3 Steps to Being a Good Listener. (Or, “Hey, I Can See Your Underwear!”)

What if your company was as transparent as the Emporer’s New Clothes? “Transparency,” fast becoming the buzz word of the new presidency, should be aimed at us all, even if we’re not receiving federal jackpot money.

But what about the rest of corporate America? What if all business became more transparent – and more accessible – to their customers?

OK, I can hear a pin drop.

Think about it.  Transparency is the untapped social resource companies have yet to harness. How does a company become more transparent? By sharing what’s important to their customers, with their customers.  How do you know what’s important to them? Well, have you asked? Or more importantly, have you listened?

First, listen to what is being said about you. Then, create a thoughtful, strategic response.  If you know what people are really saying about you, you can affect their perceptions and clarify your mission. Maybe it’s time to appoint a corporate “Listener.”

The corporate Listener’s job is to find anything being said, published or videoed about your company, your brand, your product or your people. Listeners spend time listening to those who interact with the company at a variety of levels, including blogs, customer service calls, sales calls,  survey results… and any area where information about how the company’s brand is being perceived in the market place. Then, the information is shared in appropriate ways throughout the organization.

Are companies really putting these Listeners in place? If you have any employee who blogs, Tweets, Facebooks, MySpaces, Links In, or listens to customer service calls, you already have.

So, how is transparency linked to Listening? Because finding out what people are saying about you/your brand/your company/your employees/their experience with your product gives you the knowledge to craft ways to either amplify these messages or address concerns before they get out of hand. Power, People. Knowledge is Power, and the People have it.

The art of bringing together you and your customers on a more transparent level is your challenge to rise to.  Think of your own experiences: the companies you know the most about are the ones you are most likely to feel more loyalty to/talk about/refer to people.

Case in point: I just participated in a beta product review with a major eMail company. I was simply a user who complained a lot – because  I loved the product but it was missing a critical feature, causing me to abandon it for another product which had it. In dialoging with a customer service person over time, I was asked if I’d like to be part of the beta test team once the company finally added the new feature. Are you kidding?! Give ’em my 2 cents worth?! I was on it like a rat on a Cheeto.

Now, do you think I’m even going to consider using another email program? And how many people will I tell about my experience? They’re adding the feature, and I’m running back into their arms.

To be truly effective, management must commit to a more transparent philosophy toward the customer, wherever possible.  Here are three steps that can help move your organization toward that philosophy in a meaningful way.

1) Assign a corporate Listener who is tasked to spend a designated amount of time finding out what is being said about your company. This mean snot just Googling your company name (good start, though), but adding industry RSS feeds to your mailbox, regularly reaching out to customers for their input, reading and clipping articles,  and blogging as a listener first,  then as a contributor. The Corporate Listener may also run key employee names through Google, Facebook and blogs (try Technorati if you don’t know where to start blogging) to see if people are talking about them.

2) Post “announcements” on your web site about internal and other changes you make in response to customer dialoging. Explore the use of a blog, though I hesitate to encourage adding your own unless it is managed daily, to express thoughts and ideas. Use C-levels to communicate these whenever possible. It shows you’re in touch with your audience at the very top of the company.

3) Invite customers to participate in your product throughout its lifecycle. Ask for feedback whenever and whereever possible, then respond to it. Make customers feel like a part of what you’re doing with invitation-only “previews” of new feature sets or new releases. Take notes, acknowledge, and respond.

I’m sure you can think of many more, but these are great starting points. Transparency forces honesty, which drives quality, which affects competition, which makes money… which is the way to win in business, yes?

By the way, nice briefs.