The art of listening 2009: it's not just for customers anymore

by Shannon Paul on December 23, 2008

When it comes to pitching new ideas, or new business, do social media evangelists follow their own advice?

Convincing businesses to use tools and strategies they barely understand can be challenging at best, even for the most respected social media experts.

Before we even begin to have the dreaded ROI discussion, we often have to explain the basics of how social media works; the basic paradigm shift necessary to deliver company messages within a dialogue, instead of a monologue, as well as some of the technology that facilitates this process. But, what would happen if instead of jumping into the whys and wherefores of social media, we actually listened to the needs of our client or upper management?

Let’s face it, the words, user generated content mean absolutely nothing to 95 percent of the population whether or not they generate content as users. Right?

Those of us who practice and/or preach the value of social media like to talk about listening, but how well do we listen before we pitch new business or new ideas within our own company or department?

I’m sharing with you here because I’ve learned this lesson the hard way.

It’s so easy for many of us to get caught up in our own excitement over the promise and potential of genuine social media engagement that we rush in with slide decks chock full of stats and demographics and pie charts, but we forget to meet our boss or potential clients on their level.

Instead, we do the very things we accuse them of — we broadcast our pitch, we try to convince them that we know better and we just plain forget to listen. We get completely and totally caught up in our own agenda to advance the social media cause.

After all, we already think we understand their problem, because in our eyes, the problem is that they’re not engaging in social media. Period. This is actually our problem.

Social media is still extremely new to most sectors of business and if we’re going to win over new business and convince our employers to change the fundamental way they communicate, we need to stop demanding that everyone else wake up to our truth, and instead focus on building relationships with the people inside these businesses.

This isn’t just good advice for pitching social media strategies, but pitches of all types could benefit from a lot more listening and relationship building on the front end.

In 2009, we need to do more than just talk about the value of relationships and foster them instead. The tenets of social media should apply offline as well as online right? Shouldn’t the real dialogue begin with us?

Photo by What What

Bookmark and Share

Cancel reply

Leave a Comment

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

December 23, 2008 AJ in Nashville

Another great post, Shannon, and a very noteworthy sentiment. No matter how excited we are about social media, we shouldn’t assume that everyone else is equally plugged in.

Cuz’ you know what happens when you assume…



December 23, 2008 davebenjamin

I think you hit a homerun with this post. The first step always has to be building a relationship and learning what our clients want. From there we can start devising a game plan that will work for them. When the relationship develops and gets stronger is when real action can be implemented.


December 23, 2008 marc meyer

Great post, though I’m pissed because I was going to ask you to guest post on this exact topic but with a slant. I would add this…-”the art of listening in a bad economy, how do we do it”?

Listening takes on a different meaning when there is much more on the line between both parties. Clients and vendors don’t have time to do the “dance” like they once did, don’t you think Shannon?


December 23, 2008 Guillaume

Social media are a reflection of the interactions of real life: how many people pretend to listen when they are in reality waiting for their time to speak and not giving any consideration to what the other person is saying??


December 23, 2008 Beth Harte

Shannon, you hit the proverbial nail on the head! But I’d add it’s not just about listening…it’s about hearing too.

Not all customers/clients have the same challenges and honestly, some might not need social media because their community (also known as target market/audience) might not respond to it, or shock!, just might not be having those on-line conversations that we’d like to warn them are going on…

Happy holidays Shannon! Looking forward to more great posts in 2009! ;-)


December 23, 2008 J. Paul Duplantis

I think 2009 is about taking down the level of hype about social media and move this to simple tools business owners can use to engage prospects, customers and staff.

Maybe Nike gets it but I am telling you the average Joe/Jane business owner does not have a clue what a “Tweet” is and does not care.

Facebook, Digg, Twitter are incidental to the conversation itself. It should be about their own community they create for their own brand. If they are recommended through Digg all the better but it is about the relationship “they” build not what Facebook builds for them.

The next round will be more about the tools integrated into their own property to allow for the experience to be shared and discovered.

The concept of Social Media or a better term “Conversation Marketing” needs to inspire the small restaurant owner, the dry cleaner, the flower shop owner, the engineer starting a business or a tinkerer who wants to become a manufacturer. Their 12 to 20 employees are the engine for our future.

So they need to get to work and become productive and sell, sell, sell.

We have been living in a growth economy where things were good for the most part and it was ok to be “social” and hang out.

Let’s see how this fares during a hard recession.

Maybe less time chatting and more time working is not a bad concept after all.

Let’s not be afraid of what we have to sell. But let’s do a much better job of helping people discover the benefits. And please let’s keep on working on creating better products and services.

One of the best tools social media offers is the ability to educate and inspire feedback amongst staff, management, prospects and customers.

Let’s not forget that either.


December 23, 2008 Steve Woodruff

People are going to be “ready” for social media at different times and for different reasons. Part of our listening is gauging readiness, watching for the “buying signs” that someone needs some aspect of new networking methods beyond the tried-and-true. For the younger generation, of course, it’s not even an issue. But for others, there has to be a felt need. Then SM begins to make sense.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Steve – Love that you commented! :) The felt need is the issue, but to be fair, companies often want the benefits and the intangible cool-factor that come along with social media engagement, but they’re not always willing to let down the barriers in the most ideal way to achieve success. This calls for a lot of creativity on the part of anyone hired or contracted to implement social media strategies. How can we be successful and take baby steps?


December 23, 2008 Juliann Grant

Great thoughts here. I think that it is always those who “go before” us help pave the path for the success of others after. With our clients, we are talking alot about how we use social media, and encourage trial. But, once they jump in the pool they are often wondering “why am I here”? And it’s at this point where we need to do more hand holding, more coaching to help continue to pave the pathways for their success. There are so many, and it can be confusing. We can’t just keep pointing at the moon and say “see”. Instead we take their hand and say “we”. Thanks for your efforts in paving these roads for us and others that have yet to arrive.


December 23, 2008 Sonny Gill

As others have said, fantastic post Shannon.

Not only do we think companies know what we’re talking about but we assume they SHOULD know. I think that’s why there is so much controversy with big brands and social media (eg: Motrin) because we assume this without trying to teach them first.

Instead of lambasting them, let’s actually listen and try to educate and help them understand social media first, before we pitch them or disengage them w/negative feedback on how they’re not doing it right.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Sonny- Thanks! I wrote this because I realized I had been guilty of this kind of broadcasting within my own company and community. At some poitn I asked myself, ‘should I keep telling others to listen or show them how it’s done…?’


December 23, 2008 Jason Baer

Great sentiment and a must-read for all consultants.

The paradox of social media is that it’s not a little thing that’s based on smart usage of tools like Facebook. It’s a fundamental shift in how consumers want to relate to brands. However, it’s the incremental, tools-based, blocking and tackling conversation that is the gateway to getting companies to actually implement.

You almost have to talk about social media in a way that many of us know is wrong, and emphasize specific tools and reports, and then have the “big picture” conversation after initial victories.

No question there are some companies and agencies out there that are ready to eat the whole sandwich today, but you can make that determination in about 45 seconds, in most cases.


December 23, 2008 Rebecca Rose

Such a key point Shannon! The thing I might add to listen for is how ready ALL levels of the company are to move forward with true customer engagement and deliver on the promise of maintaining a relationship.

I met with a marketing/PR department that was all set to go all out on social media with a customer response program. Track conversations and engage one on one with current customers with issues (following the @comcastcares model), but as I listened to their story I realized they had a HUGE customer service issue. The department was still using form letters sent via mail to respond to customer inquiries and any complaint had to be submitted that way. Basically, they needed to revise the structure so they could actually service the people they engage or it would blow up in their face. They didn’t want to do that. End of discussion.

Sometimes even the best candidates just aren’t really ready to make the jump so you need to “listen” and be sure you fully understand the story.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Rebecca – Great point! If other parts of the company aren’t in a position to support this kind of outreach that definitely makes things much more difficult. I’m not familiar with this particular company or the circumstances, but adding a social component to something the company already does well can be a better place to start since they’re more confident about their abilities and any improvements/cost savings will be greatly appreciated. Things don’t have to be extremely complicated and often there’s a work around. If one area of the company adopts a more social strategy and is also successful, that success can translate into upper management suggesting changes to the other departments in order to follow suit.


December 23, 2008 Todd Smith

Wow! I’ve just read your last 1o posts and I am so happy that I found you. Your insights and amazing level of self-awareness blow me away. Here you turned the table on yourself in a way that only a person who is really awake can do! Thank you for opening my mind to what I’m really doing with social media. Can’t wait for your next posts!


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Thanks, Todd! I appreciate the positive feedback. Hopefully I can come up with more good things to keep you coming back.


December 23, 2008 Elaine Starling

Great post! Marketing is really just good old fashioned communication and communication requires that all parties are listening, acknowledging and adding to the conversation. Not debating or convincing – merely stating known facts presented in compelling and memorable stories that highlight several benefits. It’s important to share what you know without trying to negate the other person’s perspective. Add to their knowledge, don’t try to force change – each person has to be ready to adapt their thinking on their own time table. And their more likely to do that when they feel heard.

Thanks for a very insightful post.


December 24, 2008 Matthew Hunt

When you said it’s a “paradigm shift necessary to deliver company messages within a dialogue, instead of a monologue” – that is the challenge. It really is a paradigm shift for many companies. However, once they “get it” they then can forge ahead and have some real fun with social media.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Matthew – There is a lot of fun to be had with social media, but waiting for anyone else to “get it” isn’t going to get most people anywhere. Large organizations, to some extent, may allow us to handle the social media stuff, but in most instances we can’t expect them to learn to speak our language without first learning theirs. It’s just polite. Sometimes we have to remember who’s house we’re in.


December 26, 2008 Eric Brown

Shannan, Great Post
I think an important piece that you have elevated here is Listening to You Boss, or your Bosses Boss

I spent most of my career as an executive in Corporate America, and one thing that was crystal clear to me is that it all starts at the top. Surprisingly I didn’t get fired and managed to hang around for sixteen or so years, before heading out on my own. Even though I was a complete rebel and had a lot of influence with the owner/CEO of the company I worked for, and was able to implement a lot of new cutting edge stuff at the time, but if he didn’t believe it, the idea did not get implemented or it got squashed.

I still have a lot of contact with my old world, as an occasional consulting gig and sometimes mentor with my old owner/CEO, who looks at me as if I have a horn coming out of my head with any mention of Social Media. But I keep talking about it as the passion for it simply spills out of me. They are listening though, and watching. One thing those guys understand pretty well is money, and as executives see the first signs of progress evidenced by higher revenues or lower costs they will allow their SM Teams to advance


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Eric – I love your perspective and experience as well as your willingness to experiment with so many social media tools in your business. The people steering the ship of an organization are usually found at the top. Can the way corporations do business change? Sure. Should it change? Probably. Can we change it by fighting those at the top? No way. Even in companies that recognize the need for change, fostering relationships and trust is necessary to convincing anyone to do something as contrary to the status quo as engaging in social media-style conversations.


December 26, 2008 mocster

The notion of Dixie cups at either end of a “string” listening, instead of a large megaphone at only one end is revolutionary. Powerful, but a bit scary for the folks who’ve spent their lives in broadcast mode.

And listening — so that one really hears — is all but a lost art. Most people say they’re listening, but it’s not true. They’re not active listeners; they’re just not talking at that particular point in time. Don’t be fooled; it’s not the same thing.

Shannon, you’re right: fostering relationships is at the core of everything. The tools and tactics will inevitably change, but the core remains.

Looking forward to your next post.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

mocster- Thanks for adding to the discussion! Listening and responding as ourselves on behalf of our employer is scary because of the implications. Whether we like it or not, when we respond to customers or anyone else online as a representative of our company, we go out on a limb – we make ourselves vulnerable as a professional, as a company and as a human being. Lots to chew on there. I’ve done this several times now and it’s difficult. I understand where a lot of companies, and the individuals who work for them, are coming from when they’re feeling skittish about jumping into the social media dialogue.


December 26, 2008 Richard Anstruther

Listening is a difficult skill to learn without formal training. In our work teaching sales listening to consultants, we stress that the dialog with your prospective buyer be 70% focused on the them. This listening-centric approach allows you to tailor your proposal to your prospect, and the trust engendered allows the prospect to actually listen to your proposal.

Six-Sigma, the quality approach, often missed its target because the experts would fly-in, issue pronouncements, then leave. They didn’t get buy-in, nor adapt their approach to local conditions, and so these initiatives often failed.


December 26, 2008 Shannon Paul

Richard – You’re right. Listening is not easy. I think the tendency is to take a piece of what is heard/read/understood and to run with it. We go off on mental tangents that lead to a lot of misunderstanding. I think when our goal is to be right, we often care a lot more about whether WE are heard, instead of whether we’re hearing what’s being said.


December 27, 2008 Jesse Liebman

If we all executed the philosophy of, “actions speak louder than words,” not only would be integrate the preaching of listening, but we’d follow through on those spoken desires.


December 27, 2008 penina

To those of us whose first response to this article is (or was), “Of course! I am already doing that!” I’d like to share my personal take-away after reading: “I can ALWAYS listen MORE.”

Thanks, Shannon!


December 27, 2008 Richard Anstruther


Listening is hard for quite a lot of reasons, but two notable observations stand out: when you ask trainees to nominate someone for a Gold Medal in listening, their total pool of candidates is 1-2 people from their entire lives. Which means that we have very few role models.

The brain processes words way faster than speech. So getting lost in our own dialog fills in the ‘spare time.’ Cultivating presence, or a laser-like attention, is the first step to listening mastery.

I hope this helpful. For me superb listening [and of course, responding] is one of the keys to life. I’ll leave you with this quote:

‘The reward for listening when you’d rather be talking is wisdom’. Anon.


{ 1 trackback }

  • Public Relations in 2009 « Nick Lucido’s Blog December 29, 2008

Previous post:

Next post: