What is your marketing talk-listen ratio?

There is an old adage that we have two ears and one mouth and should behave in proportion – listening twice as much as we speak.  Some communications experts argue this is an understatement and we should adopt the rule lis-Ten – if we truly want to understand the person we are with, health the talk-listen ratio should be 1:10.  Being listened to makes people feel good – it signifies to them that they are interesting and what they have to say is valued.  Imbued with the confidence this brings they reveal more about their beliefs and feelings.  It is no surprise then that successful sales people are frequently described as great listeners.

The success of companies which have prioritized spending on understanding customers’ needs ahead of spending on advertising – Zappos being the latest exemplar – suggests that such a rule has some validity in the corporate world.  In essence, bronchi the more you listen to customers, medicine the better you will serve them and the more they will sing your praises – do your marketing for you.

This raises the question, should companies calculate and monitor a marketing talk-listen ratio – compare the amount spent on listening to customers to understand their needs with the amount spent on telling them what the company has to offer them?

This raises the question as to what the ratio should be.  The 1:2 (or 1:10) ratio appropriate with a single conversant is obviously not valid in a corporate context (unless the business just has one customer).  The ratio should differ according to the number of customers a business can have.  The bigger the potential customer base, the more it can sample when listening – a benefit that does not play out when talking.  As a result the ratio will differ by sector and business size.  For example, a bank with millions of customers should have a higher ratio of talking to listening than a supplier of braking systems to automotive OEMs which may have less than twenty.

Some may argue that such a measure will be meaningless without any benchmarks to relate it to.  Computing the ratios of different companies and comparing those which score highly for customer service with those that score less well would yield interesting insights.  But its absence does not render an individual company’s measurement invalid.  Firstly it can be put in context by a trend over time – is the ratio declining or falling?  Secondly the calculation itself is valuable, both to raise awareness of the value of listening and to encourage thought about what the appropriate balance should be.

Inputs to the talk side of the calculation would ideally include:

  • Expenditure on advertising, direct marketing and promotional activities
  • Staff costs of all marketing personnel working on outbound communications

Inputs for the listening side of the calculation should include:

  • Expenditure on market research
  • Staff costs of marketing personnel involved in customer insight collection
  • Staff costs of teams involved in all customer-facing analytics activities – analyzing web-site traffic, social media, interaction and transaction histories

Theoretically the calculation should encompass all customer-facing functions, not just marketing.  It would allocate the time spent by sales and service teams to listening and talking buckets – whether on the phone, face-to-face or reading and responding to emails.  But this would be time-consuming.  More importantly, communication in these areas is more 1-2-1 and more naturally a two-way process.  If a listening deficit exists, it will typically be in marketing where communication is more often a monologue than a dialogue (an example of which is ‘marketing communications’ being exclusively about outbound messaging.)

The amount spent on listening reflects the importance attributed to understanding customers and their needs.  In this context, the talk-listen ratio is a measure of customer-centricity.  Every business needs to create value for its customers as a precursor to extracting value from them, but too often the first part of this balancing act is forgotten due to the pressures of short-term business performance and innate self-interest.  The result is greater focus on what’s in it for us than what is in it for customers.  The more customers seem to accept this, the more complacent a business can become until the imbalance opens up opportunities for competitors.  The talk-listen ratio is a rough and ready way of measuring the relative emphasis being placed by marketing teams on value creation and extraction.

As individuals we communicate more effectively when we listen more.  But most of us have a preference for talking and we find listening hard, as anyone who has participated in an active listening exercise will attest.  And it is only when presented with incontrovertible evidence about our natural inclinations that we can start the process of changing.

I would suggest that the same is true of businesses.   If a business is to succeed, its marketing function needs to be as much the ears of the organization as the mouth.  Calculating a talk-listen ratio is a first step in ensuring this is the case. 

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About Jack Springman

I am a consultant with experience in business strategy and customer strategy development, customer management and customer service transformation.

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