Active Listening. We all know what it is. Some of us do it effectively and every day. Some of us need a lot more practice (present company included.) It is a human trait to receive feedback, process it through our personal experiences, and then offer up advice or a solution. Paradoxically, in processing the information and crafting a solution we are NOT listening.
It is also a human trait for the giver of feedback to subconsciously pick up clues that we are processing and not listening—hastening a very transactional conversation.
As in our personal relationships, the same dynamic frequently occurs during voice of customer research, especially in the business-to-business domain.
The holy grail in B2B research is understanding unmet needs. A true pain point is going to be wrapped in an emotion, especially frustration—which is a milder form of anger. Because the default in business communication is to be factual and logical, it is very difficult for study participants to express the intensity behind their comments.
There are ways to overcome this.
- Pay attention to the participant’s behavior during the interview.
- For example, how many questions does the participant ask about the concept? If clarity of the concept is good, the number of questions (and overall amount of time spent on the idea) is indicative of interest.
- A common occurrence is for the participant to interrupt the interviewer midway through describing a concept. This is a signal that something is awry: low clarity, superlative words, or that the idea is a non-starter.
- Listen for loaded words. While these words are often delivered unemotionally, they are used for a reason. Remind the participant of the word choice and ask them to explain more.
- Build empathy. This is tricky and is where a skilled moderator earns their keep. After multiple rounds of listening, parroting back to check for understanding, and ensuring the participant is finished, then do an empathy check. “Thank you for clarifying that for me. I can imagine this situation is very frustrating for you. Is that how you experience it? Did I get this right?” In short, you must prompt the participant with the assumed emotion, and check for understanding. After clarifying the emotion, the conversation can then shift from transactional to insightful. This is usually where the gold is found.
Active listening works. At the risk of sounding like a counselor, studies have shown that this skill is one of the best predictors of healthy relationships, and healthy relationships are required—even in a 60-minute interview.