How to Listen to Customers

A woman holding her hand up to her ear

Being a professional couples’ counselor, I often observe how couples miss hearing each other. Since I also run an advertising agency, I find that not really hearing another person happens with clients, too. When you’re with a customer or prospect, it’s easy to figure you’ve heard everything they’re saying before so you may suspend listening. I call this “already listening” because listening and not listening happen simultaneously. But, if you can’t really hear your clients, you lose the opportunity to understand them. And you may lose a sale as well.

So, before your sale goes south, here are three helpful ways to ensure your teams are being really attentive listeners.


From experience I know that a client who doesn’t feel heard or listened to – and a team that feels there’s no need to keep listening – may well lose that customer. So the first step, following a meeting in which you see the wrong body language or any indication that the team is not fully listening, is to point this out immediately. Ask the team what was going on so they understand their behavior. Then make sure your team understands that, if this pattern of “already listening” isn’t fixed, it will have consequences.


As with couples counseling, the issue isn’t who is right or wrong. Your team is probably trying to do its best for the client, and the client is doing their best as well.

But is your team really open-minded to the client’s thoughts and feedback if they are sure they’ve heard it all before? A useful exercise is to have team members imagine they are hearing something from the client for the very first time. Remind them that whoever the client goes to next – after feeling unheard and not listened to – will surely be doing just that if given the opportunity.


Despite your team’s conviction that they have already listened to the client’s points again and again, ask them to listen for the differences the next time. In other words, have them not only listen to the client, but listen to what the client expresses in the moment that isn’t exactly what the client said before. There will inevitably be differences in content and emphasis – and that’s fertile ground for realizing why there’s more to be heard and more to be curious about.

The sooner you can get your team to stop the habit of “already listening,” the less harmful the behavior will be. Unlike a marriage, the relationship between client and reps is ultimately based on collaboration and transaction; if the team doesn’t deliver, the client won’t stay – and shouldn’t.

But delivering isn’t just a matter of delivering good work. Delivering also means demonstrating respect and honoring the client’s point of view. A skilled team will know how to adapt and shape that perspective for the best outcome – without making the client feel unheard. If you can take the team from already listening to listening anew, you’re on the way.

Paul Cowan is a relationship specialist who had a successful career in leading international advertising agencies, then opened his own agency. His new book is Connecting with Clients — For stronger, more rewarding and longer-lasting client relationships.