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Why and how should I listen to my customers?

Lindsay Says

You are asking your customers to part with their hard-earned money.

To deserve to make that request of them, you need to bring them something meaningful in exchange. And you can’t offer something meaningful unless you understand what makes these people tick, and grasp with nuance their frustrations and needs.

By listening to your customers, you as a leader gain a deep and empathetic understanding of their world, which emboldens you to create your brand definitively. Knowing precisely what your customers need allows you to figure out how you alone, among your competitors, can solve that problem.

Listen to the real human beings behind your target customer so your brand can connect with them and scale your business.

Must I Personally Talk to My Customers?

Some of you reading this have market research departments and vendors who engage in qualitative research studies, enabling you to listen indirectly. However, this does not take you off the hook. All leaders should talk regularly and directly with customers, even if you have resources to outsource it.

Listening directly to customers is such a brand supercharger that it should become part of the fabric of leading your business. Listening via qualitative research cultivates customer empathy, reveals what matters to your customers, and opens you to your role in their world. There is literally no replacement for the insights that come from listening directly to your actual customers.  

Here are some practical guidelines for listening to customers – from prepping your mindset to crafting your questions.

Step into a Beginner’s Mind

The single most important condition for listening to – and really hearing – your customers is genuine curiosity. Be wide open, humble, nonjudgmental. Seek to understand, not to be understood. The more you adopt such a mindset, the truer and more nuanced your realizations will be, and therefore the more useful your brand can become.

Listening begins with humility. Here’s what you need to internalize: you do not know best. You are in the business of serving your target customer, which means at times you are the student and your target customer is your teacher. Yes, you likely know massively more about your product and category than does your target customer. But you are not conducting this research to learn about your offering. You are doing this to learn about your customer.

From a foundation of humility, curiosity naturally arises. Cultivate what Zen Buddhists call the beginner’s mind – a receptive, unguarded, eager state of almost childlike wonder about your customers and what they are trying to accomplish. In this state, you will be vulnerable, open to being surprised, to being wrong – and to learning information that will strengthen your business. If you’re not approaching your customers with vulnerability, then you won’t allow them to be vulnerable, and this will deter meaningful insights from emerging. You will merely hear confirmation of things you already knew.

Go One on One

Now that you are in the listening mindset, what type of qualitative research should you use? There are many, from large and small focus groups to ethnographies, and online and offline versions of each.

For unearthing insights to inform the brand, my favorite qualitative research method is one-to-one customer phone interviews. The privacy and psychological safety of these encourage revealing, candid discussion. The phone interview method confers the advantage of being expedient and practical—no travel, no fancy technology, just a phone connection. They do not have to be terribly long—thirty to forty minutes is usually both enough and not too much. And if you are asking carefully crafted and open-ended questions with a beginners’ mind, you will start seeing patterns emerge after just a few calls.

 Think Like a Reporter

As the adage goes, a person who knows everything learns nothing. To cultivate a beginner’s mind, you might try pretending that you are a reporter. Ask only open-ended and expansive questions and be earnestly receptive to what you hear.

This approach is effective in many communication realms. When asked how he writes jokes, comedian Chris Rock has said, “Forget being a comedian, just act like a reporter. What’s the question that hasn’t been asked?” This is how we get to real truths, how we unearth original and useful insights. In both comedy and in business, this leads to your audience feeling deeply recognized, seen, and known—the basis of any human connection. In comedy, this connectedness sparks laughter. In business, this connectedness sparks trust.

 Think Like the Customer

When you start these conversations, put your customers at ease by orienting to their way of thinking. Structure the conversation so that you are starting at a high altitude and then narrowing little by little. This progression is more aligned with the target customer’s actual way of experiencing the problem your offering solves:

  • First she thinks about herself and her day and her life (high altitude).
  • Then she thinks about the problem or context in which your offering is relevant (medium).
  • Finally, possibly, she thinks specifically about your brand or offering (low altitude).

Example: Narrow from the Customer’s Life to Your Brand

If I were listening to customers while trying to develop the brand strategy for the United Airlines First Class Lounge, I would ask target customers questions such as these:

  • Your Customer’s Life (High Altitude)

Tell me about you. What do you do? What is your typical day like? Tell me about the last time you had a particularly good day. What happened? What made it good? Tell me about something that you really worry about. What do you like about your job, your career? What do you wish you could change?

  • How the Customer Relates to the Category (Middle Altitude)

How often do you travel for business? How do you feel about business travel? Is it a necessary evil? Is it a secret guilty pleasure? Are you just resigned to it? When you first realize you have a work trip coming up, what is your dominant feeling? What are the other feelings that emerge? How do you approach travel planning for work? What services do you use? How do you relate to those services?  How do you feel about each of the airlines that you use? What makes you feel this way? Do you use any airport facilities or lounges?

  • Your Offering and Your Brand (Low Altitude)

When I say, “United Airlines,” what comes to mind? How is United Airlines different from other airlines? How is it similar? If United Airlines were a movie star or a character in a book, who would it be? What is this character like? What do you most like and dislike about United Airlines? What are the images and words that come to mind when I say, “United Airlines First Class Lounge”?

7 More Tips to Fruitful Customer Listening

  1. Ask open-ended, expansive questions, not questions a customer can answer with a simple yes or no.
  2. Take notes. Those you take after each conversation are as important as the ones you take during it. Ask yourself: What did I just learn? What surprised me? What confused me? Are there any areas I want to learn more about by asking different questions in my next interviews?
  3. Let there be silence. Be quiet while your interviewee responds. After your interviewee finishes, give her space to elaborate.
  4. Listen between the lines. Notice not simply the letter of what she is saying but also the spirit of what she is saying.
  5. Don’t correct, inform, or teach, even if your interviewee says something you know to be untrue.
  6. Ask why. Follow up each of your customer’s responses with “why?” or a version of that question until you feel you have grasped the root of her answer.
  7. Don’t be shallow. You are seeking to learn, connect the dots, and integrate. Your customer will give you clues but you must distill them into insights – and then use those insights to lead.

This last point requires careful analysis. In that United Airlines example, if you had heard multiple interviewees use the word “stress,” do not shallowly interpret that your brand needs to mitigate stress before flights. Connect that with what you learned after asking “why”: perhaps work travel stress was actually about time not spent at home. Rather than mitigating stress at the airport, perhaps the airline could ideate ways to mitigate stress at home during the customer’s absence. Remember, it’s not about you, it’s about them. It’s not about your airline, it’s about their relationship with it.

Listening Is a Lifestyle

A parting word on the listening mindset: let it become your default state. Rather than adopting it surgically during research, only to discard it when you finish the research exercise, train yourself to be an excellent customer listener all the time. Consider making informal customer research a regular practice. You might call a few every month to hear about their experiences. Perhaps you hang out at your stores or where customers use your offering. When you are genuinely curious about your customer, listening will be enjoyable, thought-provoking, inspiring.

Let listening become your superpower. It will build your empathy muscle. This enables you to channel customers as you make decisions that will both increase the value you bring to them and increase the value of your business.

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