Below is the third installment in our series, Leading by Listening. In this series we explore multiple facets of listening and its role in organizational leadership.

The importance of listening to one’s customers is well-covered ground. In fact, in a previous post, I discussed the effectiveness of using Collaborative Client Advisory Boards (CABs) to gather constructive, specific and useful feedback on the value that you create for customers. But have you thought about the power of listening to your customers when they aren’t talking to you?

To Whom Are You Speaking?
“If my customers aren’t talking to me, how can they tell me what they really need?” I admit, it’s counter-intuitive. But in a well-designed CAB, there are ways of hearing what customers say in their more candid moments, such as when talking to each other. Whereas they may have a hard time articulating their needs when confronted with a direct question, customers’ true pain points often emerge organically when they are commiserating with colleagues or peers who face the same challenges.

Sometimes It Is Good to Be Seen But Not Heard
In my previous post, I argue that one of the biggest gifts you can give your clients is the opportunity to network with each other. It can be a lonely and treacherous job running an organization. Consequently it can be reassuring and empowering to turn to a peer, someone in your shoes, and ask “Am I crazy?” or “How do you handle this?” And in that moment, customers get authentic. The “real” talk begins. Fears are laid out in the open, hopes and desires are articulated in plain language. This is where the greatest opportunity for good listening arises, and perhaps the greatest challenge. It’s hard to just listen. But it’s worth it. Let them talk to each other. Let them vent, dream, and conspire. Let them speak about you as if you weren’t there. Let them talk. Just listen. The greatest insights and most fundamental feedback comes from these moments when customers talk to each other.

So how do you do this? A good way to create the opportunity for eavesdropping—I mean listening—is through customer-led discussion groups. Identify key challenges or priority areas that you know are important to your clients. Then, create small chatrooms focused on each. Leave a small discussion guide on the table, but let the clients lead the conversation. Maybe you sit at the table and don’t say a word, or maybe you have someone scribe the conversation up on a whiteboard. If you can set up a good framework for even a 30-minutes conversation, your customers will quickly get down to the business of discussing what’s most important for them.

What About Wiretapping?
Okay, so wiretapping is clearly off-limits, but that doesn’t mean you are restricted to only times when your customers are physically in a room together. A virtual chatroom can be just as effective at generating the kinds of honest conversations that will teach you more than any focus group or customer experience survey. Take, for example, the phenomenon of IKEA Hacking below.

This past year, I had the honor of working at SIBOS with Steve Jennings from Better Ventures. His company is harnessing the power of “participation commerce,” an approach grounded in the notion that customers are more loyal and fulfilled when they participate in shaping the products and services they receive. Jennings cited the IKEA Hackers community website as a prime example of “participation commerce.” Created by and for IKEA customers, this site showcases innovative ways to assemble, enhance, and combine IKEA products.

IKEA’s initial inclination was, “This has to stop!” Fortunately, their next thought was, “Wait a minute, our customers are on to something.” And they were right. Through an independent customer community, IKEA consumers were able to extract greater value from the products than IKEA was able to deliver on its own. So IKEA didn’t stop it . . . they listened to it. They sat back and watched their customers talk to each other. They nurtured these conversations. They harnessed them. Now the IKEA hack concept has become a part of IKEA’s business model. They hold competitions. They encourage hacking. And by listening to their customers talk to each other, they are able to create greater value for them.

No matter how hard you try to overcome it, there will always be a “vendor/customer” dynamic that makes trust with your clients harder to establish. Whether real or imagined, consumers may suspect ulterior motives. But to the extent that you can get out of the way, and let your customers just talk with each other, and thus build trust, you’ll get to the heart of something really valuable.