Are brands really listening?

If there’s a marketing buzzword in 2010, it’s probably “listening”. Companies are trying to engage with their customers. They’re being told that they have to monitor, track, and join the conversations that are taking place across social media channels every single day.

They’re setting up alerts, monitoring keywords, and even investing in listening tools, such as Radian 6 or Sysomos. Why? To find those elusive customer insights into what their target market thinks, feels and desires.

After all, social media means a revolution in market research. You no longer have to go out and conduct very expensive research to find out what people want. They’re online, in social channels, shouting it loudly and clearly for anyone to hear. All brands need to do is to listen to those needs, and respond to them. Right?

Well, that’s the theory, anyway. But in practice, it sometimes seems like the more information brands have about their customers’ wants and needs, the further they get from responding to them. Why is it, with companies trying so hard to fill customer needs, and people trying so hard to buy what they need, that there’s still such a disconnect between what people want and what brands are selling?

Are brands really listening to their customers? Or are they only looking for what they want to hear?

I spent three hours this afternoon running from one store to the next to look for a new pot. Specifically, I needed to replace my old 3L saucepan after a small mishap with steaming broccoli in too little water, which I won’t get into. Simple, right?

Actually, not so simple, as it turns out. The cookware company has an extensive website promoting its products, a Facebook page, and a handy “where to buy” application. However, after visiting five different stores on the list, I was forced to conclude that it’s impossible to buy just the pot I was looking for, since every single one of them only sold it as part of an 8- or 12-piece set. I returned home empty-handed.

This is hardly the first time that this has happened. Last week, I went to buy a favourite cosmetic product, only to find out that it had been discontinued. I had a back-and-forth exchange last week with the customer service representative of a retail chain, who explained that the product I was looking for was only sold online, but that their website did not ship to Canada (even though the stores are located everywhere here).

We’ve all been there. In a world full of “buy-it-now” storefronts, advertisements and promotions, the frustration of trying to find the one thing we need and simply cannot seem to locate.

The trouble with having so much information readily available and accessible is that it makes it easy for companies to self-filter. Like a child putting his fingers in his ear and saying “la la la” to tune out anything he doesn’t want to hear, it seems like brands are increasingly engaging in selective listening. That is, if it fits with the existing plans, then great. If not, then it gets ignored, written off as not in the plans, as the voice of the wrong consumer.

To be fair, companies aren’t around to satisfy an audience of one. What I
want isn’t the same as what you want, and might not be the same as what
the person down the street – or in China – wants. It’s simply not economically viable for companies to respond to each and every individual customer need. After all, if asked, every person will say they want the highest quality products and services at the lowest prices. Companies need to be able to make a profit, too. And then there’s the ever-present problem of the difference between what people say they want and what they really want. So no, I don’t think that listening necessarily implies giving every person exactly what they say they want.

But the brands that are doing this well – the ones who really get it – are those who understand that when you invite feedback, you can’t always predict what it’s going to look like. And that, even if you can’t satisfy every single customer request or demand, you should at least make an attempt to validate them. They’re the brands that are open-minded enough to recognize that the conversation may not sound exactly like they thought it would. And that this doesn’t mean catastrophe, but opportunity. They’re the ones willing to adapt.

It’s one thing to hear. It’s another to actively listen. The trick is to know the difference.