Listening to customers is good for business

Listening to customers is good for business

Last week, I wrote a 140-character hotel review on Twitter: “Galleria Park Hotel SF rejects noise complaint from ill-trained guest: ‘Next time, ask for an interior room, not just a quiet room.’"

I was frustrated because the hotel management was not listening to me when I asked for a quiet room—or later, when I complained. Instead of training their employees to listen, they were telling me that I hadn’t made the right request. And the hotel managers probably were not listening to me later via Twitter, either.

Of course, it used to be difficult to listen to customers. As a company, you could not station people everywhere to pick up random comments, and few customers cared enough to write actual letters—positive or negative. Service companies such as airlines could ask employees to collect feedback, but it was overly complicated.

Nowadays, however, customers are commenting everywhere, and all a company has to do is listen— electronically and humanly. Nonetheless, most companies still think of all the new technologies that I write about primarily as message-sending devices—ways to promote their brand, create an image and sell their product. Companies spend a lot of time watching customers, trying to figure them out, but so little time listening to them.

Indeed, there are lots of depressing statistics about how poorly companies listen. They don’t respond effectively to feedback or to questions submitted through their websites. Many simply don’t reply at all. Others send bland emails—“Thank you for writing to us"—without responding to the particular question or comment. And then they spend thousands or even millions of dollars trying to figure out what these same customers really want.

What all companies really need to do to improve their performance is to get better at listening to the conversations that are already out there on the Internet. They can listen for many purposes—from figuring out what products or services to offer and understanding which customer wants what, to repairing the damage done when something goes wrong.

There are two modes of listening. There’s the listening you do to learn, which ideally can be somewhat automated. You can use sentiment-sensing tools—everything from tools that measure the prevalence of negative or positive words about your offering on Twitter and Facebook, to customer surveys that produce precise, structured data. You can find out, for example, that last month 56% of your users recommended your product to a friend, versus 79% the same time last year. Oops! Better do some more listening!

Then there are the more subtle signals to listen to statistically—whether they are feedback direct to your website, emails, press mentions, or Twitter and Facebook feeds. What features—positive or negative—are mentioned most often? Which competitors are highlighted? What other companies or products are most often discussed along with yours? Could they be possible marketing partners?

All of that is important, but then there’s the listening you do so that your customers can feel listened to. That’s something a computer cannot do. It requires a person.

You can reduce the burden to some extent by creating a community of your customers (and prospects) so that they can listen to one another.

Take a website I just visited this morning, Fitbit, a self-monitoring tool that lets you measure your physical motion and, by implication, your exercise, calorie consumption, sleep time and other factors. If that’s unclear to you, just visit the website and ask questions; other users will answer most of them, and sometimes the staff (identified with a red badge under their names; occasionally it’s the chief executive) will chime in with “official" information.

Fitbit is not unique; it’s one of many start-ups that are using their own customers to help them achieve greater scale in listening. (Yes, the chatter was encouraging enough that I just ordered one!)

But most important is listening well enough to say “We’re sorry" in a convincing way. Not “We’re sorry you didn’t appreciate our wonderful service", but “We’re sorry we screwed up and gave you a noisy room." In other words, you need to reply with enough detail to show that you listened.

Refunding a customer’s money—or giving them a free breakfast—is easy. But how can you make up for the headache they had all day from lack of sleep? You can’t, but showing that you noticed their unhappiness with you counts for a lot. That’s the thinking behind one of my favourite customer care proposals: that lost luggage should get its own air miles—thus making the customer feel that the airline acknowledges the error and is suffering along with the customer.

In the end, listening carefully is the best way to show respect for anyone, customer or partner, friend or boss. Even though companies do it for business purposes, they have to do it with human sincerity. One of my favourite cartoons—from The New Yorker magazine—shows a retail salesman standing next to a display case labelled “communication technology". Inside the case? Human ears.

©2009/Project Syndicate

Esther Dyson, chairperson of EDventure Holdings, is an active investor in a variety of start-ups around the world. Her interests include information technology, healthcare and private aviation and space travel.Respond to this column at