• September 1, 2013
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Customer Retention Starts with Listening

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Let's switch things up a bit. You've gotten used to seeing essays about business on this page, especially concerning CRM and its subdisciplines. I have decided we need a change of field. This month, we're going into medicine, specifically otology (the study of the ear) and its subdiscipline audiology.

The ear is a fascinating organ, evolved to funnel sound waves to the tympanic membrane, where the vibrations become electrical impulses the brain can understand. The ear-brain connection can sort through a tremendous amount of background information, filtering out useless noise to focus on what really matters.

Not only can we interpret speech this way, but we can detect shades of meaning and emotion in the words as well. While damage and disease can affect the ability to hear, the worst culprit is not organic but behavioral: failure to listen. If the listener isn't really paying attention to what is being said, meaning and context can be lost.

At some level, every transaction is an exchange between people, though they may represent large groups or corporate entities. Your ears are the most important organs for business—for most businesses, anyway; you'll need to go to Amsterdam for the ones that rely on other parts.

What gets lost when we talk about social CRM is the individual connection. Voice of the customer, or voice of the employee, is often concerned with aggregating lots of opinions to detect trends and problems and take the temperature of the community. Those aggregations are made up of single voices, and what the single voice is saying is just as important as the big picture—and it's more important to the individual who is speaking.

Examples? Oh, I have a few. In fact, one of them is the reason I started with medicine this month. You see, doctors are like social businesses: The first thing they should do is listen. Things get ugly when they don't. Doctors with surgical qualifications are infamous for this—recommending surgery regardless of necessity, because they're surgeons and that's what they do, plus they get more money for it. My example isn't so extreme, but it's classic Deaf Doctor Syndrome.

I got a referral from my pretty-good GP to see a gastroenterologist to discuss some diet, exercise, and surgery options for my chubby carcass. To be fair, the belly doctor did start by asking me why I had come to see her, and I had the chance to say a few dozen words before her ear holes scabbed over and her mouth got stuck in the active position. I'll spare you the boring and irrelevant details, but the suggestions and assumptions that came back to me contradicted or ignored what little I'd had the chance to express, and also had nothing to do with my medical history, which she had in her hands. She knew what she was going to say before I walked in the door.

The doctor suggested that I could take the money I spend on alcohol and use it for a gym membership. First of all, I drink so little and so rarely that this was more of an insult than a suggestion. Second, I'm a writer and a consultant—I haven't paid for my own booze in almost a decade.

A more common case of a mouth moving without ears being engaged is when you need some kind of documentation from a medical office. People behind the desk are only too happy to tell you what to do once you have the paperwork—how to fill it out, who to send it to, what to include, and so forth. They're so proud of their knowledge that they don't hear that you need to know how to get the paperwork in the first place.

Back to the referral thing. Not every office accepts every kind of insurance, so when you're sent to a new physician, you need to be sure that payment is possible. I'm perfectly capable of making my own appointments, but if I need a referral, I expect the provider to send me somewhere appropriate. In all the years I've been responsible for managing my own insurance coverage, this has almost never happened the first time. National League pitchers have better batting averages than my doctors' success rate at sending me somewhere that takes my insurance.

Doctors are like social businesses in another key way. When they don't listen, you take your money someplace else.

Marshall Lager is the founder of Third Idea Consulting, and is waiting to hear what you have to say. Let him listen at marshall@3rd-idea.com or www.twitter.com/Lager.

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