how to tell someone you listen

Ok. Every once in a while you see something in marketing & advertising that reminds you how difficult it is to do something that seems like common sense.

What do I mean?

Well. I saw two banks’ advertising <SunTrust and 5thThird Bank> that brought this to life for me.


First. Let me tell you a secret.

Everyone sees the same industry research.


Which always makes me laugh when someone says “our research information is proprietary & confidential.”



If that makes you feel better and more important … then … well … sure.


Listening (which inevitably leads to a better response) is, has, and will always be the most important concept in a service business – and particularly banking (financial services).


Sorry about that marketing folks …

It is not ‘solutions’ or ‘personal’ or ‘customized’ or ‘one-on-one’ or even the infamous “it is about the people” <huh? no shit … unless you are a zoo what else would it be?> … sorry … it is not because alll those things listed are outcomes from effective listening.

You cannot do anything that I just listed in the previous sentence unless you actually listen. Therefore they are all simply by products of a listening foundation.


That said <having burst some planner insight omnipotent insight diatribe>.

The point of this post is that you can blatantly tell someone you listen <which is not good> or you can say something that tells/suggests to everyone you listen <which is good>.

5th Third says “I am the listening bank.”



I rank “I am a good listener” in the same group as

–          “my I am a beautiful woman/handsome man”, or

–          anyone saying “trust me” or suggesting you are an honorable person … and you haven’t even earned it … or …

–          anything related to “I am really good at” type comment.

There are just some things you cannot tell people and be believed. Sure. You can toss around some proof points to try and get someone to think “maybe” but I struggle to think of a time where it has been effective to simply tell someone you are something. Heck. Why do you think the misreably boring technique of testimonials is used so often? They are trying to say “I <the company> am this because they <some people being filmed> say this.”

Anyway. As I listened to 5th Third <with mouth embarrassingly agape> I remembered  I had written this a long time ago <it seems like eons ago>:


How do we communicate “Listening & Responsiveness” within the marketing communications?

– Listening is the difficult portion to communicate. It is more in the tone or “reading between the lines.” However, it must be communicated strongly enough that the reader understands “oh, they HAD to have listened to have been able to generate that kind of response.”

So. Why don’t we just say, “we listen?” Well, just saying “we listen” really has no credibility. There is an important distinction (and it is sometimes a very fine line) to be made between claiming to listen and actually listening. Many advertisers claim to know what’s important to the customer, like, “we know you are nervous about getting your first mortgage.”  This is presumptuous – how do they know if they’ve never spoken with you?  Someone may know what the “process” can make you feel .. but, the reality?, everybody is different, therefore, you can never be sure until you have listened. The challenge in communication is trying to communicate that they genuinely listen to you.

Understanding your needs before offering customized solutions.

It has to become evident that listening is closely linked to responding.  It is definitely a cause-and-effect process, but ongoing as in “growing in knowledge.”  In situations where a response comes before the listening it is only because it is neither backwards nor unusual.  It is merely the result of a relationship where each participant understands the other.

Bottom line?

It is important to communicate that you are seeking an understanding of the customer.  The intent is to create a perception you are knowledgeable enough that all the “responses” are stored away in the closet … but we don’t know which one to pull out until they have listened. The communications needs to say “we have this particular response for you, but until we listen to you, we aren’t sure it is right for you .. so call today to see.”


My point?

Being a great listener is not something you can tell someone you are … it has to be earned over time.

I think I laughed out loud when I saw/heard it. Yeah, yeah, yeah … I am sure they crafted some research that suggests “5th Third is perceived/seen as good listeners” by its current customers. But …. some things to ponder so you do not take research information and think it is unfettered truth to be passed out like candy at Halloween:

  1. That information is relative. It’s like being the tallest midget. No bank is truly considered a great listener.
  2. Current customers are not potential customers <in the grand scheme of things>. sure. You may want to sell them additional services but you always want new customers.
  3. Service <or listening, helping, caring, attention> is good but you are a bank … I am giving you money so I can eventually have more money.

I say all that because service has to be balanced with solutions. Is that easy? Nope.

But I can tell you that simply saying “I listen” kind of avoids the solution side of things <beyond the fact it is blatantly narcissistic>.

Now I get to my next example on the Listening issue … SunTrust bank.

And, I admit, I was part of the team who helped on the campaign … but I will point out that it was 2000 and it is now 2012 and they are still using the strategic platform and the key line.

Instead of saying “I listen” <or “I am the listening bank”> they just say “we begin every conversation with How Can we Help You”.

The line has changed slightly since 2000 <we built the idea off of “How can I help you?”> but it remains all about listening & responsiveness.

The following is an excerpt from the original strategy <or ‘manifesto’> document which was used for the internal communications and the external strategy brief <I am assuming different people have put different, and better, words around the idea since then>:


SunTrust: The “how can we help you?” Strategy (2000 or so)

All banks are not created equal in the eyes of the consumer … SunTrust IS in fact unique.

This means consumers chose SunTrust the best combination of:

–          products and services it offers

–          the level of service its people provided.

Once again .. better than all the banks SunTrust competes against.

Common sense tells us the tangible products are less important if they are not matched up correctly with what the customers say they need.

Research tells us customers define this “personal service” they like into two simple thoughts:

–          listening (“they treat me like they want to help rather than just get rid of me”)

–          responding (“they offer me solutions rater than just sell me a product”)

These two things – listening and responsiveness (or how we respond) – go hand in hand. We can’t provide them with the BEST response .. unless we listen first.

With that in mind SunTrust developed a communications strategy to capture the essence of the SunTrust uniqueness as well as what the consumer actually desires — a simple idea to wrap the current SunTrust successful service attitude around this listening and responsiveness.

Service attitude. Listening. Responsiveness.

“How can we help you?”

The culmination of everything we wanted to say about SunTrust to the potential customers in the marketplace

With this one simple line SunTrust:

–          Invited the customer to speak.

–          Requested permission to listen to what they have to say.

–          Suggested we would like to provide them with a response.

These simple words reflect our service attitude.

It is a question …yet an offer to take action.

It suggests a promise.

A promise to listen and respond in any way we can to help.

It is a question a customer would expect from their local bank .. but unexpected from a large bank.

Even better, this question answers the reason why people typically walk through our doors or contact us .. they typically NEED help in some way.

“We listen and respond to what you say,” means SunTrust has taken a genuine interest in you, the customer.  They make an effort to hear what you are saying with intention.  SunTrust does not presume to understand how difficult it is to ask for money is or how busy your life is.  Rather, they make eye contact with you, ask you questions about your needs and desires, and they answer your questions promptly and with detailed answers.   They never shuffle you away or act like your questions are unimportant. It is a simple reflection of an organizational attitude … a desire first & foremost to help.

In the end it is a reflection of the SunTrust difference.

“How can we help you?”

It says, “Come to SunTrust where you know we are large enough to have access to all the resources you may need … and the Customer come first.”


<note: if you are not in the strategy/marketing business you just got a glimpse of the nonsensical mumbo jumbo that is done behind the scenes that actually leads to sensical attitudes & behaviors within an organization.>

In the end I guess I am making the point that sometimes telling people exactly what you want them to believe … without earning it … is … well … stupid.

Some things you just have to earn person by person. So it is better to share something within your culture which gives a possible customer the hope you will give them what they want rather than tell them you will give it to them.

Sound complicated? Maybe. But we common folk are uncommonly complicated when we think.


All that said … absolutely nothing to do with “listening” <or how to suggest you can actually listen> but another bank, PNC, actually has a nice message out in the marketplace.

It is all about being a personal ‘CFO’.

Or the thought that everyone is a cfo.

Nice idea.

I like it.

I tend to believe everyone thinks of managing their own finances as being CFO-like. And while you may not officially have the title sitting at the dining room table trying to figure out how to pay the bills, and mortgage, and school loans you kind of feel like no business CFO has it any tougher than you do.

I do not know if you are listening but, well played PNC.

Written by Bruce