In recent years, among the many seismic social changes we experienced, in business, politics and society more generally, was a growing, collective failure to listen.
The importance of getting our own point across appeared to gain primacy over learning new things and seeking out the expertise of others.
As a result, important decisions were often taken, based not on how we perceived the world to be, but upon how we ‘feel’ it should be.
The trend was attributed to a number of factors, from the 2008 global financial crash and subsequent growth in populist politics, to the emergence of millennials in positions of authority, whose attitudes are more introspective and trusting of emotional responses to real-world situations than preceding generations.
The phenomenon was neatly articulated during the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign by Conservative minister Michael Gove who suggested that, as a nation, we’d ‘had enough of experts’.
Dismissed by some for an apparently regressive attitude, his comment nevertheless drew attention to the emergence of a new class of authority figure – self-appointed, without traditional qualifications, and seemingly knowledgeable in often ambiguous areas of learning.
The ubiquity of social media gave rise to, and facilitated the growth of, such figures – often described as gurus – whose expertise usually comes in 10-point lists, is reliant on feeling and intuition and is conspicuously lacking any sort of empirical evidence.
The business world became a particular focus for such gurus, who bombarded and confused decision makers with their acronyms and promises of imminent success. With fast-talking references to NLP, BAT, BIMS, ADP, HPCS, ATAAPS, is it any wonder we stopped listening?
The danger for business owners who rely on feeling and ignore, or relegate the importance, of evidence is that it takes them further away from their most important source of information.
The voice of their customers is drowned in assumption and riddled with blind spots and decision making becomes little better than a lottery.
Ironically, the Covid pandemic lockdown changed things for a lot of professional services businesses, whose traditional methods of operation were suddenly redundant.
Faced with an adapt-or die challenge, they realised that every decision they took carried an existential threat and, so, they had to get it right. With no margin for error, they reached for sources of customer feedback data to inform their decisions, and many found they had none.
Those which had collected customer data had done so in a very piecemeal way. Suddenly, those business owners who had relied on intuition and feeling to guide them, felt very exposed.
Among those which did collect data, information typically came in through call centres, customer research questionnaires, on emails and in conversations between staff and customers but little, if any, of it was connected.
There was no shared data source and no distinction was made between real information and interpretation, so opinion and assumption was often washed in with hard intelligence.
When marketing and business development heads moved on and were replaced, there was no continuity of approach.
The reality of human nature is that everyone wants to do things their own way, to make their own mark, and so, unless there are mitigating processes in place, there is the threat of a constant reversion to square one.
When no progress appears to be made, a form of collective, cultural apathy can set in. People stop attending meetings and simply ask for the reports to be sent on to them. Report writers feel an added sense of burden to produce reports, even when there is little or nothing worth reporting on. Decision makers quickly see through meaningless reports and stop asking for them.
To find out if a business has an effective information collection system, we typically ask ‘where is your customer feedback data stored?’ Prior to the pandemic, the top answer, was ‘in people’s heads and notebooks’, with ‘in individual files and folders’ a close second.
When there is no shared source of evidence, everyone has a different perception of what clients expect, need and value.
Businesses committed to measuring customer feedback effectively, have always had the equivalent of an ‘empty chair’ to represent the customers’ voice in meetings to ensure that minds are always focused on who they are serving.
Technology has made the process simpler, with business management software allowing everyone to share insights on their laptops or iPads.
However, there continues to be resistance from some business owners, particularly those who believe they know their clients best and who don’t want technology introduced into that personal relationship.
‘If we did put technology in the way, the client would feel like they weren’t getting as much service and attention because it’s less personal,’ is typical of the comments I hear from some business owners.
Another is: ‘I’m the one who needs to know the feedback, so I can pass it on to my teams. I don’t see a knowledge gap because I know my clients, and they would tell me if there was a problem.’
Those attitudes have been prevalent among some business owners for many years. What many of them really mean, but are reluctant to say, is: ‘I don’t want other people hearing the feedback from my clients before I do’.
They don’t want to be replaced by technology as the filter for what’s heard and passed on to others in their company.
The reason why Covid heralded such a culture shift in the way businesses communicated with their clients is because, with lockdown, they didn’t have a choice but to embrace technology.
Suddenly virtual forms of communication and recording replaced in-person meetings and face-to-face conversations. With technology levelling the playing field, clients started to engage with other people in the business with whom, previously, they’d had little or no contact.
At the same time management realised that, without embracing new ways to gather and disseminate customer feedback intelligence, they had no way of making the kind of informed decisions that might be the difference between their organisation surviving or failing.
Decision makers were crying out for market intelligence, to make decisions they’d never had to make before. They needed to know how to digitise the service, to understand what it would look like and where they needed to invest.
That created the circuit breaker because, all of a sudden, technology had to be used and feedback needed to be centralised. Business owners realised how big the gaps were in their approach to customer feedback. Many had only ever been listening to fewer than five per cent of their very highest value clients, while the voices of the rest were never heard.
It feels like, post-Covid, we have entered a new age of listening which can only be a good thing for business and for society generally. Suddenly, we’re all ears.
Paul Roberts is CEO of MyCustomerLens, an AI driven, always-on client listening platform for professional services firms