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There is a long debate amidst technology entrepreneurs about whether or not, when and how they should listen to customers.

The truth is, listening is not a binary activity. Contrary to common belief research has shown that there are 4 modes of listening. Fluent listeners masterly tap into those 4 modes to best suit any situation.

This post aims to give technology entrepreneurs a broader understanding of what is listening, and introduce 4 powerful habits they can use  to boost their product and customer development efforts.

1) Inner Personal Listening

Inner personal listeners seek meaning for themselves. In conversations inner personal listeners select information that relates to what they know and think about. Engineers typically excel at this mode of listening. They get deeply involved in technology, and keep their focus on information that pertains to their line of work. Inner personal listeners also have a tendency to listen and quickly continue the conversation inside their heads.  They don’t feel the need to verbalize what is going on inside their heads — thus losing the benefit of debating their thoughts with others. He or she might say: “I am listening for the information I need to build my product”, and unconsciously filter out the rest.

Pros: Inner personal listeners can develop a deep understanding of a subject matter by being keeping razor-focused on what they do.

Cons: An entrepreneur using this mode of listening, in exclusion of others, could fail to learn pertinent information that does not fit into his pre-determined point-of-view, or miss vital insights on customer and market dynamics.

Example: In this blog article “Learning lessons from 13 failed software products”, many founders mention building products and finding no buyers.

Inner personal listening is vital to build great products, but not sufficient.

2) Extra Personal Listening

Extra personal listeners seek meaning for others. In conversations extra personal listeners seek to understand what goes on inside their interlocutor’s head. They seek out other people’s viewpoint, and genuinely care to learn the needs and pains of their customers. They can relate to a wide variety of people, and are sensitive to competition and market trends. Such a person might say: “I am listening to understand why a user would change his habits to buy my product.”

Pros: Extra personal listeners are able get a good pulse on customers and market dynamics related to their ventures.

Cons: An entrepreneur using this mode of listening, in exclusion of others, could take everything customers say at face value, and build only derivative products.

Example: Henry Ford famously said if he had asked his customers what they wanted, before coming up with the Model T, they’d have asked for a faster horse.

Extra personal listening is vital to understand customer needs but not sufficient.

3) Problem Solving Listening

Problem solving listeners seek meaning in facts, proofs and numbers. In conversations, problem solving listeners seek out and zoom in on the logical information they need to solve problems. Engineers excel in this type of listening, because they favor an objective approach to problem solving.  They can keep focused on a problem, without being swayed by extraneous information. This person might say: “I am listening for data points to get to an objective answer.”

Pros: Problem solving listeners are good at looking at a problem with critical lenses, separating the real problem from opinion and bias.

Cons: An entrepreneur using this mode of listening, in exclusion of others, could fail to learn, or be oblivious to, vital qualitative feedback from customers.

Example: Quantitative customer feedback methods (such as A/B testing, surveys) are favored among engineers. Although they provide very useful feedback, one cannot rely on those methods solely. Real life customer interviews are quintessential to find product/market fit. As Steve Blank relentlessly says: “you need to get out of the building!”.

4) Conceptual Listening

Conceptual listeners seek meaning in possibilities and ideas. In conversations, conceptual listeners tend to listen for triggers to stimulate their creativity. Technology visionaries are great at conceptual listening. They can create a vision for a product nobody has thought of. When they hear information, they quickly connect it to something else they’ve seen or heard, webbing their way into creating a revolutionary new product. This person might say: “I am listening to find more options than are on the table so far.”

Pros: Conceptual listeners are great at envisioning innovative products, and out-of-the-box use cases for new products and services.

Cons: An entrepreneur relying on this mode of listening, in exclusion of others, could lose sight on what is marketable today, or the barriers to market adoption.

Example: As this Economist article illustrates, “Mr Segway’s difficult path; Dean Kamen is best known as the inventor of the Segway scooter; his career illustrates the difficulty of turning innovative ideas into reality”.

Conclusion

To create successful ventures entrepreneurs need a balance of the 4 habits. The ideal technology entrepreneur will ensure all four habits are considered from the conception, to bringing the product to market (and beyond). If not in one individual, startups must master the 4 habits as a core team. The trick then is to develop sufficient listening awareness, skills and flexibility to adjust one’s listening habits to fit the requirements of the situation.

This post was written in collaboration with Marian Thier of Expanding Thought.

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