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
You might think that listening is easy. After all, doesn't
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
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
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
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
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
Nancy Friedman is president of Telephone Doctor Customer
Service Training in St. Louis. For more information, call (314)