Clients deserve a hearing

How good are you and your colleagues at listening?  Most of us think we are pretty good and, if we are responsible for developing client relationships for our firms, we know we should be.

Take a moment and write down the names of all the really good listeners in your firm… all of them.  The chances are your list will be short, which is surprising because you probably work for a firm of property advisers.

Few would deny that listening is a key skill for all the elements of an adviser’s role – including giving advice, consulting with the client, relationship development, management and leadership.  Without excellent listening skills the best a property professional can be is a technician, never a trusted adviser.  Why does this matter?  Genuine advisers are able to generate greater value for their clients and will win more business from them.

Property companies populated by trusted advisers are also able to command premium fees from clients, who regard their services as invaluable and tremendous value for money.  Listening is the key to success in business and client development.  It has the ability to make people and organisations stand out in a crowded and competitive world.

100% concentration

So, why is listening such a rare skill?  The answer is that it is much harder to do well than it would seem.  It is much more than just letting words hit our ears.  Hearing is not listening.  Listening requires 100% concentration.  Good listeners are confident and relaxed in potentially stressful situations.  They practise their listening regularly.

More than anything, good listeners are genuinely interested in what is being said and in the person who is saying it.  They are not just interested in information that would be of value to them or their business.  They do not focus on ‘issues’, ‘problems’ or ‘needs’ in the hope of finding a way of selling the client more of their services.  Instead, they want to understand and are happy that their understanding will help to build a relationship of trust.  This trust in turn will lead to a stronger, more profitable relationship with the client.

Alongside a lack of genuine interest, the biggest barrier to effective listening is thinking.  No one reading this article can listen – really listen – and think at the same time.  In client situations, while the client is still explaining his or her situation, we may be tempted to think of a number of things:

  • A great next question;
  • A possible solution to a client issue;
  • How we have helped other clients in ‘similar’ situations before;
  • The resources we are going to need to deliver a solution to the client; and
  • The services we would like to sell

All of these thoughts get in the way of us concentrating 100% on listening and understanding what is being said.  And the client will notice.  And the client will eventually stop trying to maintain our attention, probably with the lines: “OK, that’s enough about what we do, tell me what you can do for us.”

We are now catapulted into a premature presentation of a half-baked solution to a client who feels we could not even be bothered to listen to them.

Client dissatisfaction

You will probably leave the meeting feeling aggrieved at the client’s lack of interest in your fantastic expertise and complain once again to your colleagues that “clients just won’t open up, whatever questions you ask and however interested you are”.

Just listening, of course, is not the whole solution.  Deep understanding requires active listening.  Active listening involves hearing and understanding but it also involves demonstrating we have heard and understood.  It means giving the other party feedback through summary and reflection and it means stimulating further sharing of insight and information through the demonstration of genuine, undiluted interest.

The diagram below identifies the key actions involved in all levels of listening.  The left side indicates more passive activities and the right more active ones.  These actions are positive and should be demonstrated and practised by anyone for whom relationships are important for success.  Master all of these and you will be on any list of exceptional listeners put together by your colleagues and clients.

Key activities involved in listening

Regular practice will develop listening skills

 

Passive     Listening     Active
Pauses & silences Positive body language Acknowledgements Encouraging words Positive body language Unbundling words & phrases Feed-back
            -summ-arising
            -refl-ecting

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