Shhhhhh—are you listening? | Cheryl Kees Clendenon

As business owners, more than ever because of economic uncertainty, we need to improve our listening skills in order to manage expectations and maintain trust with our customers. This is true for design firms and retailers alike. Flexibility in navigating relationships and the inevitable hiccups we all face in business is essential to real growth.

Understanding the bedrock principle that people need to feel properly “serviced” and “attached” to the business brand is where many small businesses go off kilter — especially when enjoying strong sales and more business than they can handle. We saw this after the pandemic when people could not spend money fast enough in the home industry. Being busy became more important than finessing everyday customer relationships.

My own recent experience with a service provider illustrates a pervasive failure among many to stop talking in favor of listening. We paid our fees, expected deliverables, and after many long and repetitive strategy meetings, saw the first round of new creative for our brand. We did not like it, did not feel it met the needs of the company, and while the effort was great, it fell short of expectations.

We understand that sometimes the intake associated with creative work takes a lot of analysis, feedback and discussion. We wanted to trust that the person we hired would have the skills and drive to get us to the next stage, primarily because that’s how we would run our business and address a client’s needs.

After so many meetings hashing out finer points, we were surprised and disappointed that the presentation felt so disconnected and lackluster, but we understand sometimes you do not hit a home run and were prepared to continue with the promised two revisions.

However, the company decided our response to the initial creative, specifically mine, was not suitable, and they would be unable to meet our expectations. They resigned, despite the fact that we had paid in full, and offered no refund. They ignored the importance of completing the work and honoring our trust in them, and left many deliverables outstanding.

In analyzing the fallout, our team discussed how this could have been reworked to a more positive outcome. We pondered: Why was our feedback received this way? How could we have shared it differently and still gotten our point across? Was the intake process balanced and focused on deep diving into our true needs?

Were we being heard or was it more about following the prescribed process, whether it was working or not? What was the end game with the endless meetings if not to listen to our feedback?

Why did this professional resort to quitting instead of engaging in dialogue and trying to get things back on track? 

With a lot of reflection, we came to some conclusions.

We talked about intake, we talked about the various facets of the goals we set — which were not easy ones — but also, if we were on the other side of the table, how we might have addressed the diverse needs with more specific questions and not broadly conceptual ones.

When a client or customer decides to engage with your business, do you ask how they found you or what got them in the door? From the root of our intake and discovery process, we are looking to hear from those who want to do business with us: What brought you here? Why have we piqued your interest? What do you need from us that you know only we can deliver?

Our website marketing, blog content and follow-up all focus on hearing the client and building trust, listening and discerning why they need us.

This is how you understand where expectations start and redirect them if they go off-course (misguided by the latest HGTV show or their MIL’s handyman kitchen takeover that left her with Frankensteined cabinets and a botched backsplash.)

But you must actively listen and probe for the intel they are sharing so that you can keep directives and details on track.

This is how I would want to be treated. When you assess a scenario from this vantage point, it’s hard to go wrong. But when we miss — and it has happened every once in a blue moon and will inevitably happen again — we slow down and consider what the customer is really saying, versus how they are not following our process.

If you cannot self-reflect in this way, your opportunity to productively engage with customers as you grow will falter, especially in an unpredictable market and when many assume that so much of what we do can be done just as well by AI.

We must re-establish the value of hearing someone out and not be blinded by our processes (or our own ego) so much that we fail to meet their needs. In today’s world, if you do not have trust, you have nothing.

Cheryl Kees ClendenonCheryl Kees Clendenon is the owner of In Detail Interiors in Pensacola, Fla., a small business coach and writes HAT’s monthly Retailer to Retailer

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