening?
Doug: Listening is probably best described as coming into a two-way conversation and suspending what your brain is telling you to say.
Doug: It's the best way I can think to describe [it]. I especially had to do this in the Starbucks environment.
Brett: I was going to ask you more about that.
Doug: Oh yeah.
Brett: Because it's rapid-
Doug: You have not only 25 youthful employees - ask anyone who's done retail and the issues are the same and they're always drama - and you have to take off your "I have so much more experience than you" hat to really understand what's going on
Brett: Connect with them.
Doug: Yeah, to really connect with them. And the same thing with your customers. To come out, sit down and have a face-to-face and really connect with people as part of Starbucks culture, and it's something that I enjoyed thoroughly. I wish Starbucks was setup to give managers more time to do that. That's a different conversation.
Brett: So Starbucks [as a company] didn't really help you understand how to listen better, it's something you had to figure out on your own?
Doug: It's something that I think I had half of a clue at, but if I didn't listen appropriately and I had - these conversations would always end the same way... it would be somebody telling me why this and that were wrong and me saying, "Well, you don't understand. Here's the reality: boom boom boom." And it didn't really solve anything.
Doug: And in a team environment, especially among various managers and then a district manager, there was just, um - the company at that level fostered more of that environment where they would actually... I mean, they would do a lot of training with the upper level managers.
Brett: Uh huh.
Doug: And so I think a lot of that stuff filtered. I didn't receive much direct training in that listening, but I think it filtered down. When you saw the results and you had the kind of conversation where you were engaged and you did suspend the urge to go, "Yeah, but you don't... but you're not... what you're not getting is..." Just shut that off, and then you found new things that really helped you connect with those people to help them do better at their job, to help them do better for you, and to make it more fulfilling for you, and stick around longer because, after all, the lifespan of somebody at a retail operation is 3 to 6 months.
Brett: Right, right. So what happens when you suspend yourself, so to speak, when you sit down your own thoughts... what happens, then, that allows you to receive somebody else, do you think?
Doug: It takes off the filters. It helps you to appreciate what that person might be going through. It helps them drop their barrier of communication - if they're experiencing things at home or here or past experiences, you know. That all comes in when you're sitting face-to-face with somebody. It's really an amalgam of everything that you've ever experienced. If you've always had really tough situations communicating face-to-face, then you're bringing that to the table. And I know that - I wouldn't say I wasn't tough about stuff like that, but I was very much willing - I would bring myself to the table, waiting for you to say the right thing so I can shut it off.
Brett: "Here's my opportunity!" Boom!
Doug: Exactly. So taking those things down really gives you the opportunity to understand the person, to get inside their head, to really help them progress as an employee and as a person. It's very helpful.
Brett: Now, as a dad, how have you found - especially with little ones like that - how have you found listening to work for you?
Doug: Wow. That's probably the most challenging thing ever. The part about being - it's easy enough to listen to your kids and to hear what they're saying and sort of treat that part... I think the hardest thing is that, in the mix, is your wife. And so the kids, and the wife, and then you have yourself - there's this communication triangle. You know, you get so used to automatic response with your kids, just "I want to..." [and you say] "Wait. Wait." And you find those things entering into your relationship with your spouse - at least I did. I still do. I fight it all the time. So being able to get rid of that and actually treat your wife - this is what I heard one time - treat your spouse like your best customer, or like somebody - you're really trying to win them over. Listen to them that way.
Brett: Like something that won't take them for granted.
Doug: Exactly. That's exactly right. And man is it tough when you're busy with life, busy with the kids, when they're screaming and you're "Yeah, yeah." I find myself not even looking when my wife is at the home office. [Makes typing gestures] And I'll be typing away. I don't even know what you said, but she'll get a text message to me about five minutes after she leaves recapping the conversation because she knows that I missed it and I wasn't listening.
Brett: So she's learned how to read you to know when you're really listening.
Brett: What cue does she know to look for when you're on or off? Keep in mind - she's gonna read this interview [wink].
Doug: That's fine [grinning]. It's when I actually stop and look at her and make some kind of eye contact, you know. And I stop what I'm doing. And we're usually just like ants at an ant farm at the house. If I actually stop - it helps to make contact. Same with the kids. Put a hand on a shoulder or something like that, to actually say, "I'm here and I'm engaged in the moment." Tough to do, tough to remember, but I think that's critical. It really helps me.
Brett: Right, I get that. Being married myself, I understand that completely. You've got to disconnect like that and make sure that you connect with them, right? Whatever you're doing, you have to disengage. You know, something that I believe is that multitasking is the complete enemy of listening.
Doug: That's exactly right.
Brett: You're multitasking big time, because you're juggling the relationship - I'm assuming that you're working with some employees.
Brett: So how do you manage multitasking and listening?
Doug: Man. I try to get better at it every day, but I mean I think multitasking as a concept is totally flawed. I mean, it is possible, but what that really means is that I'm doing a lot of things moderately well in most cases.
Doug: What you want to get done and what you need to get done will actually happen the right way, but email, reading blogs to stay up on your industry, what have you - interacting with customers, clients, managing the employees - all of this remotely in my case - talking to them about marketing materials, whatever... it takes discipline, I think, to be less active in terms of these information management needs. I think you become better by doing less. I mean, less is more. I believe that. I think we should hone down what we do. Limit our saying yes to everything. The more you can say "No," the better.
Doug: And I don't mean that negatively, of course.
Brett: No, no.
Doug: It's purely a resource dispersal tactic.
Brett: Right. Something that - a concept that I like is that there's a To-Do List; there's also a To-Don't List. Usually, the To-Don't List is more important than the To-Do List.
Doug: Exactly. That's exactly right. I mean, multitasking is a reality, especially when you work at home. We've trained the kids. They can look through the glass in the door, and they can knock, and if Daddy goes "No" - I wave my hand "No" - they simply walk away. They're really good about it. But all in all, when you're at home, and you come out, and you have this question and that question and you're trying to get in the zone of a project, it's very difficult to break away from that stuff to become a good listener. It's almost like you need to schedule time to be a good listener.
Brett: Right. Because you have to make sure that you have nothing else on your plate to devote yourself to the activity.
Brett: Which then brings me to the next thing, your customer relationships. You manage how many different customers? I know Caterpillar, right, but you deal with all the dealerships.
Brett: And how many of them are there?
Doug: There are approximately 55-ish. 55, 57 - depending on who's buying who this week. There's about 55 dealerships, and then there's the corporate entity in Peoria. Then I guess you could say that my duties beyond that extend into other enterprise clients, which one of them is a top-five heavy equipment manufacturer kind of coming online with us. It's mainly the large dollar enterprise-level clients that I talk to and they're all over the United States, so far. Sometime in the near future we might have Canada, we might have Latin America, we might have one or two in Europe. So things could really heat up at that point in terms of listening and communication.
Brett: So I would assume that most of your conversation is either email or your conversation is either phone, right?
Doug: It's probably 80 to 90% email. Which I'm a huge fan. Maybe not what you're supposed to do. I love the written word because I feel as though people that read my emails understand very clearly. I think I'm a reasonably good writer so that people get it. They get it. There's not a lot of fluff. It's done in a way that's forceful but appropriate. You know what I'm saying?
Doug: It really works. And on the phone, I don't like tracking people down and I can't stand getting to voice mail.
Brett: So how do you show that you're listening via email?
Doug: Thoughtful response, that if you read an email from me, I believe - especially in those corporate ones where you're really answering key questions - that I've listened, I've understood, and that I know exactly what I'm talking about when I'm writing it. And I elaborate enough and I give it the attention that I would give in a phone call. In fact, probably more because I'm able to actually read through the words that I've written and dissect them again to make sure that I-
Brett: That the meaning is right.
Doug: Yeah. Is that word the appropriate word to use? Should we use robust, or should we use this word instead? You know, so I spend probably longer than most people writing just an email back, answering the question.
Brett: How do you do that by phone?
Doug: By phone? You know, when I have a conversation in my business most of it is - well, a lot of it is centered around when companies, Caterpillar dealerships, are interested in what we have to offer. I usually interact with either dealer principals or sort of the highest end person - owners - or Six Sigma black belts. Are you familiar with Six Sigma?
Brett: I am, yes.
Doug: Okay, so I am a Caterpillar-trained Six Sigma black belt because we used to get phone calls, "Hi. I'm doing a project on transportation. We're trying to reduce expense. I'm a Six Sigma black belt." And we'd say, "Excuse me? You're a karate expert? Why are you calling?" Well, we quickly figured out that Caterpillar is absolutely dedicated to the process of Six Sigma and saved billions of dollars and all of these great things. We actually took it upon ourselves to become, at the time, a twelve-person software company that was Six Sigma - boom. I went through the training, became the black belt at our company, so I have to have these interactions with folks who are very smart. They've analyzed the process. Most of them aren't like me. Most are typically more statistical in nature or numbers in nature. And they really tend to know what they're talking about - they're excited by statistics - whereas for me, it just mortifies me and I could care less. I always said, "I'm never gonna have to use this again in my life," when I was taking it in college, and I'm pretty much right - because I used it in Six Sigma training, but I don't do that any more. Now, I leave it to somebody else. So these conversations on the phone are about details and numbers and very "We've analyzed the business process" to the point where they have a fantastic process, chart, and this and that. So, you know if I'm not really clear on what our system can do and what the points in the process where we can interact, and blah blah blah, and if I'm not just on the same page as them, things completely blow up. I try to use the right words and the right context to match - if it's even possible to mirror the behavior of someone on the phone, I guess. I try to do that on the phone.
Brett: So getting back to what you first said when I asked you to define listening, you said listening is kind of suspending yourself and putting yourself in the other person's perspective and on the phone then you want to try and look at it from their point of view.
Brett: And get to that level.
Doug: Exactly. And that comes from doing your homework, you know? If I thought about the expert - I'll remember as we talk - but one of these gurus in some area talks about "preparation, preparation, preparation." Of course, it works for everything, but if you know about your business, their business, you know the key issues and you've done that kind of research that it's easy to model somebody else if you have, you know, half of a clue in terms of trying to put the pieces together so that they understand it. And so that's what I do. We tend to know as much or more about the pain that people go through and when you can accurately connect with them on that pain level-
Brett: You can solve problems.
Doug: It's almost like a sales tool. I guess it is.
Doug: I'm usually trying to say, "Look, we have something that solves your problems. Whether you do it now or not is really insignificant. Eventually though, you're gonna want to do something like this..." you know, and then "Yes, yes," and we can get that kind of agreement on the phone or in person.
Brett: So, Six Sigma being a process improvement practice - a lot of businesses use that. And I've heard Six Sigma called everything from "the salvation of our business"-
Doug: To a complete waste of time?
Brett: To a complete waste of time and it has totally killed the innovation in our company.
Brett: So I wanted to ask you then, does Six Sigma help or hurt the listening that needs to go on in a company?
Doug: The proper answer to that question is "Yes" - to both.
Brett: Now why is that the proper answer?
Doug: It does both and it depends on organization, the culture. Most people, when they deploy Six Sigma - well, I don't know about most - let me put it this way... in many situations it's done when somebody up at the top says, "We must do this." And if they are like in Caterpillar's organization where they say, pretty much, you have to. Culturally, ready or not, here we come. As a choice, if the company is adopting it and the says, "We're doing Six Sigma so get used to this culture," they don't really address - there's tons of naysayers and the people who will poo-poo the process the entire way... the saboteurs?
Doug: They don't listen closely enough to what's happening at that ground, trench level to get that out of the mix and reinforce and then bring them into the fold because without the culture change, Six Sigma will not work. Especially if certain people at high levels are saying, "Let's just do that project and just kind of make the numbers work out right, but we really know right here in our gut what the truth is, don't we? Yeah." That happens all the time. So you get companies that adopt it, but not wholeheartedly. You get companies that say, "That sounds great!" at the top, but then they don't reinforce it at any other level. And then you get the companies where they are so focused on Six Sigma - and remember, in Six Sigma you want to narrow your project scope to something manageable. Well what have you done in many cases? You've put on blinders-
Brett: "This is what we're doing."
Doug: Mmm-hmm... and I'm only going to look at the problem and they miss the root cause. Because they're not listening. There's a guy over here saying, "Look, you know, really we have a company-wide issue here and it's called 'not training our people to do the right thing in this area.'" You want to solve that by your little segment buying, say, GPS to track your vehicles, or something like that. That's not the solution. The solution is much larger in scope. You almost need two layers in the Six Sigma process to make it work. So it's great and it's detrimental depending on the company and depending on the leadership and how they listen to what's happening down below.
Brett: Now you've probably had it be the case before where you've embarked on a project and you found out part way through that you're really headed down the wrong direction. You learn that you're headed down the wrong direction really by listening. By paying attention to feedback by somebody or looking at how it's working. How do you derail everybody to get everybody to listen to you now to understand your perspective that we need to change our path or we're going to fail?
Doug: Yeah, well, that's interesting. I'd say the way to do it is to have a good foundation with the team to begin with. You know, first of all, you build a team of green belts, or the semi-trained but not fully trained in the statistical methodology folks who are sort of indoctrinated. They understand it. They've been given minor introductions. They're on board. But those people have another set, exponentially, of people that they deal with and talk to. So the stakeholders, outside, it's all about how your relationship is with the team and how you're getting that communication out to those stakeholders that when you need to change, if they don't understand or they don't understand why - "This has all been wasted" - that doesn't get back appropriately through those stakeholder communication channels, etc, you know, you've lost. You've really lost. You've lost your team, you've lost your focus, you've lost all - and then, oh man, here we go again. Another Six Sigma thing totally [wasted]. And you know, a lot of this comes from early communication about what the problems are in the first place. You know, you can do a lot of good project filtering by really looking at the entire business and - again - it's always going to come back to that communication and that listening. Really understanding why a division is doing poorly, or why it costs so much to do transportation. Asking the right questions, listening appropriately, and you can usually narrow down those things so that that doesn't happen. But if you do have to change, you just have to have clear channels and give them the tools to communicate out to those other stakeholders and then you'd be good.
Brett: And again, email is probably a really good tool with that because you can be completely clear with your thoughts.
Doug: Yeah, and there's a record.
Brett: It's a CYA move!
Doug: Very much so. But what I prefer, which most companies have not adopted, is collaboration software.
Brett: Hmm. What do you use?
Doug: I use Central Desktop. The first startup that I mentioned a while back? Those guys went on to create this other company called Central Desktop. It's like, if you've used Base Camp, this is like Base Camp, but it's much more applicable in a corporate environment. It's very powerful and still very inexpensive and fantastic... anyway, the bottom line is if I can say something once and have it be in that record, it acts - there's Wiki, there's RSS feeds of the project collaboration site, there's discussions... it's fantastic. I prefer to use that on projects.
Brett: That sounds like a great enterprise web 2.0 tool.
Doug: Big time. Big time.
Brett: I'll have to check that out. We've been looking for that also.
Doug: Yeah. It's, in my opinion, the best.
Brett: Well, you use it.
Doug: Absolutely. I have probably 48 different project workspaces that I use and, you know, individual collaboration with external people, internal people. We use it for our corporate Intranet... it's fantastic.
Brett : Alright. Well, we're about at the end here, but I wanted to ask you the Big Question that I told you I would ask you. We've talked all about listening. We've talked about relationships, how you show that you're listening, how it is that you go ahead and communicate better so that you can get others to listen. You do have a great perspective, and when Mike introduced me to you, he said, "Hey, talk to Doug. He'd have a great take on this." I had no idea what I was getting into, but really, it's good stuff. So I wanted to ask you: who would you pass this off to who's a blogger? Or somebody who's not a blogger who would have a really interesting perspective on this who you think might add to the conversation?
Doug: Sure. I think, especially locally, I don't know if he's been recommended to you before, but do you know Cory Garrison from REL?
Brett: I'm aware of who he is, yes. I read his blog. I subscribe to that and yours also.
Doug: Yeah. I think he would be a great one because his company, they're all about listening to what you have to say about your company to figure out your brand. Their brand discernment process. And I've had numerous meetings with them and I think they really get it. So, they get you in a room - I haven't done it yet, but I can tell. And I've had one-off meetings as well. So, I think you'd get a tremendous value out of that because that's what they do.
Doug: They listen, and figure out how to embody what your company is into a brand and image and everything. That takes deep listening.
Brett: It does! Well, I'll send Cory an email. Thank you very much!
Karen E. Klein writes for the BusinessWeek Smart Answers column and insists that listening improves business. Your company might be listening to your customers, but if people don't believe that you're truly listening, you'll lose them. She says:
Despite the fact that many companies tout their focus on service, the research we did showed that overall customer satisfaction is declining. A global benchmarking study we looked at showed a reduction in customer service satisfaction from 82% to 68% in the last year alone.Indifference as a business experience is a business killer.
Additional studies show that 68% of customers leave a business relationship because of a perceived attitude of indifference on the part of the company. It's not that the associates are actually indifferent - it's the perception that they are.
So a customer may get what she needs from the company, but if it was delivered with indifference, that interaction still won't leave a positive impression.
More than ever, showing customers that they matter to your company is not just an extra - it's vital.
Listen Well Interview with Mike Sansone
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...
Blogging Is Not Listening
You know what a blog is. You're reading one.
I'm doing no listening whatsoever as I write this. Listening is inward, and this activity is outward.
If I own a company and I want my customer to join in conversation with me, I might write a blog post in the hope that it spurs conversation. The problem is that I'm choosing the topics. That's not a good start for listening to customers.
Customer-initiated conversations look more like this:
"Hello... ABC Plumbing? This is Mrs. Jones."Mrs. Jones chooses the topic.
"Hi Mrs. Jones. What can I do for you?"
A blog is more like this:
"Hello... world? This is Bob at ABC Plumbing. I want to talk about..."Look at the customer-initiated topic versus ABC Plumbing's wisdom about faucet care posted on their blog for the whole world to read. Both are important and valuable communication, but one has listening at its heart and the other is, well, marketing.
Blogs are necessary and good, but they shouldn't be confused with listening.
There are lots of blogs out there that try to spur conversation with customers publicly. And sometimes that happens. But what happens on a blog is not representative of how a business listens to customers. Nor is a survey. Nor is a focus group. Every one of these methods for "listening" has its topics chosen by management. That's not truly listening.
What might a survey look like if Mrs. Jones and other current and potential customers chose the topics and questions? What if it were just fill-in-the-blank?
What if customers and potential customers chose the some of the topics on a blog site?
If conversation happens when both people enter into it with the willingness to be changed by it, then a company needs to use these tools as methods to respond to customers and change the way in which the company conducts business.
Show the response. Show the change that the customer initiated. Show that you listened.
When you listen, try not to pre-determine the topics of conversation. Otherwise you just might miss the most important thing that you need to hear.
Show Listening Through Change
When customers shout their needs at a company, it's the company's job to listen and listen well. Otherwise, it might not remain in business. Listening is Job One.
Managers listen through daily reports of the business. They listen to employees, who are usually the "ears" of the company. Managers listen to market trends exhibited by competitors and in collateral industries.
It's a tough job, listening.
But when you do listen well, how do you show that you're listening?
In person, you do it with eye contact. By responding along with the flow of the conversation and with little cues - verbally and nonverbally - you show you're engaged.
A corporation, per se, can't make eye contact. Each employee can make eye contact and give the customer rapt attention. That's a good start - to build an interpersonal culture where business meets the street.
But people often feel that though they give their comments and concerns to the nearest attentive employee, the message goes no further. The attention is shallow.
No matter how large the company, people crave personal response - all business is personal. Especially now, when competitors are not just local but regional and global. How cool it is when someone suggests something to a company and, a week later, it's implemented. The customer sees response in action. They see change.
When customers see the impact of their bid, they respond with devotion to the brand.
Show that you listen, and customers will show you continued business.
Business is a triangle of management, employees, and customers.
Each has a job to do.
Management provides tools and materials to employees.
Employees serve customers' needs and requests.
Customers give something to management.
And no, it's not just dollars.
Customers give their desires and opinions to management. Or at least they want to. Customers cry out for management's attention. Customers want management to listen.
Customers bid for response.
The thing is that management doesn't always do a good job of listening, and generally, when they are listening, they do a poor job of showing it.
The companies most loved are those that listen to customers and then show that they listen. Customers reward management with loyalty.
Listening is the first and most important job in any company.
How Do You Know If You Matter?
As a child, we learn that we have importance as we can gain the attention of others. It starts with inarticulate cries - of hunger, for touch, for a diaper change. We cry out to get attention to our needs. If response comes easily, our world is secure. If not, we panic.
Fast forward to adulthood. Does this formula change?
We all want significance.
When you talk, do people listen? Or do you feel like the proverbial tree crashing in the forest?
John Gottman, an expert on relationships, writes in his book, The Relationship Cure, of what he calls the "bid."
"Let's make sure you understand what I mean when I talk about bids. A bid can be a question, a gesture, a look, a touch - any single expression that says, 'I want to feel connected to you.' A response to a bid is just that - a positive or negative answer to somebody's request for emotional connection."If response comes easily, our world is secure. If not, we hurt. The formula doesn't change. When you bid for connection, and you receive the response of listening, you feel valued and important.
By showing that you listen to others, you also tell them that they matter.
"That was well-listened."
Ever heard someone say that?
I have heard:
"That was well-spoken."We put an emphasis on what goes out - not what goes in - and in a collaborative world, that just might be an oversight.
"That was well-written."
"That was well-articulated."
You can easily find training to improve the presentation of your thoughts to others, but it's rare - if not impossible - to find training in receiving others' thoughts.
Why is that?
Perhaps because there are rewards and recognition for writing and speaking well. You can get a Marconi for radio broadcasting. You can get a Pulitzer for journalism. Toastmasters will celebrate your excellent speech.
It's a very good thing to be clear in your communication to others.
It's also a very good thing to be able to unwrap and explore the gift of others' thoughts.
This is an age of unprecedented partnership and teamwork. Where 1 + 1 can equal 3, or 9, or 27.
Listening is the key to working well with others. Listening makes you attractive; you are always welcome when you listen well.
At the encouragement of my good friend, Mike Sansone, I will most likely be writing a lot more on this subject.