June 1, 2013
Listening: On the Road to Success


When I was twelve years old, my father would ask in a rather loud voice, “Are you listening? Are-you-listening?” He would pronounce each word with distinction. “Yeah, yeah,” I would respond, “I heard you.”

Many years later, I fully understand that listening is a difficult skill to master. Speaking comes more easily. In spite of its difficulty, listening is a skill set and a useful tool that we need to develop, if we wish to be successful.

There is the adage, “God gave us two ears and one mouth because he wanted us to listen twice as much as we speak.” If only I could remember to follow God’s design and place my tongue on lockdown.

Listening helps us to be successful because we need to hear, to learn and to incorporate. If we take the time and effort to listen, we realize that customers are telling us most of the information we need to know. The problem many of us have is that sometimes we are too busy talking or selling to hear what a customer really wants and is prepared to buy.

Nothing is more misunderstood by the home gardener than fertilizer. To the average gardener, it is a confusing subject. On the other hand, we in the trade take classes on NPK; we discuss it amongst ourselves at great lengths and we read articles in trade journals. All of us have strong opinions on what works best.
Customers will tell us what they really want to buy, if we take the time to listen.
A gardener walks in to your garden centre. She wants fertilizer. She could buy it at any number of box stores, but she came to her local garden centre because we are the perceived experts. The gardener engages us, and we immediately launch into a ten minute lecture on fertilizer analysis, micro nutrients and added ingredients.

Now the gardener is really confused. All she wanted was something to make her tomatoes grow; instead, she received an entry level chemistry lecture (or as I prefer to call it, gobbledygook). Most gardeners want assurances the fertilizer that the garden centre is recommending is the right one to make their plants happy. It is similar to when I ask my pharmacist for a cough medicine. I don’t need the rundown on everything that is in it. I want him to hand me the bottle and say, “This is the best medicine for what you have.” There is a caveat here: Before handing me the bottle, the pharmacist asks me several questions, in order to select the most appropriate medicine for me; and to do that requires listening.

As I mentioned earlier, listening is hard work. I used to coach at a local boxing club. One evening I had 10 kids in the ring with me, working on sparring techniques. Half the kids were boys and half were girls. When you work with a mixed-gender class, you soon realize boys have more difficulty listening than girls. The boys were busy looking around the gym and up at the ceiling. They were not paying attention to me until I said, “Listening is hard work, isn’t it?” That caught their attention and they nodded in agreement, “Yeah.” I hope we have all moved beyond that stage.

Customers will tell us what they really want to buy, if we take the time to listen. I learned a long time ago that when selling a landscape project, the key is to forget the jargon. What the customer really wants is to hear you say, “I will make it look really nice. This will be a backyard you can enjoy.” Sell what is important. Enjoyment is much more sought after than spirea, albeit spirea is a part of that enjoyment.

Four years ago I was in the surgical suite of our local hospital. I had to go under for an hour, so the surgeon could carry out his job. The anaesthetist said to me, just before he put me into a deep sleep, “I want you to take a deep breath and relax. I am going to take really good care of you.” Now, that is what I wanted to hear. I was going to be looked after. I didn’t need to know the names of the drugs he was going to use or where he did his residency or how many kids he had at home. I needed to know that I was going to be okay, in his capable hands. Perhaps I should have hired him to sell trees for me.
Sometimes, we complicate things for ourselves. My long-time friend, Heinz Wiffel, owned Wascana Greenhouse and Nursery. Heinz said it best when he told me, “I know too much to make a great salesman.” Heinz said a customer would come into his nursery and ask, “Does this plant get bugs?” Good question. Heinz, with his years of experience, knew that most plants do attract one insect or another over their lifetime. He found it hard to resist offering a lecture titled “Bugs 101.” He realized, usually after the fact, that what he needed to say was, “This plant has very few insect problems and if you plant it today, you will enjoy it for many years to come.” Sometimes we talk ourselves out of a sale rather than into one. As Heinz said, “I know too much.” I would like to add, “I talk too much when I should be listening.”

When I read my books, my financial statements, I realize those numbers are telling me a story, if I am prepared to listen. Yes, I know I am making money on certain products, but I am not making money on all products, nor am I profitable in every area. Some days, I am working for free; most of us prefer not to have too many of those days. When I listen to my numbers, I am more successful than if I ignore them. Your books are telling you a story. Those pay no attention to these accounting stories usually suffer from their ignorance.

Listening to employees is equally important. It is also misunderstood. Too often, an employee of value to the company will be in the boss’s office with a litany of complaints. In order to address this dissatisfaction, the boss will offer an increase in salary. The employee leaves feeling better, for a short while, and the boss thinks the problem has been resolved.

If only life were that simple. Inadequate salary is not the number one reason for employee dissatisfaction. It is usually number four or five on the list. The number one reason for dissatisfaction is when employees feel their work is not important or not recognized for its value to the comany. You need to tell your employees they are appreciated, that they are doing a good job and they are important to the company. All those things are “touchy/feely” as opposed to the hard core math of salary and benefits, but “touchy/feely” is of greater importance.

I know this idea might be contentious to some readers. I get that. Here is my view on appreciation. I have had many customers over the course of 35 years. Those who spoke kindly to me, complimenting me on how a job was turning out, always got better service than those who were critical. I had customers who would bring us coffee at 10 a.m. and lemonade at 3 p.m., with cookies for the crew. They would offer a compliment regarding the brick work or perhaps mention how lovely the newly planted rose was blooming. Rest assured, those customers always got the extras and the special attention for no other reason than it feels good to be appreciated. No one enjoys working for a customer who is a grouch, telling you to hurry up with the work and reminding you that, “I’m not paying you to stand around.” If we can avoid a customer who is a glorified Grinch, then we will do so. The same is true for your employees. If they feel what they do is important and that it is appreciated, they will come to work with a more positive attitude.

Listening, while appearing to be a simple skill or task, is much more difficult than we think. Before I wrap up this column, I should tell you that my wife walked into my writing room and read what I have written. She snorted, “You are not an expert on listening; you realize that, don’t you?” The woman has caught me on many occasions pretending to listen, which apparently is not the same thing. 

If the three rules of success in real estate are “location, location, location,” then I am confident the three rules of success in business are “listening, responding, listening.” Listen to stay on the road to success.

Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.