How To Build Your Customer Listening Skills

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I've got good news and bad news.

The bad news is something you already know. Customer service employees struggle with listening. They misunderstand customer needs, miss important service cues, and often fail to make an upset customer feel "heard."

Now the good news.

Listening skills are easy to train. This short post will share some straightforward training exercises you can use to improve your customer listening, or help the people on your team.

And these skills work whether you're communicating with a customer face-to-face, over the phone, or via written communication like email or chat.

Person listening intently to a colleague in a business meeting.

Why We Don't Listen

In my experience as a customer service trainer, most employees have solid listening skills. The challenge they face is their work environment actively discourages listening.

My book, Getting Service Right, explores a number of obstacles that customer service employees face when trying to understand their customer's needs:

  • Time pressure: employees are urged to work quickly.

  • Distractions: our work environments are filled with distractions.

  • Customers: customers themselves aren't always great at telling their story.

One of the more surprising obstacles is experience. The more experience you have, the harder it becomes to listen. 

The reason is our brains have an instinctive pattern-recognition feature. When we sense a familiar pattern, we automatically shut off listening and jump to a conclusion. So an experienced employee who hears a customer describing a problem they've heard a thousand times before will quickly assume they know the answer.

The trouble with this is our instincts sometimes jump to the wrong conclusion.

I recently went around in circles with a customer service rep who was trying to figure out what caused a problem. “That’s great,” I kept saying. “But what I really need right now is to solve the problem. I only have five more minutes to spend on this issue.” I ended up having to disconnect the conversation and call back again later when I had more time because the rep’s poor listening skills made the interaction take three times as long as it should have.

So if you want to be a better listener, start by making it easier to listen. Try to remove time pressure and other distractions from the environment, or at least become aware of situations where they discourage you from listening.

Listening Skills Training

Here are a few exercises that can help you take your listening skills to the next level.

Tell a Story

This exercise proves you already have good listening skills, you just need to remember to use them on a regular basis. 

  1. Find a partner.

  2. Have your partner briefly tell you about a recent customer service experience.

  3. Give your partner a brief re-cap of what you heard.

  4. Discuss the specific skills you used to listen to the story.

The discussion at the end will help you identify some of the listening skills that you naturally use. Your challenge now is to be more intentional about using them with customers, even if you feel time pressure, encounter distractions, or the customer tells a lousy story.

Customer Listening Checklist

Start by watching this short video and observe the listening skills an employee, Janice, uses to listen to an internal customer.

Next, take a brief moment after your next five customer service interactions to self-evaluate whether you used the same listening skills Janice demonstrated in the video:

  • Concentrate on your customer

  • Attending body language

  • Clarifying questions

  • Listen for emotions

  • Paraphrase to confirm

You can take this exercise to the next level by getting your coworkers to participate. Spend a few moments at the end of the day discussing what worked well, and which skills you need to use more often.

Bonus Resource

Many of these techniques apply to written communication, but serving customers via email, chat, or social media does provide some unique challenges. This on-demand webinar with customer service writing expert Leslie O'Flahavan provides some practical activities to help improve your skills.

Why We Need Less Talk, More Listen

According to Salesforce, I'm on one of the most productive salespeople.

That's not really true. Someone at Salesforce just thinks I am because the company profiled me in it's 2014 ebook, Secrets of the Most Productive Salespeople. The only reason I'm in there is I was blogging for Salesforce at the time and responded to a vague request from an editor to take a productivity survey. 

The lesson learned is ask more questions the next time an editor asks you to take a random survey.

A few weeks later, I received a call from a Salesforce sales representative. My name was on a prospect report because I had downloaded the ebook.

It quickly became apparent he had no idea I was in the book, so I told him.

That ended the conversation. The sales rep quickly got off the phone, despite the fact that he was on the line with someone who (allegedly) was one of the most productive salespeople. You'd think he would ask for a tip or two.

Trust me, my feelings weren't hurt. But the situation did reveal a challenge I see nearly every day—people in the position of working with customers spend too much time talking and not enough time listening.


How Our Agenda Kills Listening

We all have an agenda.

The trouble is the agenda is not always tied to a customer service vision. Frequently, a more base desire is driving behavior.

A server in a restaurant tried to rush her guests after she was told she could go home as soon as they paid the bill. Her agenda was going home, not helping customers have a great experience.

A support rep routinely skimmed emails because he knew he was measured on productivity, not quality. His agenda was getting good productivity marks, not helping customers solve problems. 

The Salesforce rep's agenda was finding new customers by dialing for dollars. He wasn't interested in any insights or feedback. When I told him I'm one of the productive salespeople in the ebook, he heard Charlie Brown's teacher, "Wah wah wah wah wah wah wah wah."

It's easy to miss what your customer is trying to say when you have an agenda that isn't focused on your customer's needs.


Listening is Difficult

Let's not pretend listening is easy. Here are just a few things that stand in the way in addition to our own agenda:

  • Distractions
  • Experience
  • The customer's storytelling

The second one may seem a little counterintuitive—my research indicates experience can degrade our listening skills by making it easier to jump to conclusions.

Customers are also notoriously bad at telling their story. We need to ask questions and concentrate to understand what they truly need.

For instance, a few months ago I worked with a client who wanted to get a project scheduled but needed the cost to be below a certain price point. It took careful listening to understand he wasn't really trying to be a tough negotiator. 

My client's issue was any costs over that price point would trigger additional levels of internal approval that might stall the initiative and my client wanted to complete the project before the end of the fiscal year.


How to Listen More

There are a few things you can do to beef up your listening.

Ask more questions. If you aren't sure what to ask, you can use the Five Question Technique to prepare a few probing questions ahead of time.

Care about the answers. Even mundane questions such as "Did you find everything you need?" or "How are you today?" might yield unexpected opportunities to serve if you pay careful attention. (This example is one my favorites.)

If you are a customer service leader, spend time training and coaching your employees on listening skills. This includes reading skills, too. Data from the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) suggests that less than half of contact centers perform quality monitoring on non-phone channels such as email, chat, and social.

Our people won't become better listeners unless we are listening to them.

In the spirit of listening, I'll reiterate an offer I make to every new blog subscriber. Use this contact form to send me an email or call/text me at 619-955-7946. Let me know something you are working on in customer service right now.

I'll do my best to listen.

How Experience Turns Us Into Poor Listeners

We’ve all been frustrated when someone wasn’t listening. 

Perhaps it was your boss, a co-worker, or even a friend. The really aggravating times are when a customer service rep doesn’t listen. After all, isn’t that their job?

In customer service, experience is one of the surprising culprits.

A natural instinct designed to make us more efficient actually hurts our listening skills. The problem is made even worse the more experience we acquire. 


The Pattern Recognition Instinct

Our brains are wired to look for familiar patterns. Here’s an explanation from my book, Service Failure:

This capability allows us to make quick sense of large amounts of data without getting bogged down in the details. It’s an ability that comes in handy in many ways, such as determining if something is safe or dangerous, recognizing people we know, or even when reading.

You may have seen this example:

People can easliy raed misspleled wrods as long as all the lettres are there and the fisrt and lsat letters are in the corerct position.

Crazy, right?

The challenge is the pattern recognition instinct can kick in at inopportune times. It’s like when you type an unusual word on your phone and autocorrect keeps changing it. You’re thinking, “No! I know what I’m typing! Stop!” 

A customer who asks a question that sounds like one you’ve heard before can instinctively trigger the same response. 

Your brain automatically stops listening and says, “I know the answer!”

In a perfect world, this makes you a mind reader. The problem is that mind reading isn’t usually what happens. What usually happens is bad:

  • You interrupt the customer.
  • You misunderstand the customer.
  • You become convinced you understand even when you don’t.


Experience Makes It Worse

Weak patterns are easier to overcome than strong ones.

Maybe you’ve heard a story once. It's easy to listen intently the next time you hear a story that starts out sounding the same.

But try listening to the same story one hundred times. A thousand times. Maybe more. 

That’s a pretty tough pattern to break. The pattern is reinforced when you stop listening and get it right anyway. 

Your brain says, “Ah ha! I really am a mind reader.” 

The most experienced customer service employees really do develop skills that seem like mind reading. It’s pretty fantastic. That is, until is backfires and they miss a key piece of the customer’s story.

Some experienced employees still dig in their heels. There’s pride that comes with that experience. A little voice inside their brain tells them they can’t be wrong (even though they are).

The result? Less listening.


Building New Instincts

Overcoming this natural instinct takes effort.

Start by being intentional. Make a concerted effort to give customers your full attention. 

It’s also helpful to employ specific listening techniques:

  • Deliberately suspend judgement
  • Ask clarifying questions
  • Paraphrase to confirm understanding

You can learn more by watching this video on overcoming listening barriers. There’s even a scene at 1:22 in the video that shows what happens when the pattern recognition instinct gets it wrong.

Listening to customers is harder than you think

I was halfway through my question when the customer service representative interrupted me. “That’s actually a separate password than the one I’m resetting for you. That one is just for billing.”

Great, except that wasn’t the question I was about to ask. “I know, but I was going to ask if I can reset the billing password myself so that I…”

He interrupted again, “But you don’t need the billing password to access your online account.” 

Sigh… Still not the question I was trying to ask. Why do so many knowledgeable customer service representatives find it difficult to truly listen to their customers?

Believe it or not, one explanation is poor listening skills are a product of our brain’s natural wiring.

Our brains have a unique design feature that allows us to take a small amount of information and compare it to familiar patterns. This enables us to make quick sense of large amounts of data without getting bogged down in the details. It’s an ability that comes in handy in many ways, such as determining if something is safe or dangerous, recognizing people we know, or even reading.

Here’s a simple example. Try reading the sentence below:

People can easliy raed misspleled wrods as long as all the lettres are there and the fisrt and lsat letters are in the corerct position.

You can read sentences like the one above thanks to this handy pattern recognition ability. Your brain recognizes the pattern presented by the arrangement of the letters and the context of the sentence. It doesn't matter that the letters aren't perfectly placed. They are close enough for your brain to quickly interpret their meaning.

Unfortunately, this same ability gets customer service representatives into trouble when it comes to listening. The customer service representative I mentioned at the beginning of this post had likely heard questions similar to mine many times. The start of my sentence fit a familiar pattern so his brain naturally stopped listening and presented an answer to the question he thought I was going to ask. The problem occurred because my question was a new variation this pattern, so the answer that leapt into his mind was incorrect.

In other words, it was a natural behavior that caused the customer service representative to keep interrupting me.

We can learn to short circuit our natural wiring and become more adept at listening, but it takes training, effort, and practice. Here are a few things you can try the next time you are listening to a customer:


  1. Eliminate distractions and concentrate on what the customer is saying.
  2. Don't interrupt customers while they are speaking.
  3. Ask clarifying questions to confirm you understand their needs.


Monday morning round-up: listening, identity, and competition

Here are a few quick-hit topics to start your week. Ponder, enjoy, and feel free to comment!

Listening - I hear you, but do I hear you?

My credit card is about to expire, which means I have to contact a variety of vendors to give them the new date. As you can imagine, the level of service I received varied widely. One vendor sent a reminder, but didn't include the information I needed to update my billing preferences. I managed to dig up an old bill to get my account number and then went to their website. This got me halfway through their process until I received an error message after entering the requested information. I finally had to call their customer service line.

The person I spoke with was very friendly and quickly updated my credit card expiration date. However, she wasn't very interested in acknowledging my frustrations or listening to my feedback on their process. In this case, she "heard" me well enough to solve my basic problem but didn't "hear" the underlying frustration. I'm sure the company's quality assurance department would give her a great score on that call, but as a customer I definitely wouldn't since she didn't address all of the reasons that prompted me to contact her.

Identity crisis brewing at Starbucks

(Get it, "brewing"? Ha ha ha!). Ok, that was corny, but a new initiative at Starbucks may be equally corny... or genius! The Seattle Times reported last week that Starbucks is opening three stores in Seattle that are named after their neighborhood instead of being called "Starbucks". Reportedly, the first of the three stores will be named "15th Avenue Coffee and Tea" and offer beer and wine in addition to coffee.

The big debate has already begun. Will this pilot project lead to a new chapter for Starbucks where they recapture their local coffee house roots? Or, will people refuse to buy-in to the idea of a major corporate behemoth re-branding itself as your local mom and pop? An informal poll conducted by the Chicago Union Tribune found that nearly 75% of participants say a Starbucks by any other name is still a Starbucks.

Fierce competition: Apple vs. Microsoft

Apple and Microsoft have recently been taking shots at each other in their commercials. The back and forth is amusing, but the consumer reaction is too! As a PC user, I must admit the Mac campaign has a certain appeal. I've experienced nearly every drawback of a PC highlighted in their commercials. Worse, Microsoft's technical support has been appalling. I've learned that if you have a problem with a Windows-based computer, you are better off getting assistance from a third party.

Check out this short article on Inc. where you can watch a recent commercial for both companies and learn (*gasp*) that at least one of the people in Microsoft's "Laptop Hunters" ad campaign is an actress.