Listening: the ultimate form of strategy

IS IT I or have we created a culture in South Africa where people learn not to understand, question, ponder and critique, but rather be able to recall later when required to.

It is almost as if critical thinking is no longer a business imperative.

So we start a business, develop a product, draft a strategy, hire a team, go to market and implement some accounting software to help us manage it; all often without paying attention to whether or not we have an in-built “listening and adaptive” culture in our businesses.

Time to remain relevant

Markets change. Consumers evolve. Competitors adapt. We have to be able to listen to these so that we can remain relevant.

This is not only difficult, but counter-intuitive for those seeking rationalisation, scale and efficiencies.

The very idea that we must be adaptive and ever-changing means that we can’t afford to build a set of competencies from which we simply plough down a certain market, blind to the change of the market and the players therein.

If you are an entrepreneur in business today, you have a single strategic ally, which is your proximity to the truth. You are closer than most to the customer and the market, so you can feel out the pulse of your environment and act quickly.

Here are three tips on how to “listen” as a strategy:

1. Follow the money

When customers walk past your store and buy at your competition next door, follow them.

Find out why they are taking their business to your competition.

Often the answer to that question belies some insight that is hard to digest: a process we need to dump, pricing we need to rethink or a new product we need to add.

Customers are not loyal to you, your business, your brand, your service or your history with them. They are loyal to their needs.

A person who fulfills those needs most conveniently and cheaply will win.

2. Believe the hype

When a new entrant enters your market and you hear your target market speaking about them amid much fan-fair, don’t wish them away or ignore them: listen, learn, adapt and act.

New entrants present an amazing opportunity for those of us often too close to the wheel to rethink why and how we do things.

They are a great opportunity to accentuate our services and differentiate our offering, so that we remain relevant in the lives of our customers.

I don’t like new entrants, but do enjoy the analytical process of understanding their core value proposition and then answering the question: “why are we better?”

3. Be humble, but aware

Feedback from the customers is often unpalatable.

It is like Oros served not having been diluted. It is sweet and sour at the same time. It is difficult to swallow and even harder to digest.

But he who is willing to engage with the customer and get that feedback wins the sustainability war.

To listen, we must first intend to hear. To hear, we must be open to learning. To learn, we must humble ourselves to the idea that we don’t have all the answers.

As Ashish Thakkar, the youngest African billionaire would caution: “The minute your arrogance or ego sets in, it’s over”.

* Vusi Thembekwayo is a business speaker who empowers his audience with research findings, models and tools that they can immediately apply in their business or careers to achieve “leapfrog” results. See http://vusi.co.za for more information.