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Listen Well Interview: Cory Garrison


I recently interviewed Cory Garrison of R.E.L. for my Listen Well series.

Cory comes to listening from a sales and relationships perspective, and he and his company, as Doug predicted, had some interesting perspectives and methods that you might enjoy.

You can read what follows, or you can listen online.

Brett: Hi Cory.
Cory: Hi, how are ya?
Brett: I'm here today to talk to you about listening. I was handed off to you and I heard that you have a unique perspective on the whole thing.
Cory: Okay... well, I hope so!
Brett: Well, you know... so in your job, and you work for REL-
Cory: R.E.L.
Brett: R.E.L. - right - okay. By the way, is that owners' initials?
Cory: It actually is. Rod, Eric, and Larry are the original founders of the company.
Brett: You are...
Cory: My title is Client Development Consultant.
Brett: And your job is to go get new business.
Cory: In a nutshell, yeah. It's to build awareness about who we are and what we do and to drive new business through the door, and also to manage that business once a new client has started working with us.
Brett: Sure. And you guys have a blog too, right?
Cory: Yes, we do.
Brett: But it's more of a company blog, not just an individual blog.
Cory: It is a company blog.
Brett: Because I've noticed that all of you will contribute articles to that. So did that start with you or did that start before you?
Cory: You know, it actually started before me. The blog did itself. Mark True, who is our Brand Warrior, had his own blog, and it was called "A Little Bit of Mark," I believe is what it was called at the time. That's over a year ago now, and he was primarily - he did all the writing on that. But it was all tied to what we do, which is help clients tell their story. We're storytellers. About seven, eight, nine months ago, we actually turned it into a company blog, the title of which is "Stories by R.E.L." Again, because the idea is to help clients tell their stories.
Brett: Sure. That's great, then if you guys are storytellers, then I'm assuming that before you can tell the story you have to hear the story.
Cory: Absolutely.
Brett: How do you do that?
Cory: Well, it starts - every client starts with what we call the Brand Discernment process. We use that word "discernment" a lot. And I think the word, discernment, that word in itself, I think, lends itself - I don't know how to describe this - but it sort of lends itself to - what you're talking about - about listening. We have to allow - we have to give our clients an opportunity to tell their story. We have to listen to very specific details about their story and ask very important questions. We ask hard, difficult questions. We have to make our clients really think about what they're telling us. The idea, ultimately, is to create a story, but it's to help tell their story in a way that is what we call D.I.R.T.Y.

D.I.R.T.Y. is an acronym for Different, Inviting, Relevant, Truthful, and Yours - they have to own it. They have to believe in it. And that takes a lot of listening, a lot of deep listening, a lot of thinking, and a lot of difficult asking of questions.
Brett: So do you ever have clients come to you who are reluctant?
Cory: Yes. Most of the time.
Brett: How do you deal with that?
Cory: Once our clients begin the process, usually they come to us for one very specific reason and it's because there's pain. They're stuck - in one way or another. Whether it be through they're just not driving enough revenue into their organization, which is typically - I would say that's probably the most common problem. They're having growing pains. They're having a lot of turnover issues. Whatever it may be, it's usually an organization that is stuck and they're having trouble moving forward. When you start asking question about who they are and what makes them different, inviting, relevant, most of those companies have a really tough time answering that question.
Brett: Is that because they're too close to it to see it? Or...
Cory: That's a pretty good analysis. I think so, because we argue that there is something about every organization, just like every person - every human being - there's something that is different and inviting about them. Maybe they're afraid to express it. Maybe they haven't taken the time to figure out what that is. It could be a number of different things. Maybe they started in doing business in a way that was different, inviting, and relevant, but through growth and through not staying on task - you know, it's very easy to start in one direction and follow opportunities - becoming opportunistic in the way you do business. And pretty soon, you're doing things you don't know how to do, you don't want to be doing, and maybe it's not really your bread and butter, and you find your organization in an entirely different place than where you started.
Brett: You know, that's an interesting concept - the idea that opportunities could be misleading, away from your true calling.
Cory: Absolutely.
Brett: That's absolutely true though.
Cory: It's true. And what happens is that you're having a bad month, or you don't really have anything on the docket, and an opportunity is standing in front of you, and there's money involved.
Brett: Right. And we can keep the business afloat this way.
Cory: That's right. If we just do this, and then we'll get back on track.
Brett: ...and then that leads to...
Cory: We know this isn't who we are or what we do. We challenge our clients, once they really understand what it is that makes their brand D.I.R.T.Y., to use that to make their decisions. When you have an opportunity like that in front of you, [they can ask], "Does it match up with our brand? Is it who we are?" You can use that for new business. You can use that when you're talking about hiring new employees. I think it's a big big part of your brand. I was in recruiting for many years, and I can't tell you how many companies are just desperate to fill seats, but they don't really take the time to make sure that somebody really matches, not just a skillset, but from a personality set - "Is this a really good fit for us?"
Brett: Because every business is just the sum of its employees, ultimately.
Cory: It really is. Ultimately, it is.
Brett: If you bring in a bunch of people who are not a fit for your company's culture or mission-
Cory: -oh yeah. And not even a bunch. It can happen with one person.
Brett: That's true.
Cory: If you have a small organization and you bring in the wrong individual, it can really cloud the water. If you understand who you are as an organization, what your DNA is, and the kind of people that make up that organization, then you can make certain decisions from a recruiting standpoint that will help attract the same kind of people. But if you're just opening the door and saying, "Hey - we need to fill some seats," well, you could get lucky, and fill those seats with people that fit, but the odds aren't very good and that's what creates turnover and turnover's very expensive. And that leads you down a whole different road of problems and issues.
Brett: Sure. You know, I'm thinking about this opportunities leading people astray from their mission... I think that's personally true too, not just corporately true.
Cory: No question about it. It's sort of, in some sense maybe, a new way of looking at things. I think that there was a time where really it was about just going and doing a good job and getting your paycheck. But now people, it seems to me, oftentimes need to be more connected to the kind of work they do. And some sort of passion, and I think that's okay.
Brett: Yeah, I think people want meaningful work that will stretch them in the direction that they want to go.
Cory: Sure, and I think people ignore their passion a lot. It's very easy to do. You gotta pay your bills, but you don't... or you think that something is too far out of reach. And I think an organization could think that way too.
Brett: So we talked about whether or not sometimes your clients might be reluctant. Or maybe they might be ignorant really of where some of these things are. So how do you pull that out of them?
Cory: The Brand Discernment process that I talked about is led by Mark True, our Brand Warrior. Mark has an uncanny ability to listen to what people are saying. And he has a way to decipher the truthfulness in that. You know, we take these organizations through your typical SWOT analysis. We actually start with the aspiration. "Where do you wanna be? Where do you wanna be when you grow up?" And then we go back to the beginning. Tell us about your history, what's worked, what hasn't worked, what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses. Take everybody through a SWOT analysis and we just compile all of that information then. Once it's all done, it can take a full day, sometimes it can take a couple of days to get through this process. And then we begin to break that down. We put it in a document format. And what happens then is we begin to see some of the patterns and some of the things that, some of the decisions they've made, but typically what you really get out of that is their story. Okay, who are these guys and what makes them good at what they do. And we begin to see things that make them different, that make them inviting, and that make them relevant. And once we've done that, we can decipher where they need to focus their attention, depending on what they really want to aspire to. Once we've done that, we begin to design strategies that are gonna help them get there. See, usually, people start with the tactic. "We need people to know who we are, so let's advertise." And they go spend a bunch of money advertising. That's not necessarily - it may be a good decision and it may not. At that point, really, you're guessing. What we identify from that Brand Discernment process are their critical issues. These are two, three, or four things that are really prohibiting you from moving forward. This is why you're stuck - 1, 2, 3, 4 - these are your critical issues. We take those critical issues, and we build strategies around those critical issues - strategies to address the critical issues. From those strategies come certain tactics. And now we're down to the tactical level, which is maybe there's gonna be some money put into advertising. But again - we're not guessing about that. We've figured out that we need to reach an audience, but it's become very purposeful. We're not guessing.
Brett: So you started out as a video company, but you also do business consulting.
Cory: The way we've described it sometimes is that we look a little bit like an advertising agency, a little bit like a therapist's office. You know, all kind of mixed into one. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
Brett: Right.
Cory: They just got tired of being order takers, and being, you know, video and web producers. They had the video production going and there was some opportunity to add some web development, so they did. There was some opportunity to add some graphic design, so they did. Again, they were growing in a very opportunistic way - the way most companies do, without any real plan. And I think that really they just got tired of taking the orders - and I think that they felt like they were doing a lot of this work without any kind of knowledge about what it was going to do for the client. Okay, we're gonna make a lot of money off of it, but what does this do for them? How do you know you need a web page?
Brett: Well, it's what they asked for, so we'll just do that.
Cory: Right, right. That's exactly it. How do you know you need video? How do you know?
Brett: How is it that you find vendors, customers, people like that - how do you get in there and start talking to them about the company to get a better picture.
Cory: Well, you know, it's like this. [gesturing at the two of us sitting down to talk] It really is.
Brett: So do you go to the company and say, "Can I have your vendor list? Who can I talk to?" What do you do?
Cory: No. You know what? Every bit of business that I've brought in has been through relationships that I built outside of the organization. Every time. So it's through somebody that I know. When I sit down and start talking to people about their business, we'll meet over coffee. It's always just a "Hey - let's get to know each other, let's get to know our businesses," and see if there's any synergy there for whatever reason. We do not have a very typical sales model. It really is about just sharing of information. Tell me about you, tell me about your organization. What's great about your organization. What's holding you guys back? All of those things. And you can spend enough time just... and I don't - I never try to size somebody up to say, you know, have this first impression whether or not they're going to fit my organization or not - could they be a client. It always comes in time. Because oftentimes, you just know that they're not gonna be, but inevitably there's always someone else that I can introduce them to. "You know who you should meet? You should meet so-and-so." Or if you're telling me about the issues your organization's having, then I might have a solution. Or I might know somebody that has a solution. And that's what I like to do. I think organizations are like, you know, nearly all have a certain level of dysfunction to them. If there's a lot of dysfunction, ultimately, that's going to catch up to you, and you're going to have some unhappy employees, or people are going to end up leaving, or something's going to happen to throw a cog into that wheel. Is cog the right word?
Brett: A wrench in the works.
Cory: A stick through the spokes. Whatever it is. So just by conversation you begin to learn about organizations and how you might be able to play a role into getting them on the right track. And really, what I've noticed thus far in the year that I've been here is when I start to tell people about R.E.L., and what we do and how we do it, it strikes a chord with people. We have a different way of doing business. When I tell people what we do and how we do it, they really begin to pay attention. And it's kind of like that... there's almost like a sense of, "Oh my god, that's what we need!" And there's not many organizations who don't. Some are in more pain than others. But I really believe we can alleviate a lot of that pain. So that's how the conversation always starts. It's primarily I want to know about that person, about their role and about their organization. And if I have an opportunity, if they ask, to tell them about us, then I'll do so. And that usually happens at some point. But really it's about relationship building. And it's about listening and offering suggestions. The best sales book I've ever read - and I've only read like two good sales books ever - and I'm a reader! - but the best sales book I've ever read is by a guy named Mahan Khalsa. He runs the sales and business development practice area for Franklin Covey. He wrote a book called "Let's Get Real or Let's Not Play." Part of his theory is "Start anywhere, go anywhere." It's about just sitting down and just letting the conversation happen. You go in with these preconceived notions, and you're gonna walk out disappointed. If you walk in, and your goal is to get this sale or close this deal... sales in general is a very dysfunctional occupation.
Brett: It's very funneled, how it tries to channel things.
Cory: Completely. It's a silly silly thing. And that's why I love being at R.E.L. so much. They buy into Mahan's theory of start anywhere go anywhere - you don't force anything. You let the conversations happen. The opportunity will present itself somewhere along the way. But for me and primarily my role is to be building that relationship and to be networking and getting to know more people and what's happening is that eventually somebody will say - you know people are always talking about their businesses and talking about their problems - "Have you talked to Cory Garrison over at R.E.L.?" And I get a phone call, or I meet somebody: "Oh, I've been meaning to call you." Or I'm introduced to somebody and I get the opportunity to tell them what we do, but I'm never trying to force anybody into coming in and taking part the Brand Discernment process. You know, it's like somebody who has a drinking problem. "I'm fine. I can handle it."
Brett: I don't need any help.
Cory: And if you think about it, entrepreneurs - Hey I built it myself - bootstrap mentality. I don't need any help - we can fix it on our own. We get a lot of those people.
Brett: So when you guys diagnose - maybe that's a poor word - when you guys determine what the problems are - when you've discerned the different things that need to be done... you've got quite a bank of talent here: the graphic designers, video production, the other things... do you have like organizational psychologists here too? Because actually what's interesting to me is that from the outside, when I came in, [R.E.L.] started out as a video place, right? Here's our graphic designers and our web guys and everything else. And yet, I find that most of the stuff we've talked about so far really gets into the realm of, like you said, therapy and organizational psychology and trying to fix the dysfunction within an organization. How does that translate into video? But how does that also - what do you do in house to help steer those things and are the companies you work with really prepared for that part of what you do?
Cory: Sometimes they are and sometimes they're not. Again, keep in mind that the idea here is to help organizations tell their story. And that's really what all of that is designed around. Great design, great web sites, video production. These are the things that are going to help you tell your story. Building a great blog, whatever that may be. But before you can tell that story, you've kind of gotta clear out all the minutiae. You gotta, you know, use the mental floss and clear everything out. And understanding who you are - remember when we were talking a little while ago if you know and understand your brand you can make better decisions. You can make more purposeful decisions that make sense for the organization. That's all in sort of building that storytelling. You start with understanding what you brand is, and understanding who you are, and once you sort of talk through all this stuff, you really start to see people nodding their heads. Yes, that's right - that's true. It's sort of like reigniting or helping people remember, you know, why did we start this in the first place? Why are we doing this when it's not even in our skillset? Why are we ignoring this when that is our core? And that's the therapy part of it - helping them bring all that to the surface. One thing you asked earlier that I never addressed is you asked me if we, do we talk to other people. You know, you might three or four other people in this room, how do you find out the truth? And that's part of it.
Brett: Because my opinion of myself is not correct.
Cory: That's exactly it. Or at least it's going to be - that's one person's opinion, but you have all these other people looking at you. In our Brand Discernment process, we have a spot in there we call the Reality Check. And that Reality Checking - it looks, it can look different depending on the situation, but oftentimes it's doing a survey, an employee survey. We've gone a sat down and interviewed employees of our clients before and just asked them questions and gotten some really really interesting responses.
Brett: I suppose.
Cory: Oftentimes, it's very accurate. Sometimes, it's not so accurate. You know, you can tell some of the employees - we did this with one of our clients, and we took them through the Brand Discernment process about a year ago. When we went through and did a Reality Check with their employees, there was one employee in particular that had a different story than everybody else did. In other words, the owners, the employees really seemed to be on the same page. But they really didn't know how to communicate who they were, and they were taking on a lot of business opportunistically also because they didn't know how to get out and tell their story in a meaningful way. We helped them do that, but there was one individual who was really telling a different story than everybody else. And you knew that that person was not going to be around very long. You just knew it. They really didn't buy in to who the organization was. They weren't a fit, and you knew it and the guy's not there any more. I could have predicted it. I saw it back then - he's a short-timer. And you just knew it. But yeah, we've done surveys with customers, employees, and you really get a lot of good feedback from that. That's the Reality Check, and it's very very helpful.
Brett: That's cool.
Cory: Yeah.
Brett: So how would you define listening?
Cory: That's actually - that's a tough question. You have to remove the selfishness. When you sit down with somebody, it can't be, "What are you gonna do for me?" I try to look at it from the opposite way as "What is it that I can do to help this person?" It's not always about, "Can this guy's company be a client of mine?" You know, we may get there sometime, but what I love to do, and this I guess is from all my years in executive recruiting, was helping people make connections. That's really about - that's really what I love to do is help people make connections that's going to somehow help them move forward. And you can't do that unless you really pay attention. And it's not just about - this is really cliché, right? - but hearing and listening... it goes beyond... you sort of have to read between the lines when people arte talking and telling you something because there's... I guess it's about being selfless and engaging and figuring out what it is you can do to help move somebody forward. When I think of listening, especially in a business environment, that's what I think about. And sometimes it's just being a sounding board. I've learned that the hard way - in marriage mostly. People don't always want an answer.
Brett: Right. Sometimes it's just talking stuff out. And people always move better and more passionately on something if they come up with it themselves or if they realize it for themselves - even if you give them the beginning of it, for them to make it their own and then move forward with it, as opposed to just advice advice advice.
Cory: Well that's exactly right. If you're asking questions along the way that are meaningful, and that make sense, to help somebody kind of get to that point and sometimes you can see that on their face when they come to that realization: "I know exactly what the answer is." You don't have to give them advice. But then you can ultimately help somebody - again I'm thinking back to a business environment which is to help you with your issue or your problem or your frustration. Maybe I got you closer. And I think ultimately if you're doing that - if you're engaging and you're actively listening and participating in that conversation... I mean, ultimately in some way it's going to come back to you.
Brett: If I could encapsulate the whole thing... it's not always important to be the sole solution at the end of the day... instead, more being a conduit toward the solution because then people realize, people then will value what you do and what you have to offer, not because you gave them the answer, but because you helped them get to the answer, whatever journey that led them on. What I'm hearing you say - whether I'm giving you the whole solution or just help you along the way, if I'm selflessly hearing what you're saying, in a way that I can help you, then you're going to have the desire to come back to me again and again because I am a solution provider. I act as a conduit toward solutions.
Cory: I couldn't have said it better myself.
Brett: I just paraphrased. So I was gonna ask you then, who would be a really good person for me to talk to who might have an interesting perspective on listening?
Cory: That's Mike Wagner. I don't know if he's been referred to you yet or not. Mike, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing people I've met since I moved to Des Moines. The other guy, and I'll get you his number, he's a guy that I've never spoken to directly, but we've had conversation via our blogs, and his name is Steve Harper. He is in Austin, Texas. He's written a book and his blog and his business are all - it's called The Ripple Effect. And it is all about making a rippling effect on the environment and the community and the people around you. It's about networking. It's about listening. It's about creating. And he really comes off to me as a brilliant guy.
Brett: Thanks Cory.
Cory: Thank you very much.


1 Comment
Tags: relationships | listening | interview
by Brett Rogers, 8/30/2007 12:25:38 AM

Beautiful Dirt


Sometimes, we can have the most brilliant idea or the keenest insight. But if our audience isn't ready for it (maybe the wrong audience or the wrong time), it's a waste of time.

Waiting for fertile ground is key. Sometimes, in our excitement, we're more excited about the seed than the soil. Gotta have both. Pocket the seed until you know it can grow as you expect.


Tags: relationships
by Brett Rogers, 7/19/2007 11:51:18 AM

I'm Sorry


A favorite blog of mine is Trust Matters by Charles H. Green, who wrote up a great post on apologies and forgiveness. He gives a list of what makes for a proper apology.

1. Full acknowledgement of the offense
2. An explanation
3. Genuine expresssion of remorse
4. Reparations for damage
5. The final gallant act of apology is to release your former victim from any expectation of forgiveness. No matter how noble you have been, he will forgive - or refuse to forgive - on his own terms. That is his right.
He elaborates further on this by saying:
Apologies should not be tainted by forgiving, or by seeking forgiveness. Those have their place, but it’s elsewhere.

A good apology tries to set aright something that you set awry by impinging on another's will. It's only appropriate that the apology itself refrain from further imposition of will. Hence the separation from forgiving or forgiveness.

In other words, an apology has no agenda. It's simply a statement of fact: I screwed up and I'm willing to make up for it.

That's tough stuff. How hard that is to do personally, but also professionally, whether it's to a co-worker, to a manager, or to a customer.


Tags: relationships
by Brett Rogers, 7/17/2007 1:48:36 PM

Listening: A Self-Assessment


I highly recommend Dorothy Leeds book, The 7 Powers of Questions. I've based the following 10 questions from a quiz in her book. Give a simple True or False to each question.

1. Sometimes, I get impatient when listening to others and finish their sentences for them.

2. I make clear eye contact with the person to whom I am listening.

3. Sometimes, people tell me that I am not listening to them.

4. When listening, I spend more time trying to see the other person's perspective than I do thinking of what to say next.

5. When I can't give my full attention, I let the other person know.

6. I think it's appropriate to interrupt whenever I need clarification.

7. How well I listen depends on the person speaking.

8. I can listen and multitask at the same time.

9. I never need to take notes, as I remember conversations quite well.

10. When I meet someone and I hear their name, I generally remember it.

How'd you do?

A bit of comment about each one...

1. Any time that you finish someone's sentence for them, you're making an assumption. That can be dangerous. Some people use this method as a segue for themselves to talk again. Personally, I do this when I think a person is struggling for a word - I try to supply what I think works best for where I thought the conversation was going. But it can be offensive and frankly, it's an assumption on my part. I think it's best not done unless asked.

2. I make an effort to do this, but for some people, it's distracting for them to make clear eye contact, so they look aside. My former platoon sergeant in the Army did this all the time. He never looked you in the eye when in conversation. It turned a lot of people off and they didn't trust him, for that (and other reasons), but it does give that impression.

3. We can get defensive when we're told that we're not listening. If this is said to you, take it for what it is and double your effort to remain silent and let the other person speak fully. If you want to say this to someone, be careful - because they'll likely jump on you if you interrupt them in any way. Might be best to write an email later.

4. Seeing the perspective of someone else is sometimes hard because their experience doesn't always fit neatly into how we see the world. Ask the person for help to see it from their side if you're struggling. They'll generally be quick to help you.

5. Ever tell someone, "I'd like to give you my full attention, but now isn't the best time for me?" It can feel rude, but it's better than missing what they say. Especially when they ask you about it later.

6. You have to be careful with interruptions. If it has to be done to get clarification, best to make it very brief and not use the opportunity to launch into your own speech. You'll know that you're doing this right when you find that you're asking a one-sentence question and then waiting for the response.

7. Of course, this is true for everyone. I listen to my wife, Tamara, much more intently than I listen to the checkout guy in Best Buy. But remember that we're always leaving an impression, so it's best to make the best effort for the circumstances.

8. I have yet to meet the person who listens well while multitasking. There are times when it's unavoidable, but either the task or the listening will suffer.

9. I also have yet to meet the person with a photographic memory. Conversations don't always need note-taking, but they do require some humility if we remember it wrong. Better to look for the intent of what was spoken than what we remember to actually have been said.

10. There are people who really have a tough time with faces and names. Heard of face blindness? I think some folks probably have a true "name blindness" as well. But that said, people are flattered when we remember their name. Doing so will improve our ability to have good relationships.


Tags: dorothy leeds | listening | relationships
by Brett Rogers, 6/28/2007 5:43:45 PM

Pay Attention


Rush Nigut makes a wonderful point about the importance of being observant, and he separates listening from observation in saying in the comments, "You need to observe rather than listen." I think both are equally important. I'll explain...

A few years ago, I was trading email with my friend, Bella, and she said something that stuck with me: she said that it's all about paying attention. By paying attention, we can salvage any relationship in our lives that might be in trouble, be it with a customer, a friend, or a spouse. People are flattered when you pay attention to them.

Have you ever gone into a store and seen a clerk remember someone's name and favorite order? "The usual today, Mrs. Jones? The caramel cappuccino with a half-twist of lemon and a sprinkle of nutmeg?"

Didn't that person feel important? Didn't you think they were important as you watched this exchange?

Or what about when your significant other hands you your Christmas gift and it's something you mentioned in passing 6 months ago while walking through the mall?

Moments like these cement loyalty big time.

Rush is right - observation is key, and incidents like these show that we are observant.

In his book, The Relationship Cure, John Gottman says this:

While understanding metaphors and all the various forms of nonverbal communication can boost your ability to connect with others, you won't get far without a strong foundation of good, basic listening skills. Your knack for drawing others out and expressing genuine curiosity about their lives can be a real boon to bidding for connection and establishing satisfying relationships. Good listening skills can help you to feel easy in all sorts of social situation, and to build the kind of rapport that leads to solid emotional bonds.
Observation is irreplaceable, and I think the same attentiveness that we show through observation is exhibited in our listening.

Dale Carnegie said:

"You can make more friends in two months by becoming genuinely interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."
People have to see that we're paying attention. Listening does that in conversation through the use of questions and body language. Observation can too, but I think it's tougher to show it through observation. Because perception = reality, we might be paying devout attention by observing, but I don't know that people would get the message that we're clued in. And they need that. They need to see indications that we're focused on them. Listening, and what we communicate verbally and nonverbally when we do listen, signals that we're paying attention in a more immediate sense than just observation can.

I'm totally diggin' the comments these days. Lots of smart insight, and I hadn't yet considered observation in this thread of Listen Well posts, but I will.

Thanks Rush!


1 Comment
Tags: john gottman | relationships | listening
by Brett Rogers, 6/27/2007 11:12:45 AM

Lend Me Your Eyes


My first class at Iowa State University was Speech 110: Listening. I took that because I figured that I could only enhance my experience of being lectured for the next few years if I was a better listener.

The first thing that Dr. Kaufmann taught us is that 90% of listening is non-verbal. It's not what you say - it's how you say it. Conversely, it's also not what you hear, but what you see. Body language provides a context through which we hear more than what is spoken. Is a picture is worth a thousand words? Absolutely.

In her book, Listening: the Forgotten Skill, Madelyn Burley-Allen lists 36 non-verbal behaviors. As you read through this tweaked list, based on what she gave in her book, think of how you interpret it when you see someone else do each behavior in conversation with you.

  • Raising an eyebrow
  • Smiling
  • Nodding the head
  • Sitting forward in the chair
  • Remaining silent
  • Frowning
  • Looking away
  • Rolling eyes
  • Opening and relaxing body posture
  • Touching
  • Being attentive
  • Putting a hand over the mouth
  • Not moving
  • Being restless
  • Nodding the head
  • Looking at the speaker sideways
  • Maintaining eye contact
  • Sighing
  • Squinting eyes
  • Moving backward/withdrawing
  • Yawning
  • Scowling
  • Reaching out
  • Slumping in the chair
  • Folding arms across the chest
  • Tilting the head
  • Narrowing the eyes
  • Arching the neck forward
  • Stretching
  • Pursing the lips
  • Tapping the foot or drumming the fingers
  • Sudden leg or foot movement
  • Shrugging the shoulders
  • Puffing the cheeks
  • Shaking the head
  • Looking downward
Some are positive, some are negative. It doesn't really matter what is said. Each of these communicates volumes by their very act. Often, these are "spoken" without any thought. They're natural body movements, subconsciously responsive.

So think it through... if you have an important point to make, how do you react to these when you see these behaviors? For those that are perceived negatively, how you do move the conversation forward into positive territory?

Now consider how you respond to others through what you communicate with your body. Are you subconsciously killing conversation by showing that you listen poorly?


1 Comment
Tags: listening | relationships
by Brett Rogers, 6/23/2007 7:24:25 PM

Knock Before You Enter


Ever have someone call you in the middle your busy day and then they launch into something completely unrelated to what you're doing? It's disorienting. It's sometimes abrasive. It can feel like someone busting the door down at your house while you're having dinner.

On the flipside, do you ever do this to others?

Most people will allow you to continue on once they've answered the phone because they don't want to be perceived as rude by dismissing you, but in fact, if you've completely interrupted them, they're only going to catch half of what you say, at best.

Conversationally, how do you politely knock before you enter someone's world? How do you ready someone to hear you before you begin?

It's really about expectation and permission.

Most people don't need much time to switch gears. If you help them with this, you'll have a more successful conversation and both of you will listen better to the other.

Start your part of the conversation with something that respects them and allows them an easy out.

"Hi Sue. It's Brett. Is this a good time, or a bad time, to talk?"


"Hi Jason. This is Brett, and I wanted to know if you have a few minutes?"

By starting with the question and suggesting that it's okay to delay the conversation, you honor their world. What's more, if now is a good time, they've given you permission to proceed, and mentally, they're more engaged, having set down their things, so to speak, to really hear you.

The more you help others succeed at listening, the better your relationship will be.


Tags: listening | relationships
by Brett Rogers, 6/22/2007 4:55:42 PM

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.
Doug: Hello!
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.
Brett: Okay.
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.
Brett: Okay.
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.
Brett: Really?
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.
Brett: Okay.
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.
Brett: Right.
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.
Doug: Right.
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.
Doug: Right.
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.
Brett: Sure
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.
Brett: Right.
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.
Doug: Yeah.
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.
Doug: Yeah.
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?
Brett: Yeah.
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.
Doug: Exactly.
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.
Brett: Right.
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.
Doug: Agreed.
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?
Brett: Sure.
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.
Brett: Okay.
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!


1 Comment
Tags: interview | relationships | listening
by Brett Rogers, 6/21/2007 11:33:26 AM

Indifference Kills


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.

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.

Indifference as a business experience is a business killer.

More than ever, showing customers that they matter to your company is not just an extra - it's vital.


Tags: relationships | listening
by Brett Rogers, 6/18/2007 1:02:48 AM

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: Really?
Mike: Yeah.
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?
Mike: Yeah!
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.
Brett: Really?
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.
Brett: Gotcha.
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.
Brett: Yeah...
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.
Brett: Hmm...
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?
Brett: Mmm-hmm...
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: Laziness.
Brett: Really?
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."
Brett: Right.
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."
Brett: Right.
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.
Mike: Yes.
Brett: How do you do that?
Mike: Well, first I have to listen to what they want, what their goal is.
Brett: Okay.
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."
Mike: Right.
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?
Brett: Absolutely.
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?
Brett: Yeah.
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: Absolutely.
Brett: Yeah?
Mike: And he'll tell you that. If you don't listen to your customer, how do you know what to say?
Brett: Right.
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?
Brett: Yeah.
Mike: I think Doug Mitchell would be a good one to talk to because he's got a totally different perspective.
Brett: Okay.
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...


Read the whole story of "Listen Well"
Tags: interview | listening | relationships
by Brett Rogers, 6/18/2007 12:26:54 AM