Telephone Doctor: Improving listening skillsNancy Friedmanlistening skills, steps to better listening As with many columns around the country in other newspapers and newsletters, some favorites are repeated from time to time. This article in particular is an often-requested one to reprint, so it is a worthy repeat from a few years ago. Enjoy! Pretend you're a real estate agent, showing a $5 million home to a nationally known sports star. This sports star and his beautiful actress wife really like the house. If the sale is made, the commission will allow you to buy a new luxury car and pay off a lot of bills. As the sale is about to be closed, the athlete's cell phone rings and his smile turns to a frown. He has just been traded and will be leaving town. He relays the message to his wife, who breaks down and cries. Q: How old is the real estate person? Give up? It's not a trick. You might want to re-read the scenario. It says pretend that you are a real estate salesperson. So how old are you? OK, it was a trick. But it was no more tricky than listening to your customers, whether you're on the phone or in person. Listening is an art, not a science. And while we usually can hear customers, the Telephone Doctor often wonders if we're really listening to them. You might think that listening is easy. After all, doesn't everybody listen? Listening isn't the same as hearing. Think about a commercial for a product you have no interest in. It's easy to tune that information out, isn't it? Hearing is one thing, but listening and mentally absorbing the information is another thing. That's why we say listening is an art, not a science. While it's easy to hear what the customer says, great customer service begins with great listening skills. Here are six steps to becoming a better listener. And if you think you're already a pretty good listener, pass this along to someone who could also benefit from improved listening skills. Tip #1: Decide to be a better listener In school, you're taught reading, writing, math and dozens of other topics. I don't know about you, but in all my schooling, I don't ever recall having a course on listening. And yet, as we all know, listening is an important - some would say even crucial - skill. The first step is all about you - your personal commitment to being a better listener. You need to decide to be a better listener. So make that decision now. You're going to be a better listener, and you're going to work at it. Here's how ... Tip #2: Welcome the customer Be obviously friendly. By being obviously friendly and welcoming the customer, it immediately sets the stage to let the customer know that you're interested and actively listening. One effective way to show you're listening is to tell the customer, "You've come to the right place." Tip #3: Concentrate Your mind processes information much faster than the normal rate of speech, and because of that ability, half of your mind listens while the other half does other things. Your brain tends to solve other problems and think about what you're going to say next, other calls you need to make, lunch plans and a host of other activities. The mind needs to be disciplined to pay full attention to your customer and listen closely. Even when you try to listen closely, little things can distract you, like a regional accent, someone speaking too rapidly or a customer discussing a topic you don't find interesting. It's easy to be distracted by things happening around you. But don't let that happen. Concentrate. Tip #4: Keep an open mind We'd go a long way toward curing the problem of poor listening habits by not interrupting our customers. By carefully listening and letting the customer finish his conversation, you hear him out completely. Avoid jumping to conclusions. That's an important step in the direction of keeping an open mind and solving the real problem. This is a good time to talk about the difference between a fact and an assumption. A statement of fact is normally made after an observation. An assumption can be made any time - before, during or after an observation (or with no observation at all). We want to operate as closely as we can with facts, rather than assumptions. And a good listener tries to stay objective and not be judgmental. Try not to let personal impressions modify what you hear. Keep an open mind. Tip #5: Give feedback that you're listening Often, when the person on the other end of the line doesn't give you feedback, you think you've been disconnected. Remember, with the phone, there are no visual signals. Too much silence on the phone or even in person gives the impression that you're not listening. Even when you're thinking or looking for something, you need to send feedback - a variety of short replies acknowledging the customer. Give him a spoken signal that you're receiving the message. Phrases like "Bear with me while I look that up," or "Let's see what the notes say," are examples. Notice, too, that I said a variety of replies rather than one word repeated over and over, like "OK." Tip #6: Take notes, while you listen, and review notes with the customer I know this is basic, but it's so important. There needs to be paper and a pen or pencil by every phone. Write down key words as people talk - the customer's name, what he needs, any follow-up items, etc. Please don't take a chance of forgetting when it's so easy to just write things down. Make up your own abbreviation system as a memory jogger. And if your customer gives you lots of extra information, eliminate the unnecessary bits that can be safely discarded. Whether you're taking a telephone message or helping a customer, repeat and paraphrase the message back to the customer to be sure that you've got it correct. It lets the customer know that you've really listened. Mistakes happen. We're only human. However, many mistakes are avoidable. If we could get 250,000 people to make one less mistake each - a mistake that costs each person's company just $40 - that would be a savings of $10 million. And it's such a simple thing to do. Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer Service Training in St. Louis. For more information, call (314) 291-1012.
About the author