Listening: the Practice and the Art
Effective listening skills are the cornerstone of excellent customer service. Listening effectively is hard and, like any other skill, it takes patience and practice.
Tony Naylor recently wrote a brilliant piece in Big Hospitality. His article “Why Restaurants Need to Stop the Upbeat Interrogation” challenged the dangerous trend for ultra peppy, slightly cheesy, faux service that can be an irritating by-product of our desire for a more casual, informal dining experience. Naylor suggests that ‘being quizzed by strangers… firing inquisitive personal questions… [is] deeply awkward’. I completely agree. Well said, Tony.
Now, let’s imagine Les Dennis were to bring back a hospitality version of Family Fortunes (stay with me), and asked the contestants “what skills do you need to work as a waiter?” The skill that would result in that lovely, reassuring bing! would undoubtedly be listening. Effective listening is the cornerstone of excellent customer service and it was clearly lacking in Tony’s recent experience.
The reason for this is manifold, but primarily it is because listening isn’t treated as a skill. I have been in many workshops where a facilitator will say “listening is really important” and then move on. It is as if just by saying the word ‘listening’, they have imparted the skill to actually do it effectively. Listening effectively is hard and, like any other skill, it takes patience and practice.
I have been in many workshops where a facilitator will say “listening is really important” and then move on. It is as if just by saying the word ‘listening’, they have imparted the skill to actually do it effectively.
Listening isn’t just an aural skill; it’s visual too. Anyone who has had a brush with a fitness regime will have heard the phrase ‘listen to your body’. Well, we can ‘listen’ to other people by watching their bodies and physicality too. I’d put money on Tony’s physicality whilst in a restaurant as possessing some (if not all) of the following traits: slightly hunched shoulders, neck curved, minimal eye contact and knees close together. By listening to his physicality alone, I am definitely not going to crouch down table-side – a pet hate that Tony and I both share. His voice too would give off key signals about how he prefers to be communicated with. The trouble with all of this is, if we’re not listening effectively, the signals have no receiver.
At Hop, we spend a lot of time focusing on listening skills, and how—with practice—it can become an art. One of our favourite theories is called The Three Levels of Listening.
Level 1: Listening to Speak
A great example of this can be seen every Wednesday during Prime Minister’s Questions. It’s the lowest form of listening where our own agenda and argument is paramount and that of our opponents is secondary. It is characterised by repeated interruptions, trying to talk louder than the other person and either giving too much or very little eye contact. Although we may physically hear the words, there is only a basic comprehension of them.
Level 2: Listening to Hear
At this level we see a modest improvement; we physically hear what the other person is saying, we don’t interrupt and we maintain the right amount of eye contact. However, we begin to drift off, getting caught up in our own thoughts, whilst we wait for them to stop so we can have our turn. A good example of this is when you phone up a service provider with a complaint. You state very clearly what the problem is, how it has affected you and what you’d like them to do about it, and only once you’ve gone through the entire rigmarole, the customer service rep pipes up with… “Can I have your account number please?”
Level 3: Listening to Understand
This is where we need to be – not only to provide excellent customer service, but also to be a good listener in general, to our friends and family. We physically hear what the other person is saying, we don’t interrupt, we maintain the right amount of eye contact and crucially we comprehend and acknowledge what is being said. In essence, we show them we have listened. We can do this by playing back some of the things they have said, or by using pause, and/or asking an open question, which signals comprehension and a desire for more information.
This approach to effective listening is what helped Super 8 groups Kiln win Restaurant of the Year. In truth it has helped all of our clients, from the all conquering Wagamama to Michelin Star winning Brat, because effective listening is a democracy.
Perhaps, just by reading this, I have piqued your listening awareness. Yet I’m in danger of becoming a hypocrite here – a facilitator who says, “I now present you with the Three Levels of Listening”, before promptly finishing his article.
Luckily, our workshops are a little longer than 778 words – and much more effective.
Thanks for listening…
Training Director, Hop Training Ltd
Ed is the Training Director at Hop Training Ltd. Working primarily in the hospitality industry, Hop helps clients improve their customer service offering by combining a wealth of knowledge from the worlds of hospitality, training and acting. They operate across the sector and boast a wide range of clients, including well-known high street brands and some of the best independent restaurants in the UK.