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Paul Hudson
Paul Hudson CEO of Intersperience
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Listening to what isn't said

Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”

Exactly…and I’d also suggest hearing what isn’t said is just as important in building a remarkable customer experience.

But instead, how many times do businesses listen for what they want to hear from their customers? Or maybe get defensive about what is said? Or take what is said at full face value and miss out on so much of the subtext and subtle (but far more powerful) meanings behind the customer’s experience? If you’re only paying attention to what sits at the surface, your business is missing important data that could mean the success or failure of your product, service, or full brand proposition.

We anthropologists are trained to uncover these clues. When we listen, we don’t just use our ears – we use our full set of senses. We detect behaviors that might otherwise pass unnoticed. And we ask questions that attempt to understand how customers interact with their world and give their it meaning.

That may seem like a huge undertaking, but at the heart of our anthropological work is simplicity. Here are five simple ways to listen like an anthropologist:

  • Shut up. The hardest thing for a marketer, executive, or consultant is to put away the agenda and stop talking. But do it. It is near impossible to talk and listen at the same time. Even if we don’t come at a customer issue with an agenda, we may still find it difficult to keep quiet. However, if we’re going to understand how to meet the needs of our customers, we’ve got to shut up.
  • Be naive. This is the first of two steps toward having a child-like mind. As adults, we think our expertise is built on always knowing the answer (or thinking we probably know the answer). But its this very temptation to appear all-knowing that keeps us from actually knowing anything. Kids learn instinctively because they really don’t know things and they ask a lot of “Why?” questions. Here’s a truth: when it comes to understanding the world our customer lives in, we REALLY don’t know anything.
  • Get curious. Step two toward a child-like mind is getting curious. When we approach a customer from a place of UNknowing, we ask better questions. And we don’t make the killer mistake of allowing assumptions to guide us.
  • Show me. Having problems understanding what your customer is trying to express? Respond with, “Show me what you mean.” Get creative and help them show you what they’re seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing. Look for the symbolism and meaning behind what they show you.
  • Record it. As anthropologists, we’re trained to record every single detail we possibly can. We don’t edit, we simply record because we never know what will turn out to be vitally important while sharing an experience with a customer. Don’t just rely on electronic monitoring. Practice observing subtleties, seeking meaning behind the surface language and really listening for what’s not being said.

1 Comments for "Listening to what isn't said"

Paul Hudson

Chris, Thanks for this post. I have read it many times but I still think its great! For all the training that exists for 'technical research skills' , I think the points the make here are actually far more important. There is no greater replacement for being curious and aware of whats going on around you. The skills of anthropology and ethnography are too often over-looked.

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