The Direct Approach: Is anyone listening?

Selling is not about talking at people. Only by listening to customers will you understand their needs, gain their respect and enhance your reputation.

A few years ago, I was sitting in a hotel lounge, having a drink with a first-class client manager for an international company. Breaking our discussion mid-flow, he said: "Do you see that guy over there?" I looked over at two men in conversation. "That man is an ace salesman. You see how he's not saying anything? How he's just listening?" The smartly dressed, younger man was turned towards his older companion, his face a study in concentration.

"He just asks the occasional question and lets him talk," my colleague said. "But he's winning him over. There's a big contract on the line."

Selling is about listening to and engaging with your customers and solving their problems. It's about making them feel comfortable, relating to them and giving them an experience they'll remember. This applies to any market.

Selling is a service - it's about sharing information and finding solutions. It is an act of co-creation.

Marketers should follow the example of top-notch client managers. Instead of complaining that consumers aren't listening to us before we launch yet another expensive campaign, we should find ways to listen to them and act on what they say. Too few companies act on customer feedback.

As we listen, we should engage our customers and evolve our marketing skills. Companies should pull down their fortress walls, let customers in, talk to them and work with them. This is co-creation. By showing commitment, we will get commitment back.

If we don't learn to listen, act and engage them, customers will talk only within their social networks and to their opinion leaders. They will share information and solve problems themselves and we will be left isolated, lobbing out unwanted messages.

Customers are annoyed by many companies' double standards. There is nowhere for them to voice their opinions and ideas. They are frustrated that too few companies have websites that allow them to post comments. If customers want to complain, they are told to write in. The corporate suits seem to be hiding from them.

We pound them with direct mail, outbound telephone calls (now pre-recorded, as if to emphasise that we don't feel the recipients worthy of a real person's attention), SMS, e-mail and advertising.

Consumers feel hunted, but a large percentage of them will avoid buying products from companies that overwhelm them with advertising. They sign up to mailing and telephone preference schemes, use spam filters, block online ads and go ex-directory.

They will only listen to us when they think it is worthwhile.

To counter this trend, we must muscle in to social networks and influence opinion-leaders. One way is to use viral and guerrilla marketing, but the very names of these methods suggest we are being underhand. We seem to want to do everything other than what our customers want - for us to respect them and solve their problems.

We should throw out our outdated mass-market promotion models and discard our old techniques and jargon. We should only use techniques that generate value for customers.

First, we need to encourage feedback. We can then combine it with other transactional and research data and turn this into a manifesto to act.

Showing customers the results of their feedback is the first step in co-creating new products and services with them. Throw out mass advertising, direct marketing and loyalty cards - unless you figure out how to use the data for the benefit of customers.

Second, we need to think of our customer base in terms of value segments - our value to them. Customers who value us will be open to methods of co-creation, while customers with fragile relationships must be listened to.

Third, we need to engage with customers throughout their potential life-cycles, whether we are targeting them or trying to win them back. For example, use product placements and trials when targeting and use best advice assessments for acquisitions.

We must turn communications into a customer service. Give potential customers the opportunity to try a product; give them real information when they want it. Throw out lead generation. Think problem detection.

We need to facilitate communities. If people want to talk with each other, give them a platform to do so. Let them create content. Throw out your company-to-consumer perspective. Think consumer to consumer.

Form alliances. Get your brand seen in relevant places. Work with others on product placement, for example, put luxury chocolate boxes in lingerie shops. Promote interaction.

Finally, we need to engage stakeholders and influencers - not ours, but those of our customers. Engage them. Immerse yourself in their world.

By listening to customers we will understand how people use our products in different circumstances and will be able to innovate. By being seen to act on this information we will start to develop reputations by word-of-mouth endorsement.

Co-creation is the future of business, but we shouldn't rush to reinvent our organisations. Attention must be paid to developing the infrastructure that will enable customer engagement. If we start by evaluating our listening and co-creating abilities and then tackling the customers most at threat, we have a good chance of succeeding.

Only in this way can we be sure of increasing the return we generate on each of our customers. As the smartly dressed young man in the hotel lounge knew, listening is the way to win longevity for our clients.

- Jose Farrao is the president, EMEA/Asia-Pacific, of Carlson Marketing Group.

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