In some ways in my education and career, I’ve been lucky. In college we did "Communications" for two years where we were forced to do public presentations and learn about how to interact with customers, etc. I’m not saying I perfected this (because I didn’t!) but I picked up a few handy tips. One of them is listening. I am a geek that does get excited about my work and I love to get involved in discussing a problem. I’ve found that there’s times where I need to force myself to sit back and say nothing. The benefits of doing this cannot be measured. In my first job after college, I was lucky to work with some great consultants and I got to see masters in action. The best of these was one of the quietest people you’d ever meet; not exactly something you expect for a consultant that cost customers £1,000/day back in the mid 90’s.
I was involved in a politically sensitive project a few years ago. I was working as a consultant on a site where an implementation project had been slow to get off the ground. The project manager and the staff felt uncomfortable with the projects architecture and direction. With no knowledge of the customer I was sent in to see what I could do to help. I spent two days in a meeting with 20 or so staff members. For the first 4 or 5 hours, I did nothing but ask short quick questions, sit back and take notes. My notebook (which I take everywhere) was filling up fast. This customer was complex both in terms of infrastructure and organisation. I wrote up a summary and a general plan for how to move forward. The feedback was positive. In fact, they were genuinely interested. We ended up have a series of these meetings where we would focus on different goals. I’d kick things off and let the staff explore the issues. My input was to either steer things back on course or to steer the exploration towards new sub-issues. I was purely exploring the problems and the possibilities of potential solutions. In fact, in the meetings I talked very little at all. Most of my talking was before/after the meetings or at lunch. I’d submit a document with my findings and proposal. This would then be followed up by the staff (who were capable but relatively inexperienced with the technology in question) or some of our other consultants.
The key to success was forcing myself to listen. It’s amazing what the difference is between hearing and listening.
I’m on both sides of that fence now. I’m a service provider and a consumer of services/goods. As a service provider I still have to listen to the market and to the individual client. I tend to work with clients who might not be experienced in what we do so I have to get quite involved in teasing out their requirements and proposing alternate/better directions for them. The key is in hearing their business and technology requirements and translating that into a platform that they can build on.
My experience as a consumer (for the first time since 2005) has been interesting to say the least. For most things, I tend to be self sufficient. Firms I work for (that let me do things my way) don’t need consulting skills the way that some others do – they save money and develop internal expertise. But there are times where I need specialist skills. In 2003-2005 I was lucky to work with a hardware supplier who I treated as a partner. Our sales contact was educated about their products and I got great service from them. Today, I work with a great network service provider who I can trust the same way.
But not everything is smelling of roses. We’re about to make a significant hardware purchase. Unlike most companies, this isn’t something finite with X CPU’s and Y GB’s of disk; this is just a foundation which will be followed by continual purchasing. I’ve been leading the interaction with several hardware vendors of different types. I couldn’t have been clearer about telling them each to listen and to work well with me on this. I am evaluating them to see if they are firms I can work with over the coming 3 years. It’s funny because the number of competitors whittled themselves down very, very quickly. The losing competitors are ruling themselves out because they haven’t read emails or listened to me in meetings/on the phone. Most salesmen seem to think that people only think in numbers. Me? That’s still very important but enjoying my day at work is important too. I don’t need some person wrecking my head all day long and ruining our relationship with our clients.
A simple skill that requires no €2,000 training courses such as listening can be a major tool in your arsenal. I struggle myself at times with it but when I force myself, things work out much better. I’d highly recommend it to anyone that’s a service provider. As a consumer, I’d recommend that you evaluate your service providers ability to listen too.