Listen. It is the most important thing I do…for my clients, my friends, my family, etc. Rather than getting too Oprah about its importance for life in general, which it is, I’ll focus here on how listening applies to my world at Beehive Media.
Any engagement begins with a “sales” process. I put that in quotes because a lot of our client relationships are long-term, and the process is usually more like a conversation to try to solve a challenge, not us trying to “sell” something. But in “sales” or problem-solving, it always begins by listening.
Listening leads to understanding.
Our clients have a problem, a business challenge, a goal to achieve. Sometimes they come with what they think is a solution – a strategic direction or a specific deliverable (a web site or an app or…) – that will solve their problem. Most of the time, however, a client’s proposed solution is anywhere from 5 to 95% off from where they should really be focusing. After listening to their challenge, our job is to help show them where they’re missing the boat, suggest alternative approaches, and then execute on the chosen direction. None of this can happen without first truly listening.
But it goes far beyond listening and analyzing and opining with a solution. Our clients will tell you that working on an interactive project is, in many ways, like therapy. We listen, they talk; there’s often some venting of frustrations about internal politics or business challenges or resource restrictions, and we collaborate on solutions that will work within their reality. And many of our clients have been psychologically damaged by previous experiences building websites, so the terminology is quite appropriate!
After listening and thinking, we begin to propose solutions. But we almost never tell our clients “this is the answer” – we often ask more questions. Not “how does that make you feel?”, of course, but “we can do X – will that work for you, given your priorities and staffing?”
Tell Me About Your Childhood
Like a good therapist, we are often listening for what is not said. I don’t ever remember asking a client to tell me about their childhood, but I do know we are always digging deeper than the obvious. The best example is a recent conversation with a nonprofit. They thought their communication challenge was to communicate their mission so the audience would understand WHY they do what they do. And for some audiences that would be completely valid. But for the primary audience for the CURRENT mission (to generate income so the organization is sustainable), the message had to be less about the mission of the organization and more specifically about why the target consumers needed to purchase this organization’s products, which would, by the way, support the mission. Once I said that, all of the heads in the room nodded. While it was decidedly not a moment of deep psychological release á la “you behave this way because your mother abandoned you when you were five”, the clarity and understanding was immediate and intense.
What is interesting about listening is that once you have an ear for listening and are able to be in the moment with your clients, hearing what’s behind the words, being able to analyze even what’s not being said, you are able to take the next step, which is to anticipate. The ability to see the future, to anticipate your client’s needs so you can bring up issues with them before they are even aware of them, is the ultimate goal. When we do that well, everyone wins.