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Dialogue vs. discussion: Are you listening to your customers?

Dialogue vs. discussion: Are you listening to your customers?

Because the people attracted most strongly to IT professions are people who like structure, rules, and predictability, they tend to excel at carrying on discussions: telling people about CRM capabilities, persuading them to follow protocols, justifying and defending strategies, and gaining agreement.

However, these strengths often interfere with their ability to spend more time listening than speaking, to seek understanding before agreement, and to value learning and cooperating more than persuading and competing. Learning to "dialogue" (Greek: "dia" and "logos" which means "through meaning") may require changing some assumptions you have about communication or polishing some skills you haven't used for awhile.

Unlike computers, we have a tendency to filter what we hear because of our assumptions about the sender, as well as our need to protect ourselves from criticism and support our opinion. So, the message sent is rarely the same as the message received. This human characteristic makes it all that more important to seek feedback from the sender.

Andrew Garman, Director, Center for Health Care Entrepreneurship, Rush University, recommends that when a customer �- internal or external -- communicates with you, one good technique for improving your listening is to reflect what they've said back to them.

"Summarizing or paraphrasing what you've heard is a good way to verify the accuracy of the message," Garman said. "The act, itself, requires that you work on the message cognitively, so it will be harder for you to kick it out and pretend it didn't happen."

How you act upon the customer's communication, though, speaks louder than any words you can say. "IS departments need to make sure there's a fat pipeline for customer feedback to come back to the IT folks � that it's not filtered in terms of what people want to hear, but undiluted," Garman said. "They need to set up formal mechanisms such as weekly staff meetings for reviewing customer requests and problems and dealing with them."

What's most meaningful is doing something about the problem and getting back to the customer to explain what was done. Garman added -- "Don't just fix the problem, tell them that it was fixed and take credit for it. If you decide not to address the problem, communicate the reasons for that, too. They will have a more favorable response if you tell them 'why' rather than not telling them at all."

Linda Gail Christie is a contributing editor based in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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