When a career change placed me at the helm of Jetta Corporation, and I simultaneously plunged headfirst into an industry about which I knew virtually nothing, suddenly my expertise was no longer relevant. I had no relationships to lean on, and there was no way around the vulnerable position I found myself in with our customers: I had to admit I didn’t have all the answers and I was going to need them to teach me. And so began my somewhat unintentional but exceptionally valuable discovery of the art of active listening.
A few weeks into my new role, having patched together a very basic knowledge of Jetta’s business, I started meeting with those customers. With no answers or industry expertise to offer them, I was forced to get comfortable with replying, “I don’t know but I will look into it and get back to you”. And I made myself a promise that I would make good on that.
For the first time in my career, I was asking more questions than I was answering. And as our customers responded both generously and enthusiastically, I realized my fears of not making a good first impression or creating doubt in my ability to deliver on their needs were unfounded. They were happy to teach me what they knew, and as my mindset switched from vendor/customer to student/mentor, our relationships, to my pleasant surprise, were enhanced – not diminished.
Newly energized, I began seeking ways to bring active listening into every relationship. With a narrowed focus on asking the right questions, new habits began to form:
- Consistency. I developed a list of questions I consistently asked every customer. This allowed me to see where common themes and differences surfaced, cluing me in to the unique characteristics of different businesses. While my list has evolved over the past five years, I continue to get feedback from many of our customers on those very first questions.
- Specificity. I got specific with my questions. General questions about how their business was going or how my team was doing got general answers in return. I knew that vague, nonspecific information could create a false sense of security about the relationship. I needed to know the numbers and the results. I wanted to know the potential.
- Adaptability. I asked about how Jetta rates against the competitors in all aspects of the business. I asked for specifics on where we shine and, likewise, where the competition does. This identified the pain points in competitor relationships and gave me an opportunity to use that information to improve our services, adapt to their needs, and earn more business.
- Transparency. I asked for specifics and honest evaluation of my teams’ performance in problem solving, knowledge, responsiveness, logistics, sales effectiveness, and other key areas.
Within a few months of being on the road, I had a customer-driven plan. I was able to start reshaping my team to better meet the needs of my customers. I had homed in on areas in need of immediate improvement and identified some short-term opportunities to win trust.
While I was able to learn a lot very quickly through this process, even more impactful was the quality of the relationships I developed with my customers. The benefits showed up in many ways.
Today, this way of doing business has become centric to our customer relationships. In fact, relationship building is one of our core values and active listening is embraced at every level, from sales to service to manufacturing.
Instead of working so hard to be the one with all the answers, I’ve learned so much more and built much stronger relationships by being the one with all the questions.
|Sarah is a leading executive in the manufacturing industry and the Oklahoma City community. She uses her leadership experience and her positivity and enthusiasm to inspire others to achieve their goals. In her free time, you might find Sarah hiking or playing pickleball.|