The cornerstone of any service oriented-business is a strong customer service team. No matter what the size of your team, every member should have one customer service trait in common. If this trait is absent—even in one person, it can mean the difference between success and failure.

Listening Effectively

Now you may be thinking "Of course, my entire team is great at listening!" but please read on. There are a few details to consider before assuming your team, and even dare I say you, have effective listening skills.

A Definition of Listening—What Does It Really Mean?

Listening is the ability to accurately receive and interpret messages in the communication process.

Listening is key to all effective communication. Without the ability to listen effectively, messages are easily misunderstood; communication breaks down; and the sender of the message can easily become frustrated or irritated.

We're Probably Not As Good As We Think We Are

A study of over 10,000 people employed in email and phone-based customer service positions found that almost all of the respondents believed that they communicate as effectively, or more effectively, than their co-workers.

However, other research shows the average person listens only about 25% effectively.  While most people agree that listening effectively is an important trait, most don't feel a need to improve their own skill level.

The Negative Effect On Your Business

The most obvious problem with not listening effectively is that problems don't get solved as efficiently as they could (and should). This not only affects your customer-facing people, but it also affects your internal communications and team members.

Not listening effectively causes other issues, including:

  • Incorrect solutions are offered.
    The problem is misunderstood, and therefore the solution offered isn't correct.
  • Customers feel misunderstood.
    Even though you may have answered the question a thousand times, it's critical to resist the urge to interrupt and offer the solution you think your customer needs. Hear them out, even if you've heard it all before.
  • Relationships end.
    Depending on your business model, the worst case scenario of not listening effectively is that the solution offered actually makes the problem worse and therefore totally ends the relationship with your customer.

How to Listen More Effectively

You could easily take a course like Conscious Listening from five-time speaker Julian Treasure. If you're not ready to shell out the money for that just yet, here are ten simple steps for effective listening from you can keep in mind.

1. Stop Talking

“If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” —Mark Twain.

Don't talk, listen. When somebody else is talking, listen to what they're saying. Do not interrupt, talk over them, or finish their sentences for them. Stop, just listen. When the other person has finished talking, you may need to clarify to ensure you have received their message accurately.

2. Prepare Yourself to Listen

Relax. Focus on the speaker. Put other things out of mind. The human mind is easily distracted by other thoughts – what’s for lunch, what time do I need to leave to catch my train, is it going to rain. Try to put other thoughts out of mind and concentrate on the messages that are being communicated.

3. Put the Speaker at Ease

Help the speaker to feel free to speak. Remember their needs and concerns. Nod or use other gestures or words to encourage them to continue. Maintain eye contact, but don’t stare. Show you are listening and understanding what is being said.

4. Remove Distractions

Focus on what is being said: don’t doodle, shuffle papers, look out the window, pick your fingernails or anything similar. Avoid unnecessary interruptions. These behaviours disrupt the listening process and send messages to the speaker that you are bored or distracted.

5. Empathize

Try to understand the other person’s point of view. Look at issues from their perspective. Let go of preconceived ideas. Having an open mind allows us to more fully empathize with the speaker. If the speaker says something that you disagree with, wait to construct an argument to counter what is said. Keep an open mind to the views and opinions of others.

6. Be Patient

A pause, even a long pause, does not necessarily mean that the speaker has finished. Be patient and let the speaker continue in their own time. Sometimes it takes time to formulate what to say and how to say it. Never interrupt or finish a sentence for someone.

7. Avoid Personal Prejudice

Try to be impartial. Don't become irritated, and don't let the person’s habits or mannerisms distract you from what they are really saying. Everybody has a different way of speaking. For example, some people are more nervous or shy, some have regional accents or make excessive arm movements, some like to pace while talking. Focus on what is being said, and try to ignore styles of delivery.

8. Listen to the Tone

Volume and tone add to what someone is saying. Both volume and tone will help you to understand what is being emphasized by a speaker. Chose your volume and tone carefully, and be observant of the volume and tone of your audience.

9. Listen for Ideas – Not Just Words

You need to get the whole picture, not just isolated bits and pieces. One of the most difficult aspects of listening is the ability to link together pieces of information to comprehend the ideas behind the words of others. Proper concentration and letting go of distractions will help you focus on the main ideas being communicated.

10. Wait and Watch for Non-Verbal Communication

Gestures, facial expressions, and eye-movements can all be important. We don’t just listen with our ears but also with our eyes.  Watch and pick up additional information being transmitted via non-verbal communication.

Put Yourself to the Listening Test

Psychology Today has a series of self tests, including the Listening Skills Test. If you're interested in learning more about your actual listening skills, or want to share this article with your team, give it a try. You may find it useful, and at the very least, an opener for deeper discussions with your customer service providers.