In Lab - Archive


Franco Marzo



To be a market leader today, “good products” or  “good services” are not enough. Today’s leaders create new business models. That is how Google, Facebook, Zalando, Yoox and Blablacar were born.

Franco Marzo - smart management Coaching & business development


What is listening?

 If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? The English philosopher George Barkley, used this paradox to express the view  that reality is not objective and that any of its manifestations are subjective to the viewer or listener. We start from here to address an issue that is close to our hearts. After considering the four pillars of Western music, tone, rhythm, melody and harmony, we now deal with what justifies producing any kind of music; listening! Without someone who listens, music would not exist, yet, as we have seen in previous articles, when it is well organized,  music is able to transmit ideas and intense emotions. In our metaphor music permeates everything, from what we produce (sounds or noises?) to how we produce it (in-tune or off-key?). However, even listening permeates everything, from what we produce to the feedback we get from our immediate surroundings. We are constantly surrounded by sounds. It is our responsibility to understand all the factors that affect our business. The entrepreneur’s listening is always focused, aimed at detecting any signal related to the achievement of his goals: threats, opportunities, obstacles, confirmations, proofs and progress. Listening is the ability to gather all the responses even in its most subtle form. Trust, perseverance, despair, joy, fear, anguish and  happiness often depend on them. Listening is a real art. It is no coincidence therefore that throughout the centuries refined systems have been developed to help us  listen to music. Up until the end of the 19th century, listening to music could only be performed during live shows, either you were physically present at the event or you could not listen to anything.

With the advent of the radio and then the gramophone, music suddenly spread to a wider audience. The reproduction though was not all that faithful and music lovers suffered greatly. Soon after, more sophisticated technology was developed, magnetic tapes, CDs, stereo, HI-FIs, Dolby surround all the way to the modern I-pod. Why all this technology? Obvious – “clearer sound, better listening”.

But why all the trouble just to listen to some piece of music? Mies van der Rohe, great German-American architect, talking to Goethe once said that “God is in the details”. So we will try to analyze how good listening can help us detect those weak signals that can lead us to make one decision rather than another, and be the difference between success and failure.

A Dolby surround system is an evocative musical metaphor since it places the listener "in the center of the theater" and allows him to hear sounds coming from all directions. To this we must add his ability to listen to  himself as well as his own organizational environment. Therefore, this presentation will be divided in four brief sections:

  1. Inner voice listening
  2. Listening in business organization
  3. External response (customer satisfaction)
  4. Listening to what isn’t said (changing scenarios)


Inner voice listening                                                    

The first secret to effective listening relates to us and our ability to place ourselves in a non-judgmental position, detached and emotionally neutral. We must avoid listening to only what we like or what makes us comfortable. Mind you, there is no conflict with passion, a fundamental requirement in any enterprise, but rather it refers to the ability to master it. Listening requires calm and concentration, just like when we decide to sit in an armchair and listen to our favorite music or go to a concert. Listening requires a suitable environment free from background noises as well as control and self-discipline. Let’s say you have an employee who respects you very much. You are happy about this, he never contradicts you and that suits you as you can always rely on his support. When someone challenges you, he takes your side, showing a great sense of responsibility and business sense. Now sit down, put your "headset" on and “listen to him”; do so every now and then: does he work? Does he produce good results? What about goals, does he achieve them? How many ideas did he come up with recently? Does he teams up with his colleagues? Does he put himself on the line when it is necessary? Does he take the blame or the fault always lies with “the market” or someone else?

Non-judgmental listening, does not mean that nothing is being evaluated, quite the opposite in fact. Judgment is an opinion, while an evaluation is the result of an objective analysis taking into account: Data, numbers, deadlines and results. Some "headphones" are capable of letting you appreciate even the lightest sounds and you do not need to buy them, they already are in your possession, just sit back, relax, ask questions, observe and listen.


Listening in a business organization

Listening in a business organization on the other hand, relates to the company atmosphere , the air you breathe in the company, in short the organization. We know that humans are perfectly able to get used to just about anything: noise, chaos, smelly environments, conflicts, controversies, discussions, inefficiency. Is what is happening around you what you really want? The music you really want to play? If not, take the time to “get off the stage” and mingle with the public. Are the sales agents treating the customers as you wish? And the employees? Do they help each other or are they at war? Do you see smiling faces or is cursing the norm? What is the impression they give about the company? Are they all playing the same tune or is someone playing Vivaldi’s “The Four Season” and someone else Verdi’s “Requiem”? Take the time to get out of your office, walk through the company, go where relationships with customers and suppliers are built or broken, smell the air and hear the sounds. Success and failure can often depend on the company’s atmosphere.

But listening in a business organization relates also to the overall performance, the sound, the intensity, the harmony. What is being produced, what arrives to the public, is it really what you had planned?

 An important concept, borrowed from the musical world, that has developed in recent years, relates to “the public”. Up until the 90s it was all about customers. Nowadays the customer is no longer the center of the universe, but rather, there is a great talk about stakeholders, namely people who will directly or indirectly affect your business: customers of course, but also employees, suppliers, shareholders, local institutions and so forth. Just as in a real theater or auditorium, an audience is not made up of fans only. There are critics, managers, competitors, suppliers. Everyone is entitled to get the best. For this reason at a concert, right in the center of the stadium, theater or music hall a sound engineer with a large mixer is entrusted to provide feedback to the musicians. In a company (not surprisingly) this can be called auditing and management control, a system of indicators that will reveal the performance of all those factors that can contribute to the success or failure of our "concert".


External response (customer satisfaction)                     

Is your music appreciated or not? Thinking only in terms of turnover is not enough to understand your company’s impact on the market. A variety of signals have to be taken into account. If your turnover increases, it means that your “music” (product/service) has been appreciated. But has it grown because your “audience” as grown as well or because you have improved? Are you selling more or have you simply raised your prices? Due to the exchange rate or the quality of the product? Due to a lack of competition or because you have edged ahead? Is it product innovation or the brand image you have consolidated in your area over the years? The situation here is rather complex and requires careful “listening” to all the signals coming from the current economic scenario. What has changed in the last 12 months? The factors can be potentially infinite. Hence you have to decide what to listen to, which data deserves more than the usual attention. What do you want to be known for, quick lead-time or competitive price? Product innovation or quality? For the personal relationship you have with your customers or productivity? There are many different kinds of music and ultimately it’s the musician that chooses what to play. Entrepreneurs too need to do something similar. Position yourself, discover which is your distinctive character, choose your audience and try to serve it to the fullest.

And here is where listening to those who come to hear you play comes into the picture. Musicians are very sensitive to the mood of the audience and listen carefully not only to the rounds of applause but also when they are being booed, the audience participation or its indifference. This sense of perception  is not really technical but very emotional, it is necessary in order to empathize and share the same emotions. Many years ago when I worked at Volvo, it was called "care", an English word which means displaying interest, paying attention to something or someone. Many entrepreneurs have entrusted this perception to customer satisfaction surveys. That is why over time I became skeptical. Far too many times have I seen complacent investigations and self-gratifying results. Information gathered directly  in the field are much more realistic. Are complaints falling and spontaneous manifestations of appreciation growing? How many new customers are the result of word-of-mouth? Customers leave with a smile? The web invented the "like" button, and you? Be inspired by the applause, it’s spontaneous, immediate, simple and costs nothing. Mingle with the “spectators”  listening to their comments, you will get many useful ideas.



What isn’t said (changing scenarios)

 A few years ago a book by P. Drucker caught my attention stating that often we know everything about our audience, which represents 3% of the population at best, and almost nothing of the remaining part of the population that isn’t part of our audience, the remaining 97%. At first, it seemed a rather bizarre statement, but it actually pointed to the fact that musicians possess and use their listening skills to improve their art. Active non-judgmental listening without a specific purpose, just for pleasure! When short of inspiration musicians, but generally all artists, leave their comfort zone, traveling, visiting other cities and cultures, trying new genres. They do not know exactly what they want, they simply look for new stimuli, contaminations. The corporate world works the same way. Treat yourselves to some Active non-focused listening. Visit your customers’ companies, ask what tools they use, listen to a bit of their “music" too. You know they “play” other kinds of music but it does not matter, they will offer you valuable insights. A client of mine told me of an initiative in which a number of entrepreneurs in a specific location organized site visits to their respective companies. He saw things he had never seen before, saw new machines, met new customers and "international players", not to mention  products. He came out motivated and full of new ideas. To become good at your kind of “music” you need to listen to all kinds of music. Jazz, rock, funk, hip-hop and other great musical innovations, all stem from the contamination of different genres. To be a market leader today, “good products” or  “good services” are not enough. Today’s leaders create new business models. That is how Google, Facebook, Zalando, Yoox and Blablacar were born.

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