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Communication at a DVD store and a Bank

27 March 2012

Recently at a major bank (not Westpac!) I saw an advertisement for credit cards.  Customers were invited to request a credit card that met their needs. I asked humorously, ‘I would like a credit card with a $100K limit which I don’t have to pay back’.  The teller looked at me and said ‘You will have to speak to that man over there who deals with credit cards’.  I reiterated my unrealistic request with a wry smile and again said ‘I would like a credit card with a $100K limit which I don’t have to pay back’.  Again he said ‘I can’t deal with this.  You must speak to the man over there’.  He obviously missed the point and so I said ‘I would be very impressed if you could allow me those terms’ to which he replied ‘We aim to please but the actual terms will have to be discussed with the man over there!’

In the example, the teller failed to really hear what I was saying.  Why was this? I imagine the words he picked up on were ‘Credit card Limit’ and without attending to the detail he referred me to the association he had with ‘credit cards’ which was the other teller. 

What does the everyday example tell us about communication?  In modern society we are so bombarded with information that we filter it, often at a very early stage. We don’t really listen.  We are so bombarded with stimulation that we have developed filters that limit what we hear and shape what comes through into a predictable format.  What else are we missing in communication when we quickly assume what we think the other person is saying?  There are circumstances when not listening intently has major consequences either professionally, personally or financially.  Learning to ‘really listen’ allows us to not only to avoid missing important information but communicate with other people and remind ourselves that we are human beings in community, not automatons completing tasks. 

I came across another example where an employee was not fully engaged with the purpose of a new marketing campaign at my local DVD rental store.  It highlighted how the impact of a marketing campaign is reduced when employees dealing face to face with customers are not briefed on the objective of a marketing strategy.  

During this visit to my DVD rental store The DVD store had re-arranged the aisles.  I was intrigued as to the purpose of the change but visually I thought it was more attractive.  I commented to the assistant ‘The aisles look better, don’t they?’ to which she replied (without emotion or even looking up from scanning my DVDs), ‘Yes they do!’  I wondered why her response felt inadequate and realised that she answered as if my comment was a statement of fact.  My comment was an opinion and she missed the opportunity to find out from me, the customer, why I thought it was better and how she could improve it further. 

If I was advising this company on how to improve its communication with the customer, I would insist that they ‘enrol’ all employees (particularly those who are front-facing) into contributing and understanding the purpose of the campaign.  A more appropriate response would have been to look at me directly, thank me for my response and invite me to give a reason as to why it suited me better. In other words ‘engage with me and make me, the customer, feel important and someone who wants to do business with them’. They could communicate even better by e.g. providing a map of the new location of items or ask a question at check-out.  Potentially customers could become very disgruntled at not being able to find their DVD topics in the same place and the marketing campaign could backfire on them. 

Communication is so much more than the passing of words in written or spoken form, or the acquisition of interpersonal skills.  Everything we do says something about who we are and who we represent.  In business, it involves subtle messages that facilitate or inhibit us achieving objectives.  In the first example in the bank, the employee’s filtering system had resulted in him not truly being present and questioning what I was saying, particularly when my request was repeated.  What else might he miss about the client experience that would directly impact on the image of customer service at the bank?  In the example of the DVD store, the employee might not even have been briefed on the purpose of the store change and, as a result, an opportunity was lost to communicate something important to the customer – that their experience matters!

I challenge each of us to see where we operate on automatic pilot and rapidly answer without truly listening.  It might take more time but not only do we avoid misunderstandings; we create a foundation upon which community is built through real connection and communication in everyday life.  

For details on our forthcoming skills-based workshop ‘Take Back Your Power To Be Heard in Business’ see