listening effective leader

Leading through Listening

Too many times we think the best way to market ourselves and our businesses is through talking (and talking) about our business, our services, or our products. We neglect one of the very most basic marketing methods. Listening to the customer.

We’re Listening, We Promise

Sure, we hear all the advertisers as they blare out their claims of “we’re listening to you.” How many people really believe these big corporate conglomerates are truly listening to their customers? Most doubt the sincerity and most believe the reality is quite different. Common thinking seems to be major shareholders, investors and other big business interests more frequently shape the direction of a company than the average consumer.

But how does a small business listen to their customers? How does the small business not fall into the trap of claiming to listen without really hearing? It’s easy to overlook and yet the ability to connect with people is one of the biggest advantages a small business can have.

The Long Shot

People relate to small businesses. I’ve shared statistics previously about the number of small businesses in America, and yet the sheer volume of revenues generated by small businesses. People love cheering for the underdog, the little guy, the long shot. Often the small business is considered the long-shot. The little guy willing to stand up and speak out for the average consumer against the Goliath in the market place, the big business.

The truth may be the big business offers better services, better products, and better support; but the small business has by its very nature an inherent advantage. And this has to be realized and nurtured. Successful small businesses realize this. Successful small businesses focus on the personal connection and the communication with their customers and their industry.  Open transparency regarding company size and struggles can be intimidating and yet highly rewarding.

Listening and Speed

Size matters, but in this case smaller is better. Lacking the volume of business means each customer is important. The customer realizes this and appreciates the fact that their purchase and their presence is valued. When the customer feels they are truly appreciated they engage more. They offer their advice and their opinions. Small businesses absolutely must take advantage of this.

Success comes from listening to others, hearing the needs, and then implementing improvements.

Successful small business realize they can more quickly make changes to their business and their services then a bigger company. I often hear it compared to a speedboat versus an ocean liner. Big business has a much harder time implementing a shift in their business. This leads to a perceived lack of “listening”. Small businesses should capitalize on the ability to make changes quickly and implement improvements based on feedback.

Listening and Hearing

An interesting point arises when considering the act of leading by listening. Most would understand the concept of leading and what is involved with taking charge of a situation. But how does listening fit within that understanding? How does the act of listening make for a better leader? The answer is simple.

Listening is more than gathering feedback. Listening is the active process of collecting feedback and hearing the underlying need.

A good leader does not merely listen to people. A good leader takes what they hear and analyzes what is being said. The sub-context. The meaning for the response. Small businesses looking to be the leader must do this too. This takes effort, takes work, and takes humility.

Listening and Humility

Small businesses must realize that even though they listen and they implement changes based on the perceived underlying need they will not be right all the time. Everyone filters their communication through their own experiences and beliefs. As a result no one is perfectly in-sync with someone else and there will be times when the response is wrong.

Leading through listening means acknowledging those times when the art of listening has lead to the wrong solution. The true need was misinterpreted and the outcome provided the wrong one. Successful small businesses connect with their customers and openly communicate through the process of rebuilding and resolving problems. It’s hard to be genuinely humble in offering an apology.

Yet here is one more way a small business holds an advantage. Small businesses are people too. People are not perfect and people make mistakes. Humbly apologizing and demonstrating a desire to improve based on listening to feedback shows customers that the small business cares. The small businesses must relate to their customers and share their struggles and their desire to improve.


How do these concepts of listening apply to leadership? In particular, how do small businesses lead through the art of listening.

The best leader is humble in attitude, quick to take action and dedicated to hearing the need.

If a small business wants to be a leader they focus on their strengths. Find the ways in which they hold the advantage and capitalize on them. Listening is one of those advantages. Leaders don’t charge blindly forward. Leaders must listen. Small businesses must listen. When they do they become leaders. They become successful.

Small businesses often struggle with the concept of leading, they hold the mistaken belief that their size constrains them from being a leader. This notion of leading being available only to the big company is misguided and flawed. Industry leaders can come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Small businesses have equal opportunities to be leaders. Notice they are not the same opportunities, they are different but they are truly equal.  The successful small business identifies and capitalizes on those opportunities.

Take the Time

Do you take the time to listen? Remember, listening is more than just getting people to fill out a contact form or a survey. Listening is an art. Listening takes practice. Spend time learning how to listen better. Your business will benefit from the investment. You’ll find you gain trust, you gain support, and you gain customers. Be the leader in your industry. Embrace your company size, find your niche and lead through listening.