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Business Needs Better Listeners. Here's a Plan.

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Aug 10 2021

The bank reps had seen the man lingering in the lobby more than a few times. No one ever thought to ask if he needed help. He looked a bit rough, honestly. The seams of his jacket hung low. His hair was an angry cloud.

But Damian Thompson, then a cashier, approached the man without thinking twice. Thirty years ago, Thompson was the first Black teller at the bank where he worked, and sensed that certain customers did not want to be served by him. That experience taught him the value of ensuring that everyone was included and given the same service.

Over time, by listening to that customer’s needs and gaining trust, Thompson managed to secure a major investment for the bank. This habit is something that he carries with him today as the Group Managing Director of Retail at UK-based Aldermore. He is always looking for ways to improve the bank's service.

Thompson’s practice of listening is an art, and one of the most undervalued skills in business. Soft skills may seem inessential when compared to tangible ones, like product development. But when organizations actively listen, they gain insights about customer needs that can make the difference between a resilient, future-fit organization and one that withers on the vine.

To heroize employees who listened well and went the extra mile with customers, Thompson launched an “Experts with Empathy” campaign at Aldermore, asking teammates to nominate each other to win prizes. He regularly picks up the phone to heap praise on high performing representatives. The bank has become known for lending to those with less than perfect credit, earning it high NPS scores and loyal customers. Understanding how stressful owing money can be and listening with compassion, Thompson argued, must always come before slapping someone with an overdue penalty.

Carlos Rodridguez Pastor, President of the Peruvian conglomerate Intercorp, admires Thompson’s style of leadership. Pastor has long encouraged all ranks of his organization, from top executives to front-line workers, to stay close to customers. He, too, models active listening tactics, like welcoming and serving customers, and walking the aisles of stores. So, when the time came to send Intercorp’s top brass on an annual inspiration trip—which, until COVID, took executives to faraway locales—Intercorp asked IDEO to create a remote experience on the theme of Escucha Activa, or Active Listening.

In May, 2021, 30 CEOs, 12 board members, and 130 other leaders signed onto Zoom for a four-day global “tour” to learn from some of the best listeners in business. Damian Thompson was our first speaker.

As the future of work becomes increasingly remote, putting employees at a greater distance from customers, active listening will become increasingly important. Here’s how to design your own remote learning experience on active listening:

1. Never waste a crisis

While COVID prevented us from climbing aboard tour buses and trying new foods in distant locations , the remote learning experience removed other constraints, allowing us to bring Active Listening luminaries from around the world to Peru. We tapped our networks to bring in guests from Nigeria, China, the UK, Brazil, and Denmark, as well as the US. C-suite speakers joined from Pillpack (Amazon), Lloyds and Aldermore banks, African fintech startup Piggyvest, and established retailers like IKEA and LEGO. Our IDEO team was distributed as well: based in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, and Munich. It was simultaneously the most ambitious and least expensive business trip the two companies had ever put together in their 10 years of collaboration.

2. Over-prepare

To make the experience of learning how to listen better feel like traveling to visit distant oracles, we prepared each leader for the main event with several pre-session interviews to fine-tune the stories and wisdom they imparted. The prep work paid off: zeroing in on a clear message for each session helped participants follow each step of the learning journey.

3. Design for immersion

    No matter how good a listener you are, a two-and-a-half hour Zoom call can feel like an eternity. Knowing that, we tried to strike a balance between learning and entertainment—quick exercises that focused on employee listening and longer, immersive talks. We used travel metaphors to keep the pep in our step and kept the experience to two consecutive weeks, on Thursday and Friday mornings (Peru time). The time limit allowed executives to put aside their phones and truly take in the content, knowing they’d have the balance of the day to get work done.

    4. LEGO the learning

      Our sessions were set up to build on each other like LEGO sets. Each day kicked off with leaders sharing stories. They explained what it takes to “Commit to Active Listening,” like asking high performing employees about their listening methods and sharing with others at the company. Day 2 was about “Scaling Active Listening,” from individual initiatives to company-wide movements, like a weekly survey that gathers feedback about how close you feel to customers at any given time. Day 3 was spent on “Expanding your Toolkit for Active Listening,” by adding new tactics to the mix, like listening to customers on social media and responding quickly. The 4th day concluded with a lessons on how to “Use Listening to Drive Decisions,” or to act on what you hear in a continuous cycle of improving business offers, like allowing customers more flexible payment plans during financial distress.

      5. Create a meal out of bite-size chunks

        Sending participants into breakout rooms of 5-10 people allowed us to design activities that brought home the day’s lessons. One favorite was to write and collage a “Postcard From the Future” about a new product or service your business might launch based on an insight gleaned from active listening.

        6. Make the stage bigger

          Here’s one thing you could never do in person: travel from China to Nigeria to Peru within minutes. It was morning in Lima, evening in Lagos, and 11 p.m. in Shanghai, but we were all listening and learning from each other as if we were sitting side by side.

          When we stood up this learning experience, Peru was in the midst of a political crisis and had suffered the largest dip in GDP in the world the previous year. It was a very tense moment that had stretched out for months. After the tour wrapped, feedback from participants suggested that it had an enormous positive emotional impact, giving leaders the injection of inspiration and optimism they needed to overcome burnout and mental distress. It came just in time.

          Beyond the morale boost, we learned a lot about how to listen better ourselves. One of the best bits of wisdom came from a lovable bear who has never worked a day in his life. “If the person you’re talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient,” said Winnie the Pooh. “It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.”

          If the person you’re talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be that he has a small piece of fluff in his ear.

          Winnie the Pooh

          To make sure we’re listening for how we can make our work better, we must continuously remove fluff—not only to close the gap between companies and customers, but also to allow for the free flow of listening-based insights inside organizations.

          Why? Because insights are only powerful if put to use. When employees feel empowered to act on what they hear, marshalling resources and prototyping new ways to deliver great service, you can be sure no one will be left alone in the lobby.

          • Jeff Kessler

            Senior Design Lead, IDEO New York
            Jeff's passion lies in using technological tools to tell stories and create experiences. He lends his product design, mechanical engineering, storytelling, and prototyping skills to bringing the future to life, from idea to tangible experience.
          • Carlos Montalván

            Corporate VP of Talent & Learning, Intercorp
            Carlos Montalván has been with Intercorp since 2010. Today, he is responsible for the attraction, engagement and development of top-tier talent, as well as learning and training across the Intercorp conglomerate.
          • Stephanie Sizemore

            Design Lead, IDEO San Francisco
            As a visual communication designer, Stephanie enjoys highly technical execution and also zooming out on strategy. Her focus is on in social impact, org transformation, and circular design.
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