Listening vs Hearing in Customer Service

The customer service sector is one that is fundamentally based on listening to people and helping them with what they need. However, instead of listening, hearing has becoming increasingly prevalent. You might be wondering what difference there is between the two. One needs to understand this to also realize the sheer importance of listening. Listening is an active skill which involves not only noting the words spoken, but also the nuances beneath them. It could be the associated emotions and tone of the conversation which a good listener can read as compared to just hearing the words someone has to say.

When it comes to listening, there are various levels which are possible.

Pretend listening– this is where you simply nod along to what they say while you’re lost in thought about something else or working on an unrelated things. An example of this is when you’re reading an unrelated email or playing sudoku while on a customer call.

Selective listening– this is when you manage to pay attention for as long as the conversation interests you before you get bored and stop caring. For instance, you’re talking to someone about a TV show you love, but then the topic changes to something you don’t care about, so your attention wanders.

Attentive listening– this is the art of not just hearing the other person’s words, but also forming a response to them in your mind. This could be during a call with a customer, where you do indeed listen to their concerns, but immediately try and mitigate them rather than understand their particular needs and case.

What needs to be noted about these three levels is that they focus on your perspective of things, and when you do respond, your interpretation is what will show in your answer. To be a truly effective listener, you need to practice empathic listening.

What is Empathic Listening?

This, as the name suggests, involves listening to your customers with some degree of empathy. It requires you to make them feel important and to make their opinion feel heard. Making encouraging noises as they speak and keeping an open mind without projecting your own assumptions onto them are a major part of this. Empathic listening comes with a whole lot of benefits. Not only does it improve your customer service experience, but it also can build trust amongst your team and customers, get your customer’s cooperation, and make then feel valued.

For example, if a customer comes up to you with a problem which you may have seen before, treat it like this is the first occurrence and give it all the care it deserves to ensure a customer experience that shines.

Customer service is a user centered industry and thus it is essential for your listening to reflect this. So how can you be an empathic listener?

1. Pay Attention Without Doing a Secondary Task

You might think that you’re amazing at multitasking but the moment you start working on something else or even playing a game, a portion of your attention slips, meaning that your customer no longer has your full focus. You might be pursuing a secondary activity because you believe you’ve dealt with the same or a similar issue before and this feeling of boredom may be apparent in your tone as well.

If you’re on the phone, this may even show in your voice thanks to your lack of 100% involvement and your customer will feel less important. In an email, you might end up sounding like a robot, pushing out the same canned responses again and again, with a complete lack of personalization.

While on the phone, smile. It is often told that a smile can be heard even across a phone line. Also vary your tone of voice and pitch so that your customer can hear what you’re feeling, whether it is dismay at their problem or reassurance when you’re giving them solutions. A low measured voice can promote calm and rationality as you work. Avoid letting your voice go too high however as it may sound anxious.

You can also interject with an affirmation to prove that you’re still actively listening. When it comes to virtual interfaces such as chats or emails, you can use emoticons and smileys, especially in chats. These will help prove to the customer that a human is on the other end as opposed to a bot.

Look at this chat transcript between a Netflix customer support agent and a customer for a perfect example of how being involved in the conversation can make for an amazing customer service experience.


Mike didn’t have to put in this level of effort into what is a routine customer interaction but he did, ensuring that his customer got an amazing experience that also resulted in a great reputation boost for Netflix. While you don’t have to go quite this far each time, try and connect with your customers and make them realize you’re a human on the other end of the line.

2. Patience and Personalization is the Key to a Great Conversation

A great deal of focus is given to wrapping up customer calls in a certain period of time these days. While speed is important for a company to be efficient, sacrificing human warmth for excessive speed in a conversation can lead to a less than satisfactory customer experience. On the contrary, putting in a bit of extra effort can lead to a customer being loyal to your company. For instance, using your customer’s name can have a significantly more positive effect on your interactions. Other touches include asking them how their day is. If they are a regular customer, offer some sort of loyalty program as a reward for their patronage.

Listen to what your customer has to say about their problem and avoid interrupting them. Wait until they finish speaking to clarify things before taking the conversation forward. A note of their previous interactions with your company would be useful here as well. For example, if you work at a cafe and you know your customer likes a particular brand of green tea with a dollop of honey and spice, make a record of it so that the next time they visit, your staff will be able to refer to this piece of information. This will impress the customer with their remembrance of their preferences.

Personalized service of this kind is possible not only in the case of the cafe example. Any industry where customer support plays a significant role can benefit from this sort of attention to detail.

3. Understand How Your Customer is Feeling and Reciprocate

Since most customer interactions these days don’t happen in person anymore, you might not be able to read and use body language for communication. In such a scenario, it is important for you to not only understand how your customer is reacting, but also show the customer the way you feel about their issue as well. Never assume that they know exactly what you mean, or vice versa.

For example, there has been a delay in the delivery of a particular product to a customer. They call you up and complain about their issue. Launching into explanations immediately may not have the best effect. They not only need a resolution to their issue, but also a chance to talk about what went wrong. Instead, listen to their complaints, and after they’re done venting, offer them an apology and then solutions.

Try using phrases that convey pleasure or displeasure, such as “That’s amazing”, or “I’m sorry but I don’t think this is quite right.” You can also get a better picture of your customer’s level of frustration by asking questions such as “Will this work for you?” or “Is this what you expected?”. There’s nothing wrong in asking questions for clarification just as long as you do acknowledge how your customers are feeling as well as coming up with a solution.

4. Take Feedback, and Do Something About it if You Can

One of the most important things you need to do to improve customer experience is to garner feedback from your customers and then use it to spruce things up. Feedback can not only improve your existing product and agent interactions, but it can also be used to add new features to your product.

This feedback doesn’t just have to be in the form of a survey at the end of the conversation. It could also be active feedback during a conversation with a customer. Ask questions beginning with ‘W’ to get precise answers. ‘What, why, when, and where’ can be used to understand their concerns and arrive at a solution as soon as possible. One should also consider feedback which your customers give you of their own volition. A classic example where feedback was used to not only impress a customer, but also as a great marketing tool was by Sainsbury’s.

A three year old, Lily Robinson, sent them a letter saying that one of their products, the tiger bread, looked more like a giraffe. The customer support manager sent a personal reply as to why the bread was called so and included a gift card as well. This triggered a campaign to change the name of the bread, and Sainsbury’s, recognizing that this was a great opportunity, made the change and added signs that mentioned why the name was now different.

5. Summarize Your Customer’s Points at the End of the Conversation

This can be a great way for you to show that you’ve been paying attention. It is also an excellent method to ensure that you’ve gotten the customer’s views and concerns right and can help avoid misunderstandings. For instance, a customer wants a product made with certain customizations. Summarizing what they have ordered will make sure that you get it right, and also prove that you have been paying attention.

6. Avoid Instinctive and Emotional Responses in Emails

When customer interactions involves email communication, there is a significant focus on replying to them as soon as you can. However, while timely responses are important, a well thought out and formulated reply holds just as much priority. If the issue is one of complexity and you need time to answer it properly, send your customer an acknowledgement email to ensure that you’ve listened to their needs.

Also remember that emails are instantaneous — you can’t take back replies. Thus, read through your emails before you send them, not just for grammar and spelling, but also for tone and consistency.

Another thing about emails that you need to avoid is to reply when you’re enraged or emotional. If a customer is being rude to you despite you doing your best to help them, you may be tempted to reply with an angry email. In such a case, type your email out but don’t send it. Go for a cup of coffee or a walk and come back and read it. You will be able to come up with a more measured and logical response. Remember that you shouldn’t let your emotions get the best of you. Even if your customer is being exasperating, you need to remember that your focus should be on the customer’s feelings and not your own. There are better ways to deal with your customers. They may simply be passing on the frustration they feel about their experience over to you.

Remember that excellent customer service is the best way to ensure that your company can stand out from among the competition and engage and retain customers. The best way to provide this is to actually listen to your customers. So the next time you’re on the phone with your customer, close that funny article or email, and focus on your customer. You’ll be surprised at how the experience for both you and your customer gets enhanced.

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