Listen Up


Shortly after I arrived in Greenville last fall and settled into my role as vice president of economic development and corporate training at Greenville Technical College, I met with the leader of a local company to determine how we could best work together. I brought to the meeting a full range of professional development offerings. This leader brought a wide range of employee training needs. In many ways, we were on the same page.

As the conversation developed, however, my counterpart mentioned that it would work best for her company to allocate professional development funds at the beginning of the fiscal year. Although they want the flexibility to request training throughout the year as needs arise, they like the security of knowing that the money for that training has already been set aside.

All too often, we focus so intently on what we have to offer that we miss the messages our customers deliver about what could make our best even better. Listening to what the needs and expectations really are can allow us to innovate and change to meet them instead of offering up something that continues to miss the mark, even if only slightly.

There are formal and informal ways of listening. Data gleaned from surveys and other assessments, comments coming from focus groups, simple observation, and more. Some of the most productive listening can take place sitting across a table from one another, having an honest conversation, and acting on that information.

Many people have studied communication successes and misfires, and there’s extensive information available on how to listen and respond more effectively.

Among the best tips I’ve found is to avoid making assumptions, thinking that we already know what the other person wants or needs, that someone else’s experience surely must mirror our own.

Also key is to avoid formulating your next response while the speaker is still talking. If you’re thinking of your reply, you’re probably missing out on what the person is actually saying. We may think we’re skilled at multitasking, but in actual practice, it’s a lot harder to concentrate on the here and now while you’re focused on the next.

Customers aren’t going to deliver the solution. We should be ready to listen, however, when they start a sentence with “I wish,” “I want,” or “I need.” Some of the best-known product innovations have resulted from listening, whether to customers or employees.

“Change by Design,” written by Tim Brown, takes a look at breakthrough ideas. One is the emergence of the cruiser type of bicycle that began to gain popularity about 10 years ago. This was a response to customers saying that they remembered the fun of bicycling as children. They wanted to recapture that fun, but they didn’t want the complications of fancy clothing, difficult-to-maintain bicycles, and sophisticated gears.

The business owner I met with last fall expressed a desire to pay for training at the beginning of the fiscal year. Initially, I thought, “Well that would be helpful, but we don’t offer that option.” Upon reflection, and after hearing similar comments in other meetings, I realized that although we didn’t offer the option, we could. We developed a new corporate training model with a subscription-based option that gives employers the ability to pay for training in advance and schedule the training on demand. A second option also resulted from those conversations. It gives a company’s employees an incentive to utilize tuition reimbursement funds provided by their employer or to upgrade their skills with a partnership agreement in place between the company and the college that includes discounted professional development tuition.

I’ve been in Greenville for almost nine months now. I’ve spent much of that time listening, and I plan to do a lot more of it. Those in leadership roles with business and industry have a wealth of information to share with me about what’s working and what isn’t. If I pay close attention, I have the chance to better meet their needs. If I’m listening carefully, I can offer a solution or work to create one.



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