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Listening for Profit

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PUBLISHED JUNE 1996

by Robert C. Brenner, President, Brenner Information Group


The entrepreneurial playing field is littered with the debris of failed publishing businesses. Yet I wonder how many of these companies would have survived, or prospered, if their owners had listened to the marketplace.

Listening is not easy. It’s a skill, a science, and an art. And it should be learned, honed, and nurtured. Listening is a remarkable key to achieving business and personal success. Yet poor listening is a problem that many publishers don’t recognize and accept. Most people think that they listen quite well and that listening is a natural gift. But while they hear a speaker’s voice, they often fail to listen to the actual message.

During arguments between couples, one person may exclaim, “You’re not listening!” A mother or father correcting a child may demand, “Open your ears and listen to what I’m saying!” Parents and spouses may be direct, however a customer will communicate by firing you. They’ll find another source for their information, a source that “understands,” a publishing company that “listens.”

The problem is that many people just don’t recognize the other person’s point of view. They don’t give concentrated, active, and attentive focus on what a speaker is saying. A message must be received AND understood before true communication can occur.

The point is you can’t learn when you’re talking! Listening is vital to every aspect of business. It lets you gain valuable information, understand others, recognize problems, and discover solutions. It’s also your tool for finding business opportunity.

Listening doesn’t just happen. It takes mental effort. Listening is complicated and strenuous.

We can hear four to five times faster than we can speak. This means that while someone is talking our mind can fill in the time between words with other thoughts, ideas, opinions, and conclusions. This causes some people to interrupt and complete sentences for a speaker. It may allow you to close your mind. This can result in a missed business opportunity or the loss of
repeat sales.

Poor listeners can misinterpret directions, hear a problem incorrectly, ignore valuable chances to expand business, and overlook true meanings behind statements.

The key to better listening is you. Better listening can directly affect your bottom line. If you understand this, then you will desperately want to improve. This means that you will earnestly try to develop an ability to concentrate on a speaker. You will develop a positive attitude and accept that each person is worth the effort of listening well. And you will work hard to improve your ability to listen.

Craving appreciation is a basic human need. Listening is one of the highest forms of appreciation. Listening with attention and sincerity enhances the self-esteem of the speaker. It also enhances the perception of you as an open, friendly person.

Complete listening leads to understanding. Understanding leads to respect. Respect leads to motivation. Motivation leads to purchases. Purchases lead to profit. It’s in your best financial interest to become a better listener.

Successful publishers develop a business environment that is supportive. They listen to their staff. They listen to their customers. They share problem solving and level with their customers. If they can’t produce a book this season, they tell the customer. They suggest solutions, even if those solutions involve another publishing house. These owners put the customer first. Contrary to mere rhetoric by others, these owners actually make customer service paramount in their business strategy.

Customers can sense this approach. They feel comfortable with the publisher. This produces an initiative to tell others and to suggest new book opportunities. It can lead to much larger and more profitable projects.

Several years ago, I learned an acronym for remembering the key points in good listening. The acronym is “LADDER.” Here’s how it goes.

The “L” stands for LOOK. Look at the person speaking. Keep your eyes focused on them. By looking directly at them, you convey dynamic interest. This helps you clarify the content of their message. It also lets you observe their facial expressions and judge their intent.

The “A” stands for ASK. To keep the conversation from bogging down and a person from rambling, ask questions periodically. Be aware that asking questions beginning with “where,””when,” and “who” can result in a single word answer. These words create “closed” questions. If you ask questions beginning with “why,””what,” or “how,” you will usually get an open-ended response. The “open-ended” question produces more information, more market intelligence.

The first “D” in LADDER is to remind you of DON’T. Don’t interrupt. Many people have a tendency to jump into a conversation with their own ideas. This is precisely the problem in failing to communicate. Stepping on a person’s thoughts is just as rude as stepping on their toes. People avoid contact with interrupters. So bite your tongue, and wait your turn. Let them finish their sentence or idea before you add to or clarify the message.

The second “D” also stands for DON’T. Don’t change the subject. This is another way to alienate a customer. You can insult them if you immediately switch the conversation to another subject. Let them complete their thought before you switch tracks and go off in another direction.

The “E” represents EMOTION. If you are conversing with another person and they become emotional, don’t overreact. A basic tenet in martial arts is that the moment you become emotional, you lose control of the situation. When you lose control, you lose the ability to influence the other person. Instead, when listening, hear them out. Concentrate on the message and not the debate.

Finally, “R” stands for RESPOND. Show that you are listening. Your demeanor, your posture, and your facial expressions convey your acknowledgment. Sit or stand straight. Look attentive. Don’t slouch. During the conversation, occasionally nod your head in agreement or move it slowly from side to side in sympathetic understanding. Contribute an occasional “hm-mmm” or “uh-huh” to show that you received the message. An occasional question can help you focus on the message and show the speaker that you’re listening.

When you’re not sure how to listen, use a LADDER. Look. Ask. Don’t interrupt. Don’t change the subject. Control your Emotions. Respond to the speaker through gestures, short utterances, and questions. Each rung of the ladder is important.

Several years ago, while I was working at a Westinghouse plant in Sunnyvale, California, I was in the office of the general manager and had the pleasure to observe statesmanship that distinguishes a leader from a manager. A minority activist group was threatening to demonstrate in front of all the entrances to the plant because the group felt minorities were being denied defense contractor jobs. The leader of the group demanded an audience with the top person at the plant. He was invited to the general manager’s office. When he arrived with a half dozen other activists, the union steward stormed into the office without an introduction. He was a large, angry-looking man. He shouted, he cursed, and he threatened. He leaned over the manager’s desk and attempted to bully him into submission.

The general manager sat silently behind his desk listening to the verbal tirade. He looked directly into the eyes of the leader of the group, ignoring the rest of his “henchmen.” He listened quietly and focused intently on the speaker. His eyes never narrowed in anger. He kept his composure.

When the activist had completed his outburst, the general manager spoke in a soft, but firm voice. He told the visitor that he believed that the inability of minorities to get government contracts existed because many minorities didn’t know how to qualify to bid or how to generate a good proposal. Then he told the activist that he would like to go back to his corporate management in Baltimore and ask for $100,000 to set up a training program to help minorities in the local area learn how to solve the real problem. He asked the activist if this idea was acceptable to him.

The anger melted from the activist like butter in a hot frying pan. I could see the calm flow over the man and his body relax. In a mellow, low voice, he told the manager that his idea was “very nice.” Then he thanked the general manager several times, shook his hand, shook my hand, and calmly left the office with his group. They were smiling as they departed. They had met with a person who actually understood their frustration, a person who listened to them.

The manager followed through and did what he had suggested. He obtained funding, and he established the training program as he had said.

The minority group never demonstrated at the Westinghouse plant. In fact, they used this manager as an example of the treatment they wanted from all of the other defense contractors in the area. The managers at the other plants refused to see the group. As a result, they were boycotted and picketed, and the media covered these demonstrations. The negative press alone cost thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

One business manager had listened, didn’t get emotional, and responded. He was perceived as a great leader. That day he won my respect and the respect of many other people. He is the kind of leader-manager that we need, that we should all strive to become.

You can improve your ability to listen by taking the time to focus. Increase your listening span. Adjust your thought speed so you can give full attention to the speaker. Avoid hasty evaluations and restate the message to ensure understanding. Don’t overreact to the delivery or the content of the message. Listen for ideas and feelings, not just facts. Listen “between the words” for the emotion behind a statement. Collecting market intelligence is a critical part of our business life. And there’s no better way to do this than by listening. As an old Chinese proverb states: “To be heard, there are times you must be silent.” Listen and act like a sponge; absorb the information. Then act on the information that benefits you and your business.

We each have two ears, but only one mouth. Some think this is because we should spend twice as much time listening as we do talking. Others claim that it’s because listening is twice as hard as speaking.

To be good at listening takes practice. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Only perfect practice makes perfect permanent. Focus on the right skills and develop the right habits.

If there’s one “secret weapon” for business success, it’s listening. Listen. Learn. Recognize profitable niches. And then act quickly to market to those niches before your competitors arrive. Listening is the ultimate expression of respect for your customer. It’s also the ultimate tool for finding new publishing opportunities.


His words were few and didn’t glisten. But he profited much because he could listen.


The message is clear. To enhance your profit picture, don’t just hear. LISTEN!


Robert Brenner is the president of Brenner Information Group and adjunct professor at West Coast University. He is the author of 18 books and over 260 articles. Brenner can be reached at B_INFO_GRP@AOL.COM.

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