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Active Listening Really Pays Off

Companies should take note when consumers speak, rather than merely making eye contact. Otherwise, consumers may look for someone who listens.

By LINDSEY COBLENTZ, Associate Editor, Food Manufacturing

Chances are, you probably learned about active listening at some point during your schooling. Lean forward, make eye contact and nod to let the speaker know you’re listening, right? I always thought these tips were silly because you could do all these things and still not be listening. However, these actions do accomplish one goal: They make the speaker think you’re listening — even if you really aren’t. But those tricks will only work so long.

Unfortunately, I think this type of “listening” occurs all too often in manufacturing. Consumers are constantly trying to tell manufacturers what they want through surveys, suggestions and — most importantly — their purchasing habits. One would think the almighty dollar would be a huge motivator for active listening, but apparently it isn’t always.

Some companies, especially larger ones, tend to just nod and grin at consumers, even when it is evident their profits may be at stake. Sometimes it seems that the bigger the company, the more plugged its ears become.

A recent New York Times article showcased the struggle between growing beverage company Honest Tea and international giant Coca-Cola, who already owned a minority stake in the business and was looking toward full ownership. This deal meant huge exposure for Honest Tea’s natural drinks and helped fill Coca-Cola’s need for more low-calorie beverages, so what was the problem? A label on Honest Tea’s children’s drinks that read “no high-fructose corn syrup.”

How was this a problem, you ask? After all, some studies link high-fructose corn syrup with obesity, and more consumers are seeking products without the ingredient. Coke should have been thrilled to have the opportunity to acquire a product that was looking to satisfy current consumer demands, but in reality the corporation asked Honest Tea to remove the label. It didn’t jive with Coke’s iconic line of sodas that contained the syrupy concoction.

Even as Coke demanded the label’s removal, its soft drink sales were declining, evidence that consumers may be dropping HFCS-sweetened beverages in favor of more natural, less sugary drinks like those offered by Honest Tea. The obvious solution was for Coke to embrace the consumers’ desires, keep the tea’s label and reap the benefits of higher profits.

So why didn’t it? I think Coke was so locked into doing business its way that it blocked out everything consumers were saying. This was evident in the comments of a Coke spokesman who said Honest Tea’s “decisions were made on their understanding of their customers” and that Coke held that “sugar is sugar is sugar.” Coca-Cola maintained that its position was right — even when consumer activity suggested otherwise.

The sad part about this entire scenario was that Honest Tea even considered compromising with Coke in order to keep the deal. According to the case study, some of Honest Tea’s customers complained that its ties to a big corporation may hurt the integrity of the brand that enticed them to buy in the first place.

Fortunately, a follow up Q&A in the Times reported Honest Tea stuck with the customer-oriented values at its core, and Coke woke up from its sugar-induced coma and let the label stay. It’s a good thing, too, because sacrificing consumer satisfaction for a game of follow-the-beverage-leader would have been something Honest Tea would have ultimately regretted. In the end, Coca-Cola will be glad it listened to the consumer and will probably be rewarded with heftier earnings.

Both small and large manufacturers should learn something from this story. No matter what they manufacture, it should meet customer needs and wants. Companies should listen and take notes when consumers speak, rather than merely making eye contact and then going about their business as if nothing were ever said. Otherwise, consumers may move on and find someone who will listen.

Has actively listening to your customers helped your business? Let me know by e-mailing at [email protected].