Now more than ever, businesses live and die by the quality of their business relationships.  And to truly manage those relationships, they need to be measured and managed in a pragmatic way that improves business outcomes.

Vanguard Country Manager, Sergio Caserta, shares four leadership level strategies for ensuring good listening is good for the business.

1. Avoid being blindsided

The danger of being blindsided for a leadership team is very real. Often leaders don’t hear the whole truth (perhaps their listening system isn’t fit for purpose) or people may hide things for fear of looking bad. It could also that people think they’re on top of things, when despite best intentions, that’s not really the case.

This means relationships can fester for years before any issues become known, and then it can be too late to do anything about it.

A good listening system that follows people over time, to see how relationships are changing and why, will significantly reduce the risk of being blindsided.

Receiving feedback from a range of different people in the business also provides a much more balanced view of what is actually going on. This could be senior and operational staff, or people on both the supplier and customer side of a business relationship.

It’s also important to hear feedback on what’s not working (the negatives) as well as what is working (the positives). This helps to miminise the impact of negative critics – while their feedback is still valuable, they are often listened to more even if their feedback is only marginal.

Hearing the negatives as well as the positives can be an important, and largely untapped, source of competitive advantage.

2. An external focus is necessary for true customer centricity

Another challenge leaders face is inadvertently taking an internal focus – viewing things from the inside-out rather than outside-in.  To be truly customer centric leaders need to hear the needs and views of stakeholders outside the organisation, which then creates long-term engagement and loyalty.

Using a ‘true voice’ method for listening is perfect for fostering a customer centric view.

Using this method, people say what they think in just a few open questions – in their own words, as they see it.  It’s a simple approach that is easy for participants, but most importantly challenges the business to accept that the viewpoint of their customers is their reality.

Questions for leaders to ask that will encourage stronger customer centricity on the back of receiving feedback include:

  • Do we agree with what customers are saying? If not, why do we have a different view?
  • Are we in denial? Are we believing our own rhetoric? Are customers misinterpreting us?
  • Is this a problem with how we have set the expectations that customers have?
  • Or are we not performing well enough against perfectly reasonable customer expectations?

For complex, deep enduring relationships like partnerships or strategic alliances (like supply or development partners), each party needs to put themselves in the other’s shoes.  To achieve centricity outcomes the feedback must be two-way so that it is received from both sides of the relationship.

This means:

  • You need feedback from people from both sides of the partnership
  • This should extend beyond just senior decision makers and include people responsible for delivering on the partnering activity
  • An attributed approach to feedback is best – if you know who has given the feedback, you can respond to it and close the loop

3. Align key stakeholders

Even if feedback programs are in place, these can be disconnected and unfocused. For example, it’s common for a single organisation to run a customer NPS program, a separate employee engagement survey, along with a survey monkey survey for clients or partners.  Imagine trying to bring all of that data together, especially if the intent and focus of the three approaches are different one from the other!

This disconnected approach makes it difficult to focus on the highest priorities and often results in getting distracted by squeaky wheels instead.

Instead, listening should be aligned across all stakeholders and create ‘conversations of shared purpose’.  This is where people with different relationships to the business all give feedback on a strategically important initiative such as delivering on brand promise or strategy.

In the case of strategic accounts, a map of the complex ecosystems of relationships is required so that all relationships can be properly measured and managed.

4. It’s time to be hardnosed about business outcomes

Finally, it’s important to push for clear outcomes from your listening program in order to really drive value for the business.

It’s simpler than it seems because there are only four sets of outcomes to manage:

  1. Improve retention
  2. Fulfil sales potential
  3. Reduce cost to serve
  4. Boost word of mouth

You need a model in place which evaluates what you know about your relationships and which are vulnerable; elicit regular feedback and ensure action is taken to follow up on an areas of risk or potential; and evaluate in dollar figures your direct wins, improved clarity and clearer view of vulnerabilities.

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