Are you really listening?

Yay BooHave you ever been in a conversation with someone, and while the other person is talking, you’re more focused on what you’re going to say next than on what they’re saying to you? If we are honest with ourselves, I think we’d confess that we do this more often than we’d like.

This phenomenon occurs not just in interpersonal relationships, but also at the corporate level. All too often, businesses carry on one-sided conversations with their customers, pushing information out instead of looking for ways to listen and create meaningful dialogues. For businesses, creating dialogue and listening well takes a little creativity, because in most instances, corporate conversations aren’t just happening in person, but rather through marketing, advertising, news media and, more recently, social media.

Harnessing the power of social media to listen more effectively to your customers might be one of the most important things your company can do to better engage with the community. The number of online conversations taking place in any given hour, on any given topic, is staggering and only continues to grow. At Microsoft, we’re making it a priority to be a part of these conversations and find out who’s driving them, what they’re about, and what they mean for our products and services.

For example, we use rich social media analytics to analyze 15,000 Microsoft product and technology related articles per day across numerous blogs and 600 forum locations on MSDN, TechNet, Microsoft Answers, and Expression web sites. We don’t leave out industry and third-party properties either, and pay close attention to Twitter, Facebook and other forums.

Another approach that has helped us gain better insight into what our customers are saying and thinking is engaging with influencers in the community. Your industry leaders can be powerful vessels of communication, since they’re passionate about what matters to your company, interact with your key audiences daily, and often are more than willing to give you feedback, both positive and critical, on your services or solutions.

Don’t shy away from influencers because they might tell you something you don’t want to hear. Make an effort to get to know them and use their knowledge and feedback for good. About 18 years ago, we started something called the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) Award Program, through which we honor and thank exceptional technical community leaders, give them early access to our products and encourage their highly-focused feedback.

Our MVPs aren’t just industry thought leaders, though. They’re also individuals with a natural propensity to serve and help IT users maximize the value of their technology. They’re the friends and neighbors you call when you don’t know what that pop-up window on your computer means, how to upgrade your operating system, or need tips on creating a better PowerPoint deck. Since they’re already listening to the community, we want to be alongside them, learn about what they’re hearing from IT users and use that information to create a better customer experience.

Of course, how your company decides to listen all depends on factors like size, industry and customer base. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution or tactic, but the principle remains the same, whether your company makes cars, plans parties or sells paper towels. At the end of the day, people want to be heard, much more than they want to be talked to. You might just be surprised by what you hear if you really listen.

Writer Bio:
Toby Richards is general manager of Community & Online Support within Microsoft Customer Service and Support, which provides customer service and support solutions worldwide. To learn more about Microsoft’s MVP Award Program, please visit or read our blog at Visit to experience one of Microsoft’s most popular forums, Microsoft Answers.

photo credit: Mike Licht,