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Effective Listening: Building Client Relationships That Last

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by Paul Cowan, author of “Connecting with Clients: For stronger, more rewarding and longer-lasting client relationships

How do you build mutually rewarding client relationships? As today’s relationships are increasingly transactional, building long-lasting client connections feels more challenging than ever. When you get it wrong, effort is wasted, margins lost, teams demotivated, and even revenue is put at risk. But there are ways to get the connection right. Effective listening can transform your client relationships for the better.

What is Effective Listening?

It is at the heart of communication, and communication is at the heart of any relationship. Chances are you already think you are a good listener. But something is missing in your client connections. Things are easily misunderstood, or you cannot get to the core of what your client wants or needs. You might be hearing without genuinely listening.

When a long-term relationship or project with a client starts, it’s like the beginning of a journey. Travel a short distance with your client and, if you’re off course by one degree, the difference probably won’t matter much. On the other hand, if you travel too far in the wrong trajectory, you might end up missing your target. Effective listening is part of setting the right track.

Barriers to Effective Listening

Effective listening is a constant learning process, likely to be rife with some obstacles and missteps. Knowing the possible barriers to effective listening is essential.

Here are some barriers to be conscious of: 

Over-confidence — believing we’re already good or relatively good listeners, so there’s no incentive to learn. When encountering a communication problem, it’s related to others rather than ourselves. Hearing is not the same as listening. Hearing is a good start, but good listeners don’t just hear. They focus on the meaning of what’ they’re hearing. If we don’t glean the correct meaning, then we’ve failed to communicate.

Not speaking as fast as your mind works — most of us say about 125 words a minute. But we have the mental capacity to understand speech at 400–500 words per minute. Our minds like to be busy with thoughts. Don’t believe it? Try meditating. In conversation, consider how your focus drifts between sentences, in pauses, and when you get bored or distracted. At any point, our mind is likely to head off to the beach, begin making holiday plans, go shopping, delve into our relationships or prioritize essential tasks. By the time we’ve refocused, the speaker has moved on, and we can only guess at what was or wasn’t said.

Listening, not to listen — with people we know, especially those we know well, what we hear is filtered through our existing ideas and beliefs. We may have heard somebody say something so many times that we stop listening.

Waiting and rehearsing  somebody is speaking, or we’re listening selectively, and a thought occurs. We might want to add, comment, or disagree, but the speaker hasn’t finished, so we wait. To hold the idea in mind, we review or rehearse it. Meanwhile, we’re no longer connected to what the speaker is actually saying. Instead, we’re waiting for our turn to speak.

Listening is hard work — listening can be mentally arduous and tedious. After a long meeting, any of us can feel both mentally and physically exhausted.

Age doesn’t help — if we describe listening as giving our full attention, first-grade schoolchildren aged 5–6 years are the best listeners. As children get older, their concentration drops off. In a listening experiment, first and second graders in the US showed that more than 90% listened. Their ability to listen decreased with each year and, by high school, the average dropped to 28%. 

Judgment — it’s easy to tune out or reject a speaker and their content based on how they look and sound, or even because of their overall delivery. The listener’s relationship to the topic can also get in the way.

Inference — during a meeting or conversation, it becomes easy to infer meanings which opens up a classic opportunity to misunderstand clients. Lacking information about a client’s perspective, it’s all too easy to rely on what is available — our own perspective.

Filling the silence — silence can feel awkward. Rather than using silence to encourage a speaker to go further, many will jump in or interrupt with a response, question, or opinion.

Memory — you may be better than average, or at least think you are. Either way, after listening to a 10-minute verbal presentation, the average listener has heard, understood, and retained just 50% of what was said. Wait 48 hours, and that falls by another 50%. So, attend a short presentation with a client on Friday afternoon, and by Monday morning, the average listener will have retained just 25%. Most meetings are complex, detailed, and lengthy. Even with notes, it’s challenging to recall all the details and detect and decode all the nuances.

Hearing is Not Listening

If I asked you: “How do you rate yourself as a listener compared to your colleagues?” You’d likely rate yourself somewhere close to a seven. If I asked how you would place your colleagues on a similar scale, with ten being great and one being poor, you would probably give them a four.

Here’s the thing: your colleagues would, on average, give the same ratings as you. It is agreed that there is a listening problem, but each of you would believe that the problem can be attributed to somebody else.

Interestingly, close to a third of agency clients in every major city worldwide also agree: whatever the language, listening is a problem, resulting in relationships damaged and business lost. But listening is like any skill. It takes motivation, focus, knowledge, and practice to improve.

So, while you may ‘hear’ what your clients and colleagues are saying, are you allowing them to speak their truth? Are you learning, reflecting on, and adapting to the various ways your clients communicate?

If not, you may be already listening.

By ‘already listening,’ you have missed the opportunity to hear anything new or to step into the world of who is speaking. Doing so, you effectively block the ability to understand and work with them to create positive change in your relationship. Many businesses and agencies are guilty of this, even when they don’t believe they are.

Let me give you an example.

Once I was observing how an agency team dealt with a client intending to help improve their relationship. I heard the client say that they had ‘one problem. However, the agency team shifted their attention away, reaching for a notepad, an iPad, and a copy of a presentation. This was obviously a typical pattern, and my suspicions were confirmed: they continued to put forward recommendations rather than truly listen to the client’s problem.

Afterward, I asked them about their experience with the client: “He is so negative and cautious; he always says that he has one problem and then spills out the same old litany of problems whatever the proposal.”

Later, I played back my recording of the meeting and matched it against the agency’s follow-up. The disconnect between the challenges raised by the client and the response being developed was apparent. The damage to the relationship, margin, work, and morale was yet to unfold.

Actively listening to your client can save money, time, and resources, but it also builds long-lasting client relationships. Effective listening is part of the interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence that separates great leaders from unsuccessful ones.

Don’t Take it for Granted

As you build your business and client relationships, it is sometimes easy to take success and connections for granted. The latter will cost you the most. Remember always to appreciate your clients and, most importantly: show it. Listen to them and take the opportunity to step into their world, empathize.

Remember: listening is a constant learning process. You will likely make some mistakes as you approach and build new connections. But when potential conflict arrives, you will have the emotional intelligence to know how to deal with it. Appreciate your personal and work relationships, and they will be mutually rewarding and successful.

 

Paul Cowan is a relationship specialist who had a successful career in leading international advertising agencies, then opened his own agency. Specializing in client relationships, he works internationally to facilitate change between agencies and their clients. He cofounded the Client Relationship Consultancy and the Customer Relationship Consultancy. His new book is “Connecting with Clients: For stronger, more rewarding and longer-lasting client relationships“.