Saturday, May 21, 2011

Client Retention Obstacle 3: Failing to Listen

It’s hard to ask for feedback from a client. And it’s even harder to listen to it. Really listen, absorb and act. Why?

Client retention at risk.  Failing to listen to clear and unambiguous feedback, or not knowing about a bad situation in plain sight seems incredible. Yet too many account and project managers fail to heed the obvious warning signs that a client relationship is sinking and that client retention is at risk.

Clear message but no action. Here’s a good example of this dilemma. A former investment banking friend of mine was hired by a private equity firm to assess the problems at a software firm they purchased several years ago. It took him just several days to figure it out. The leadership installed by the private equity firm did not match with company culture and the troops were in a passive mutiny. Sales were plummeting and staff leaving.

His message to the owners was clear: management at the software firm was failing and they better do something about it, and do it fast.  Yet, he couldn’t get the PE firm’s attention and no action was taken. There was a crisis plain and simple but no one would listen and act. Why?

It’s hard to hear bad news.  Why is it hard for us to pay attention to bad news? Well, as humans we might be hard wired to not to listen. In a book entitled, Willful Blindness (http://www.mheffernan.com/book-wb-summary.shtml), author Margaret Heffernan argues that our brains have evolved in a way that rejects conflicting, anxious and complicated situations. We just don’t process that kind of information well.  So seemingly critical and obvious problems go unnoticed and unaddressed.

This happens all the time in the client relationship world. The client stops returning calls. The VP is suddenly not available and now you have to talk to a manager. You find out you haven’t been invited to a new office opening. Budgets are in tatters. A new project was given to a competitor. Even with all that facing you,  you ignore the situation or don’t take action because you tell yourself it's not that serious. Maybe you’re just too busy to follow up. Or you don’t see the problem at all.

Bring in the outsider. One tactic Heffernan suggests is to engage someone outside the organization who can see situations in a new ways and counteract complacency and group think. This helps bring new understandings to life. Our brains may like routine but they are also open to change. And, if clarity improves and actions occur as a result of that outsider input,  your client may stay around a little longer.

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