Increasing the Value of Passive and Active Listening

Customer Service
Customer Service
How to use social media to improve the results of customer listening programs.

While marketers have exercised active and passive forms of listening in the past, social media has made both versions more valuable. In fact, social media provides several unique benefits to the practice of listening - especially as it relates to customers.

Passive listening and its social media improvements

During passive listening - sometimes called monitoring - a business attempts to understand what is being discussed in the marketplace as though the business were a fly on the wall. Traditional examples range from the corporation employing a media monitoring firm to track press coverage, to a local waiter standing within earshot of diners at a restaurant as they comment on their meal. The constant is that the business acts as a spectator and remains uninvolved, until and only if direct attention is needed.

Social media has drastically augmented the value of passive listening in two respects. First, passive access to conversations is immediate, digital, and worldwide in social media. Quiet proximity to the discussions is ubiquitous, and the digital chatter becomes manageable, filterable insightful content; assuming the proper tools are in place to hear a mention of your brand on all relevant social platforms, blogs, and ratings and review sites where these conversations land. Second, passive listeners monitoring social media can engage a customer in need, to address dissatisfactions or to tactfully offer tips to those seeking purchase advice.

Consider this scenario. A mother of two hustles toward her SUV from the grand opening of a coffee shop-the newest in a chain she frequented back in her business travel days-with her baby under one arm, and keys and a hot coffee dangling in the opposite hand, her four year old double stepping behind her. Seconds after she secures the safety seat and buckles in the eldest, she is tweeting with dismay. "Yuck. Bathroom was filthy in that new (name withheld) coffee shop near our preschool. Never Going Back Again!"

Her 108-character opine is retweeted across her Mom network. A close friend posts the rant to Facebook. Left unheard and unaddressed, the digital reach of this "did-you-hear" beacon can accelerate across the 40 to 50 top ratings and review sites and blogs like Yelp, gusto, and even

Unless that waiter was in the parking lot and thought to ask if everything was OK, the traditional form of passive listening fails here.

It is now possible - indeed advisable - for a local coffee shop to pay attention to how it is being discussed online. Larger chains and franchise businesses are monitoring and engaging local customers across their network of local storefronts.

The trick here is twofold: have the tools in place to listen to all possible social platforms, and most important, understand how and when to tactfully engage and appease that once loyal customer. Consider these two possible engagements:

The owner of the coffee franchise, who should be listening attentively to all comments from all of its stores, springs from "passive" mode and offers both acknowledgement of the problem and a gesture to appease. "We're sorry about your experience. That's not the (name withheld) way. Can we apologize with this online coupon and seek a second chance?"

If you've read this far and still harbor skepticism, consider how a competitor can pounce on the same opportunity to attract a new customer: "Yuck indeed. That's not the way we do things at (Competitor Name here). Click this coupon for $2 off and give us a try."

Going the extra distance with active listening

In contrast to passive listening, active listening is an engaged approach wherein a business proactively creates an opportunity for a customer to give them feedback - usually with the intention of using that feedback to drive an action. With active listening, you pull responses back to you.

Perhaps one of the most recent and high-profile examples of active listening comes in the form of the new Gap logo release in early October of this year. Gap debuted the new logo on its Facebook page and promptly received thousands of negative posts and tweets regarding the new design. Six days after the new logo's debut, it was replaced with the traditional Gap logo and the company announced that it wanted its Facebook fans to send in their own logo designs. Gap not only listened to what its customers were saying - "we hate the new logo" - the company went a step further and asked for the input of their customers on a new logo. This exercise in active listening resulted in a more informed company, a more engaged audience, and additional creative resources in the form user-submitted designs.

Because businesses of all sizes are able to create interactive communities on social networks such as Facebook, they are also able to execute active listening. Wherever an engaged community has been built, valuable insights can be generated simply by asking a question. Compounding the value of these responses is the fact that customers who engage with businesses through social media are more likely to make a purchase, and on average spend more money per purchase than customers who do not engage through social media. In other words, social network communities that are built around a business represent the most loyal customers (and therefore the most valuable). Listening to what these customers have to say amounts to interviewing the core value driver of the business.


If the fundamental goal of any business is to fulfill the needs of its customers then it is critically important to listen to customers and understand their needs.

Social media has created more valuable forms of both passive and active listening, resulting in a better understanding of the customer. Find out what your customers need, give it to them, and reap the rewards. It starts with listening.

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About the Author: Jon Victor is CEO of Engage121