What does it mean to “listen” in a business context? It means paying attention to what’s going on around you: to what your colleagues are doing, what your customers are doing, what’s happening in the wider marketplace—and to understand what you’re hearing so that you can decide the best way to capitalize on it. It’s what renowned jazz musician Nathan Haines calls empathy: “Empathy is very, very important [in jazz]. It’s like when you have a conversation you have to listen and you don’t talk over people. You can’t play over people. 

Listening is something you are doing before you are out there in the marketplace or before you execute a new strategy. It’s what you do to build up your new strategy.

Listening and awareness, is about paying attention to what’s happening in the moment and anticipating what is likely to happen in the next moment in order to decide how best to capitalize on your knowledge and planning: should you, for example, leverage something that’s working, or pivot away from something that is not working? Listening is what you’re doing once you’re in the thick of things and trying to make them work.

Listening is what makes great jazz great. And the same applies to business.

But listening is difficult because there’s inevitably a lot of noise. This is why the foundations are so important. Only if your business principles and your values are clear, and your value proposition is measurable, will you have a reference by which to evaluate any external noise that you hear, such as what your competitors are doing, and decide whether it matters, whether it’s significant to your business and whether it will stand in the way of delivering your value proposition.

It isn’t just about reacting to what’s happening around you—it’s about reacting to what’s happening around you given your firm’s foundation: a purpose, a reservoir of knowledge, and a plan. If you listen without any context, then you have no way to know what’s relevant and what’s not, what’s a big issue and what’s a small issue. That can destroy an organization. Part of listening is knowing what not to listen to.

A crucial thing to listen to is your customers. What I want to stress here is that it’s an ongoing process of listening: to high level data that tells you about what they’re doing, to market research and focus groups, and especially to anecdotal research from your sales staff and your own efforts that will give you a deeper, more nuanced understanding of what they want, why they buy, and how they actually use your product.

In the past, listening to your customers was often difficult and expensive. Most of what you got from traditional market research was retrospective in nature. If you’re in a fast-moving business and you want to be able to make moves quickly—to improvise—you want more immediate feedback. 

Today, thankfully, it’s easier to listen to your customers than ever before. Social media, blogging, and survey tools like SurveyMonkey allow you to gain quick insight into how your customer thinks, while new methodologies such as Net Promoter Score have made it easier to zero in on the feedback that matters most. You can learn quickly and respond quickly. But don’t forget: so can your competitors, which means you have to learn quickly and respond quickly. That requires a commitment to listening and awareness.

A great example of a company who shows this commitment is the eyeglass upstart Warby Parker. Founded in 2010 it has been shaking up not only their own industry but also the wider retailing sector.

The company’s founders started by learning everything they could about the eyeglass market which is controlled by Luxottica who enjoy a near-monopoly and consequently keep prices high. They also focused on the needs and desires of consumers like themselves, other Millennials, who are less interested in conspicuous consumption and have a desire to be associated with brands that convey strong ideals while being increasingly price sensitive post the GFC of 2008. Combining their learnings they decided to launch an online eyeglass company that would be the “Amazon of eyewear.

Their company grew quickly, and soon had yearly revenues of nearly a hundred million dollars. Crucially as they prospered the founders didn’t stop listening to the market, and in 2013, they launched brick and mortar retail locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. As co-founder Neil Blumenthal explained, “One of the things we’ve learned is that if you really want to be a dominant player, you need to have a presence in both online and brick-and-mortar. Especially in categories like fashion.” Blumenthal’s team didn’t remain dogmatic about their online strategy: they listened to the market.

So just how do you listen to customers or the market at large? Technology has transformed that part of business substantially. from the very basic at POP (point of purchase) to the very complex listening posts favored by many companies now.

Here are some of the more popular listening products out there that can be used to get more feedback from customers:

  • Radian6 – (now part of for enterprise
  • Google Alerts – an automated, entry level way to capture the most basic
  • HootSuite – a way to consolidate and manage social media accounts
  • IceRocket – good for understanding what blogs are saying about your business
  • SocialMention – a free tool to aggregate data across social platforms so you can track performance, plus get some basic positive or negative sentiment readings

I want to reiterate that there’s no substitute for senior management actually getting out there and talking to customers. They should be spending a lot of their time talking to customers, understanding what their issues are, trying hard to solve them, and then taking what they learn and building that into the next stage of the product or business strategy.