The Art of Listening

Old Timey Hearing


There are two kinds of companies: ones who’ve mastered the art of talking, and ones who’ve mastered the art of listening.

I’ve worked with both kinds, and know that there are only a few companies with really big ideas — even fewer that can change the world, or the way we think or interact with our environment and each other. They tend to be the ones who know how to listen.

But you know those companies. The ones who create a legion of copycats all claiming to be the latest whatever-killer. For technology companies, those “whatevers” are Google, Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook. For the rest of the business world you can add companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Dyson, Netflix, and a few others.

They don’t have any kind of magic formula for success; they just work hard and, most importantly, listen. They listen intently to what their customers want. They ask questions and then go find answers. Nothing is ever developed or launched unless there’s a market for it, and that, as much as all the whistles and bells, is what guarantees success.

Listening includes admitting that when you make a mis-step. Coke flip-flopped on “New Coke,” just as Facebook did when it altered its terms of service in 2010. Your customers know when you screw up, and don’t think they won’t talk about it. Pretending like it didn’t happen makes you look like you don’t know what’s going on with your own business.

Listening is an art, and it’s the thing that’s necessary to keep a company agile in its market place. If you’re creating a Web site, you better have the technical development skills to build it, to adapt it, to make it better — but it’s only by listening to what your users tell you that you know what “better” looks like.

Listen to your customers and develop the thing they tell you they want. Don’t think that you can develop something and make them want it, that’s ass-backwards. Don’t tell your users how to use it, ask them what problem they will use it to overcome. In fact, get active in social media, and monitor what customers are saying about you. If they’re saying bad things about your product, that’s an opportunity to show that you listen to your users. If they’re not talking about you, that’s a problem.

Iterate. Get v1.0 out of production, and iterate fast, because good today is better than perfect tomorrow. The important thing is to get something out in front of your customers so that you can solicit feedback and get working on v1.1.

Early adopters complained that Apple was releasing new iPhones too often, but many of them dropped another $400 on the 3G model, or re-upped their cellular plan to get the new phone. What matters here is that Apple was already working on the next iteration as they were releasing the current version. That helped them to stay ahead of the curve (no pun intended, BlackBerry owners) and establish dominance in the touchscreen mobile device market. Once users were hooked on iPhone apps, the iTouch and phenomenally successful iPad were natural progressions.

Create products to support your product. In the case of a Web site, an API is essential — let your users create apps. Give them a way to share, link, and embed the things they do with your product, or they’ll find one of your competitors that meets their need.

Samuel Beckett said of failure: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” That should be your testing mantra. Do your user testing with idiots with a little knowledge. Have them break your product, so you can fix it, make it better, more robust. Then have the idiots break it again. The fact of the matter is that it doesn’t make a difference if you think your product should be used for something in particular, users will find a way to use it for something else.

When Philip Strauss invented the car-tire in 1911, he probably didn’t envision it being used on assault-courses, hung from trees, or made into plant pots. But they are. You should celebrate if your product accidentally turns out to be more versatile than you thought.

Success is not an accident, and you can’t let it be — you can’t reliably recreate accidental results.  So get active with Facebook, Twitter, AdSense, podcasts, white papers, guest blogging…and find out which activities are generating the best feedback for you to improve your product. If you make a place where people can comment on your product, that’s what people will do.

Listening is a learned skill. You might not get it right first time, and you probably won’t get it right every time. But customers will see that you’re trying, and that will earn you some latitude when you screw up.

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