4 tactics you can use today to become a better listener

Are you really listening to your client? Columnist Matt Umbro discusses key ways to tune in to what your client is saying -- and ultimately improve your relationship with them.

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I think we all can agree that it’s paramount to listen to our clients. They know their businesses the best and are crucial in helping us determine strategy and ongoing initiatives. However, I believe that many of us (myself included) don’t listen to our clients as much as we should.

When I talk about listening to our clients, I’m not just speaking to the oral portion. Listening requires you to drop assumptions and preconceived notions so you have an open mind.

Too often we hear something and immediately focus our attention elsewhere. Listening requires us to be present in the moment so we can formulate an appropriate response.

Let’s use as an example an AdWords Display Network campaign. A client may ask whether a Display Network campaign is a worthwhile initiative. Naturally, the account manager will draw on previous experience and knowledge to respond. This response is a good first step. It’s the ongoing conversation that is crucial.

The conversation should continue to progress and be tailored for the client. In other words, it’s relevant to draw from past experience, but the conversation should focus on how the initiative will be different for this client.

Perhaps this client has a unique offer or the ad creative is highly appealing. Or maybe there is a targeting setting that would work well for this client.

The point is that we’re engaging in an effective dialogue based on what we are hearing from the client. We don’t stop listening because we have shut down the conversation (intentionally or unintentionally).

So what are some ways that you can be a better listener? The first way is to not say anything.

1. Don’t interrupt

We don’t tend to realize it, but too often we interrupt our clients when they are speaking. For the most part, we interrupt without malice and don’t recognize that we are doing it.

For example, a client may begin talking about a sale, and immediately we interject with ideas of how to best promote it. Even though we may have good ideas, the client wasn’t done speaking. Over time, these interruptions can lead to deteriorating relationships.

I wrote about this topic in-depth on my company’s blog, but the main problems with interrupting are that:

  • key information won’t be discussed;
  • account managers aren’t fully listening; and
  • the client will be less forthcoming

We always have that urge to interject when the client shares information that sparks a thought, but we must hold off. Wait until the client is done talking, and then respond with the hindsight of everything that was said.

I understand that in some cases, this sentiment is easier said than done. Perhaps the client likes to talk a lot, and your interruption is the only way for you to get a word in. Take it on a case-by-case basis, but the central theme is to hold off on interruptions in order to take in everything the client is saying.

2. Repeat what your clients tell you

One strategy that I’ve found to be extremely helpful is to explain back to your clients what they just told you. This strategy is helpful for two reasons.

  • It allows the account manager to confirm what the client is saying.
  • It shows the client that the account manager is listening.

Oftentimes, when I discuss a new strategy with a client, I’ll end by saying something to the effect of, “Just to confirm,” or, “If I’m understanding correctly,” and then repeat the initiative.

As an example, a client and I were discussing a promotion to use in ad copy. I repeated back what I had heard. I was glad I did because I hadn’t understood everything correctly. After asking a couple of follow-up questions, we were on the same page.

If I hadn’t repeated back what I had heard, the assignment would not have been done correctly. I believe that as account managers, we want to come across as confident and completely capable of doing our jobs.

Asking for clarification or repeating what the client said may be seen as a sign of weakness on our part. This sentiment is the wrong thinking and can hurt the relationship. Always be checking to make sure you and the client are on the same page.

3. Allow your clients to speak

Have you ever been on a call where the client has more than one person on their side? In this situation, you receive questions and thoughts from multiple people.

Most likely, everyone on the client side isn’t always in agreement, or there is someone who needs further explanation. To this end, clients will sometimes speak among themselves in the background. You may be tempted to jump in, but let them speak.

Having clients speak among themselves provides account managers a view they rarely see. You are listening in as clients discuss:

  • how they view and interpret paid search performance and initiatives;
  • how paid search initiatives fit into overall marketing strategies;
  • behind-the-scenes business information you might not necessarily know; and
  • how they work together.

It is tempting to jump in, especially if you know the answer. However, you should let them speak, and then when the internal conversation stops, provide your response. What you retain from the internal conversation has the potential to help your account management moving forward.

4. Keep your facial expressions in check

This tactic is meant for face-to-face meetings and is similar to the notion of not interrupting. Let’s use an example of a client speaking about a huge revenue drop year over year. Here’s how the conversation may progress.

Account manager: How has overall performance been year over year?
Client: We’re down about 50 percent from last year.
Account manager winces in surprise.
Client: (Worried) Well, we significantly cut the budget to our email marketing program, and we lost a couple of team members.

The account manager didn’t say anything, but the facial gesture caused the client to get defensive and list reasons why performance dipped. It’s almost as if the client is working for the account manager, trying to justify the revenue drop.

You don’t have to be stone-faced when speaking to clients in person, but try to avoid immediate reactions that can cause stress. Let the client speak, take everything in, and then formulate your response.

It’s not your job to judge the history of the client’s marketing efforts. Instead, you should be focused on how you can help improve performance.

Final thoughts

These four tactics provide a glimpse of how you can more effectively listen to your clients and subsequently improve relationships. It won’t always be perfect (After all, we are only human), but these simple tips can go a long way.

At the end of the day, you want to better understand your client so you can provide exemplary work.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Matt Umbro
Matt Umbro is the Associate Director of Search at Hanapin Marketing. He specializes in eCommerce PPC and client relations, and he also oversees content production for PPC Hero.

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