Listening to Customers: 5 Ways to Start Right Now

stubborn dogs

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I walked into a men’s boutique one day and a young woman lurched out from a four-way rack with a small flier telling me how the whole store was now 40% off.  She then asked how I was and what I was looking for that day...all in one breath.

You could smell the desperation of this once-popular brand. I left.

You don’t have to be much of a listener to be an order taker. If all we had to do was ask our customers what they were looking for, then listen to their response and just take them to the product, anyone could do it.   

In many ways, that’s what Amazon does in its warehouses. It’s also why so many retailers are struggling.

If you want to get the big sales, loyal customers, and real buzz people share with their friends, you and your crew better learn how to communicate with strangers.

That starts with a better job of listening to customers

When you do that well, you hear opportunities where most retailers don’t.

Quite simply, we’ve all become passive listeners. Our ears are letting the information in, but it stops there.

It’s like being at a sports bar talking to a buddy with one eye on the game. The sound from the TV may be getting to your ears, but you aren’t processing it unless someone says, “Did you just hear that?”

At that point, your brain tries to rewind what the ears heard.

Swiss Listening

Passive listening is listening without reacting - there is nothing expected from you.

As a result, the information going to the processing part of the brain is filled with holes. For that reason, I call it Swiss Listening.

When you are Swiss Listening, the stream of information is not complete. The brain tries to do its best by assuming what the other person must be saying from the words coming in.

In both cases, you’re just hearing the words, not processing what they mean. You're not connecting the words to a person, an activity, or something directly affecting you.

On the other hand, actively listening to customers sends a message that you care what the other person says.

Think of a time you were trying to hear someone at a loud concert or crowded mall. You intentionally made yourself focus on your hearing and connected it to a purpose.

You wanted the details, the emotions. You connected the words your ears heard through to your brain so it could process the information and respond to it.

You were actively listening. You were engaged in two-way communication. Active listening is the foundation of relationship building. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make it happen.

Here are five ways to listen better before trying to sell


One of the first things is not to allow yourself to get distracted when you are listening to someone. When we miss something, we get embarrassed and cover it up by asking a question.

The problem is customers don’t like to repeat themselves. Look at their faces, watch their expressions, and wait until they are finished talking.


Listen for the keywords in what the other person is saying. Ask yourself, “What is most pressing about this situation?”  

When you do that, you’ll hear the critical words that help you solve their problem. That lets you personalize the interaction.


To ensure the customer knows you understand them, restate what you think you heard them say. When you check for your own comprehension, it helps make your exchange more human.

It lets the other person relax. In a world that doesn’t seem to care – they know you heard them correctly.

Show it

How can another person know you are actively listening to them?

  • You make eye contact
  • You lean in just a bit
  • You nod your head

You will be listening to the spoken words and to the tone and inflection to tell what emotion they have about the subject. This will help you understand their exact circumstances and respond accordingly.

When listening to customers, make sure to wait patiently for them to finish.

Don't get ahead of yourself

There’s only one thing not to do: to be talking yourself while the other person is speaking.

You do that because you want to try to fix something quickly, which may or may not be what is needed.

Sometimes, people just want to get their thoughts all out.

You want to avoid crafting any kind of response to what the person says until you’ve confirmed you understand what they said.

See also: 10 Non-Negotiables Customers Expect When Visiting A Store

Active listening is the foundation of making a real connection 

In your personal life, you don’t want to be that person who just waits for the other person to stop talking so you can talk again. 

I mean…do you?

In a retail store, the first skill you need to master actively listening to customers so you can properly react, restate, and encourage your customer to engage with you. 

Your ability to actively listen when someone is talking to you must come from your own personal discipline. 

Miss that key skill to actively listen, and whatever sales training you give them will be worthless.

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