About a month ago I attended a seminar. One of our
activities involved testing how well we really listen to our customers. It was
an eye opener.
The activity was setup with these instructions:
1. Pick partners to form your group
2. Each group was given paper to make a paper aircraft
3. The “customer” would judge our products on how far
they flew, how straight they flew and how smoothly they flew.
That was it.
We then had 5 minutes to design and produce an aircraft that would best meet
these stated criteria. We all thought we nailed it. We heard the criteria and we
built planes that, in our opinions, would best meet them.
There was a variety of paper airplanes. Big, small,
cool, ugly. Most flew badly.
Interesting too were the “sales pitches” that went with the planes. Each
group communicated a number of features and benefits to woo the judge (aka “the
The groups were full of smart, motivated, successful
people. People who were leaders in their organizations. We all expected to do
But we all failed. We failed miserably.
We failed because we thought we listened. Then we dived
in and did what we thought needed to be done based on that misinformation. But
we didn’t really listen.
Instead of listening, we made assumptions. We assumed it
was a contest. It wasn’t. We assumed we knew what the criteria meant and how
they were defined. We didn’t. We assumed we were building paper AIRPLANES,
little paper replicas of real airplanes that carry people.
But we were not.
Our “customer” request was for a “paper aircraft”. Big
difference. They said nothing about little paper replicas of airplanes that
And, we never asked the customer to clarify and define
their criteria. Smooth, far and straight are all subjective criteria. We should
have asked for measurements. We should have asked questions to discover the
details of what they wanted.
In the end, we learned exactly which paper aircraft
would have won: A paper ball. It would have gone farther, straighter and flown
more smoothly than anything else.
It was an eye-opening activity. Especially for someone
who makes his living helping people improve how they listen to their customers.
It reminded me of how easy it is to slip into “assumption mode”. It’s easy to
neglect the step of digging and finding out what our customers really want.
People have more choices than ever before. They have
more information available to help them make the best buying decision. They are
more demanding than ever, and they should be.
So, we need to work even harder to make sure we are
discovering what our customers really want. We need to go beyond the surface of
what our customers tell us. We can’t stop listening after they tell us what they
want. Because that’s just the beginning.
Make it part of your routine to ask questions that take you and your customer
beyond the surface. Ask, listen, think, repeat. Keep repeating until you are
100% certain you and your customer are communicating clearly and focusing on the
Only then will you really be able to deliver the experience your customer