How well do you really listen to your clients? Are you actively listening to what they are saying?
A 2020 survey of financial professionals found that not listening to the needs of clients and the failure to meet client expectations on communications are the two top reasons for losing clients.
If you've been working with a client for a while, or you work with a lot of similar clients, you might be listening far less than you think, even if you already consider listening as one of your strengths. In her book, "You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters," author Kate Murphy explains that, over time, we develop what's called the closeness-communication bias. When you start to know someone well, you tend to stop listening as closely to them, because you think you know what they are going to say. But people are always evolving. As we take in new information, we reconsider, make micro shifts and sometimes flat out change our minds. If you're not listening closely, you'll miss that.
Not only can you provide clients better service if you're listening to them, but when a client feels truly heard, they may be more likely to follow your suggestions. A Harvard Business Review study looked at the qualities of good listeners and found that people were more likely to accept suggestions from those whom they deemed to be good listeners.
Here's how to make sure you're not falling into the habit of hearing without truly listening.
- Keep an open mind — If you bring a lot of preconceived ideas and judgments into conversations with clients, you will likely only hear the parts of what they say that align with the assumptions you already had. This is called the confirmation bias. Essentially, you hear what you want to hear. They might be frustrated, but if you go into the conversation thinking everything is great, you risk missing out on understanding what they need in that moment. The best way to check against the confirmation bias is to clear your mind and imagine the conversation as a blank slate. Nothing written, nothing decided yet.
- No more "serial monologues" — If you're using every open breath in the conversation to share the answer you've been formulating in your head while your client is talking, there is a good chance you're not listening in any meaningful way. As question number four asks on the 10 questions to check whether you're listening from the International Listening Association: “Have you rejected the temptation to prepare your response while the other person is speaking?" The less "answer preparing" you can do during conversations, the better.
- Pretend you're doing improv — Improv is all about reacting to what your scene partner has just said or done. There is no way to prepare for improv, other than to be present, pay close attention and trust that you will come up with a way to carry the scene forward. Channeling an improv mentality when talking with clients ensures that you are fully present in the moment.
- Think before you talk — The New York Times Smarter Living "How to be a Better Listener" guide suggests that you continually question your own motivation for why you are talking. As yourself, "Why am I talking?" or WAIT, for short. This one simple question can help you become more self-aware, so that you are not just talking to talk.
- Practice the paraphrase — Therapists frequently use this technique, but it's an excellent client service technique, as well. When it's your turn to speak, paraphrase what you heard your client say before you give your answer or offer your thoughts. Not only will your client feel that you've truly heard them, but they'll trust your counsel all the more because they know that you're listening.
Interested in learning more about how you can develop skills to improve your relationships with your clients? Check out this article about building trust with emotional intelligence.