Listen Up

Lending an ear to your clients’ concerns will ensure you present tailored solutions to their problems, writes Paul Denvir.

How good are you and your colleagues at listening?  Write down the names of all the really good listeners in your firm.  If your firm is like many that we meet, your list will be a short one. Given that you probably work in an advisory or consulting capacity, where good listening is key to delivering good advice, this might come as something of a surprise. Nonetheless, research we conducted into new business development in accountancy firms, found that listening was a real weakness.

Listening is vital to a firm’s or individual’s success in business and client development.  It has the ability to differentiate people and organisations in a competitive world.  We’ve come across many instances of client feedback that call for accountants to listen more.  Only by listening can accountants truly understand their clients’ businesses and present really focused solutions to their financial problems.

Why is listening such a rare skill?  Aside from the fact that its not taught as part of an accountant’s technical training, it is much harder to do well than it would seem.  There’s much more than just letting words hit our ears.  Listening requires 100% concentration. 

Good listeners are confident and relaxed in potentially stressful situations.  They practice their listening regularly. Like any other muscle, the ‘listening muscle’ atrophies with lack of use.  But more than anything good listeners are genuinely interested in what is being said and in the person saying it.  They are not just interested in information that would be of value to them.  Good listeners do not focus on ‘issues’, ‘problems’ or ‘needs’ in the hope of finding a way of selling the client more of their services.  Instead, they want to understand and are happy that their understanding will help to build a relationship of trust.  This trust in turn will lead to a stronger, more profitable working relationship with the client.

Alongside a lack of genuine interest the biggest barrier to effective listening is thinking.  In client situations, while the client is still explaining his or her situation in some detail, there’s a strong temptation to think about the next question we should be asking – a possible solution to an issue the client has just raised, perhaps an example of how we have helped other clients in ‘similar’ situations. 

All of these thoughts get in the way of us concentrating completely on listening and understanding what is being said.  Not only will the client will notice, but they will eventually stop trying to maintain our attention, probably with the lines:  “OK, that’s enough about what we do, tell me what you can do for us”.  

We are now catapulted into a premature presentation of a half-baked solution to a client who feels we could not even be bothered to listen to them.  Not a recipe for a productive dialogue.  We probably leave the meeting feeling aggrieved at the client’s lack of interest in our fantastic expertise and complain once again to our colleagues that “clients just won’t open up, whatever questions you ask”. 

‘Passive’ listening, of course, is not enough.  Deep understanding requires active listening.  Active listening involves hearing and understanding but it also involves demonstrating we have heard and understood.  It means giving the other party feedback through summary and reflection and it means stimulating further sharing of insight and information through the demonstration of genuine interest.  Active listening is a rare skill indeed.  It requires positive body language, acknowledgements, encouraging words and feedback that either summarises or reflects what your client has said.  All of these actions are positive and should be regularly practised by anyone for whom relationships are important for success.  Master them and you will be on any list of exceptional listeners put together by your colleagues – and clients.

Steps to effective listening:

• Face the speaker and maintain eye contact, be attentive yet relaxed and keep an  open mind
• Don’t interrupt and don’t impose your ‘solutions’
• Ask questions only to ensure understanding of something that has been said (avoiding questions that disrupt the speaker’s train of thought)
• Give the speaker regular feedback, for example, summarise, reflect feelings or simply say ‘uh huh’
• Pay attention to what isn’t said – to feelings, facial expressions, gestures, posture and other non-verbal cues
• When you’re dealing with clients, focus is important.  Try to mentally screen out distractions, like background activity and noise
• Try not to focus on the speaker’s accent or speech mannerisms to the point where they become distractions
• When dealing with difficult people, spend more time listening then speaking


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