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Listening Is the Key to Becoming More Than Just Better Marketers


Pharmaceutical Executive

But how much better would our creative be if we took the time to really listen to what our clients are saying – and what they are not saying – rather than reading between the lines of an RFP?

We’ve all read articles addressing the question of how to be heard in the age of information. But while we’re all focused on being “heard,” many of us fail to address its essential complement: listening.

At a recent pharma meeting, I spoke with some pharmaceutical marketing executives about their experiences with their agencies and uncovered a common complaint: While their agencies spend dozens of hours demonstrating their ingenuity and creativity, especially during pitches, marketers themselves are frequently frustrated at the failure of these agencies to genuinely listen to what their clients are saying. In a market as fraught with regulatory challenges as healthcare, listening is absolutely vital – and a skill too often overlooked in favor of “wowing” a client with strategy or creative. We are busy showing and knowing rather than listening and learning.

Certainly creativity is essential to great agencies. When we pitch, we all invest huge amounts of time and money developing disruptive creative to differentiate ourselves, even though we know it'll never make it into a final campaign.  But how much better would our creative be if we took the time to really listen to what our clients are saying – and what they are not saying – rather than reading between the lines of an RFP? Do we really listen – and hear -- what our clients say? And how do these skills shape our long-term relationships?

To get some answers, we decided to commission a blind poll of 50 healthcare marketers in pharma, devices, medtech and biotech. The survey asked respondents what qualities they look for when selecting an agency, what they wish their agencies would do more and less of, their main criticisms of agencies, and what attributes lead to long client-agency relationships.

The survey, which covered issues of cost, creativity and timeliness/responsiveness, focused on listening -- both how well clients feel their agencies listen to them broadly, i.e., understanding their goals, concerns and knowledge of the market; and how well agencies listen to them individually, one-on-one. It also uncovered a glaring lapse in what clients define as their agencies’ ability to listen.

What we found wasn’t surprising, but it was of major significance. Respondents rated creativity as one of the top attributes they seek in an agency; after all, creativity is what brands get remembered for and agencies win prizes for. But the survey also revealed that what respondents want and value most, and what they returned again and again to throughout the survey, were qualities associated with listening and understanding.

In fact, in open-ended responses to the question about what leads to long-term agency relationships, the words "creative" and "creativity" popped up only three times. Yet words such as "listen," "understand," "communicate," "feedback," "response," "engagement," "insight" and "know" occurred in more than half of the responses.

Clearly, by understanding what we hear and qualifying it by what we learn from other sources, we can be more in sync with our clients, more responsive to their needs and better able to help them succeed.

To help us reinforce our ability to listen, a trademark of our agency, we came up with some guidelines that have helped us focus more intently on our clients’ needs, so we can hear – and give them -- what they really want and need, not what we think they want and need. Among the three most critical:


1. Clarify it. I believe the three most powerful words in the English language
are “I don’t know.” Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand or you don’t know the answer. You won’t look stupid; in fact, quite the opposite. Be open to being vulnerable about what you don’t know or understand – and then go about finding the answers. Ask more questions; your clients will appreciate it.

2. Say it back. Among the most valuable techniques for getting to the heart of the matter is repeating back what you think has been said. While you may be certain you understand the ideas being discussed, restating them in other words will confirm for everyone that you’re on the same page. Assuming you are, it will give the client that assurance; but if not, it’s an ideal opportunity for further discussion and clarification that will save you untold hours of time and money down the road. It will also instill greater confidence in your counsel, building greater trust between your organizations.

3. Provide feedback. Good listening is active listening, which requires probing, clarifying and providing feedback on the issues being discussed. Your clients don’t want a parrot; they want a partner that will help them develop smarter, better and more innovative solutions than they could have done alone.

Creativity is our currency. It is the price of entry in today’s competitive healthcare environment. Every successful agency has established some level of creative excellence, so that's not what will make or break a pitch or a business relationship. Listening and understanding is what agencies can do better, and there's hard evidence that healthcare marketers want us to.

In the end, it appears that the observation by Ralph G. Nichols, the "father of listening research," holds true: The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. And the best way to understand people is to listen to them.

Nancy Beesley is partner and chief strategy officer of HCB Health.

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