How your startup can beat the competition using one undervalued skill

There is one skill we all possess, that we can easily develop and that can make or break our business.  Do you know what it is?

It is listening.

I know what you think now.  You think this is far too simple.  But maybe that’s why it is so overlooked.  People don’t really understand how to listen or how it can help them in their business. 

We often think business is tough.  We believe entrepreneurs need to be resilient in their pursuit.  And we dismiss listening and empathy because we think they have nothing to do with making money.

But they have everything to do with making money and running a successful business.  Listening is the key to understanding your customer, the key to building trust and it is the key to creating the right product.


Listening allows better communication with customers

We are living in a world of abundance and hyper-individualism.  Everyone’s true needs are met, but people still want to spend their money.  They want to spend it on things that make their unique lives better. 

This means that for you to truly understand your customer, you must dig deeper than ever before.  When you share your customer’s feelings as if you were living their lives, you can communicate effectively with messages that matter.   


The only way you can reach your customer as a business is by first listening and understanding his or her needs.  You cannot start by sprouting your own messages because nobody will listen.  Only when you equip yourself with better understanding, you can create content that your customer cares about. You can offer solutions which make your customer’s lives better.

Many people think listening is easy, that it’s something every person is born to do.  But there is more to it than meets the ear. 

Here is a simple guide to the levels of listening. 

Levels of listening


Level 1: At a fundamental level, listening is simply hearing sounds and gathering meaning from it.  How we behave as a result of the listening decides the progress and outcome of the conversation.

If the speaker talks but the listener fails to respond in any way, if he is ignoring the speaker, it tells the speaker that the listener is not interested.  The speaker is most likely to stop talking in this case.

Level 2: At the next level up, the listener may pretend to listen, much like a teenager being lectured by a parent.  The teenager may reply with yeah, ok, uh-huh.  But in reality, not much of the conversation is absorbed.

Level 3: The next level up is selective hearing.  It’s not really listening with the intention to understand the other person.  Rather it is waiting for a cue to jump into the conversation and start talking.   

Level 4: The next level is what I consider the first level of trying to understand.  It is called active listening. Good active listeners first attentively hear what is being said and then repeat back what they believe the speaker said. Active listening has advantages for the listener and the speaker.  It reassures the speaker the listener understood his message and did not misinterpret it.  This encourages him to continue the conversation.The benefit for the listener is that it allows him to form a clearer picture of the problem before he jumps in to offer a solution.  It creates time to think and to consider the options.

Level 5: The final level of listening is empathic listening.  Listening with empathy means to feel what the speaker says as if the listener were in his shoes.    It's a way to hear everything that is being said, capturing even the things that are not explicitly mentioned. 

Brene Brown, a world expert on empathy, says that empathy requires for the listener to stay out of judgement and to receive and accurately interpret the speaker’s message. Displaying empathy means that we feel the other person’s emotions. 

You may begin to wonder how this relates to business.  Maybe you think empathy is a fluffy subject for benevolent people and psychologists.  I can assure you; it matters in your startup.

Empathy allows us to see any problem at a deeper level which makes it possible for us to understand the complexities.  This, in turn, makes it possible for us to communicate more clearly how we propose to solve the problem.

Some people may think of listening as a soft skill, but in reality, the effects can impact hard factual parts of your business like SEO.

Understanding which keywords your ideal customer uses when he searches for a solution allows you to craft content that is better aligned with your customer’s problems and possible solutions.  This results in better search rankings because search engines recognise when you create content that your customers appreciate.

But to understand which words our customers use and how we might phrase an appropriate response, we first have to listen.


Listening connects and builds trust

Every person has their own worldview. 

Worldview is a term used to describe how people interpret reality.  It is what individuals believe to be true.  Our worldviews are shaped by our upbringing, our language and culture, our beliefs including religion and our education.


Worldviews are strengthened when we hear information we already believe.  If we hear ideas that contradict our worldview, we mostly dismiss it. 

We have filters in our minds that most of us are not even aware of.  These filters make us pay attention to some information while blocking out others.  Filters reinforce what we already think to be true and shield us from things we believe are false.

In our busy, noisy world, filters help us to cope with the overwhelming amount of information we receive daily.

Much of the noise is created by businesses vying to catch our attention.  

Research estimates that we are bombarded with 5,000 advertisement messages every day.  This is a staggering number, and the result is that many customers are taking active steps to avoid companies that overload them with their unwanted advertising.  Customers use ad-blockers, unsubscribe from email and unfollow on social media.    

Businesses of any size must acknowledge that customers may grant permission to be contacted.  But this is not an invite to annoy anyone with endless unsolicited offers.  Companies must realise that once they have earned the privilege to contact a customer, they must personalise and tailor their messages or else lose the right to communicate.

The key to tailoring your message is, of course, to listen to the specific need of the customer first.  


Listening allows connecting with the right people

People’s filters make them listen to messages they already believe and filter out the ones they don’t.  Entrepreneurs that understand this simple fact can save themselves an extraordinary amount of effort.  Their limited resources are far better spent trying to reach the right customer than to try to reach the wrong ones through their impervious filters.

Empathy allows us to seek out the right target audience, those with the same worldview as us that are receptive to our messages.  These are the customers that deserve our full attention and effort.

Empathy also allows us to admit that other people could benefit from our product or service if only they would see the world the way we do.  But know they don’t, and we cannot force them.


People’s capacity for empathy is limited.  As a result, people in jobs that require high levels of empathy, like nurses or social workers, often suffer from burnout because of the high mental demand.

As an entrepreneur your mental resources are also limited and they are precious.  You need to make sure you spend it on the right audience.


Listening helps you find influencers and collaborators

Influencers also have their worldviews.  If we want them to help us, we better understand what makes them tick.

To get your business off the ground it is likely that you need influencers with a large audience to help you get discovered. 

You may also need collaborators.  If you want to make significant changes in the world, the chances are that your own efforts won’t be sufficient.

You need to find collaborators and influencers that have the same purpose in life.  But to convince them to help us, you need to show that you care about the same problem as they do.

Empathy allows you to reach out to the right people.  In the same way, as you are wasting your time trying to convince the wrong customer, you do the same when you try to convince influencers to support your actions when they have a different worldview.

You will often see influencers giving a rookie a leg up because by doing so they demonstrate to their own audience that they are committed to the cause.  Influencers receive many requests for help, but the most important question you need to ask yourself before reaching out should be: why would this influencer help me?  What is in it for him? 


Listening can help you innovate and create better products

The deeper we understand our customer’s problem, the greater the options become of finding a real solution.  When we act with compassion we don’t just feel the pain; we feel compelled to take the pain away.

Many of the most loved products of the last decade don’t just function.  The reasons why these products are revered are not logical; they are feeling-based.  There is, for example, little rationality behind choosing an iPhone over the many other mobiles that can do almost the same at a much lower cost.  People buy iPhones because it makes them feel good.

Products that are meaningful are those that help people become who they want to be.  The product becomes part of people’s identity and helps them show to others who they are.

When we simply focus on making money we forget about the customer’s needs.  We only think about our own need, the need to make money. 

This can often lead entrepreneurs to optimise their product in line with their own technical abilities.  The reason behind it is logical.  We think that we have to use our strength to beat the competition.  But the result is often an over-engineered product that fails to make any market impact because it was created without empathy for the consumer. 

Customers don’t care about your abilities; they only care about themselves.  And often, they prefer simplicity. 

In engineering and science, there is a concept called an elegant solution.  An elegant solution solves a complicated problem with a method which is non-obvious but simple.

There are parallels to the elegant solution in business.  We see stellar success when an entrepreneur views a problem in a new way and finds a solution that is simple, highly effective.   Sometimes the solution can even solve multiple problems that were initially not related.  

To create such an elegant solution, you first need to discover what your customer’s problem is and how you can solve it.  The better your listening skills, the deeper you will be able to tap into the cause of the problem.  This, in turn, will allow you to come up with a far wider range of solutions. 


Here is an example.  In the past, I worked with innovators in the NHS.  One innovator was obsessed with inventing new ways of reminding patients to take their medication.  As a specialist nurse, it frustrated him that patients failed to take their medication regularly which could result in life- threatening attacks.

The problem the inventor failed to notice was that his patients did not need reminding.  They did not forget to take their medication. There were other reasons why patients were failing to take their medication.  Some suffered side effects or felt the medication was not needed between attacks.  Others experienced a clash between their self-perception of being fit and healthy and the need to take medication.

When the reason for not taking medication is understood at the deepest level, it becomes clear that the better solution is not a louder alarm or a flashier reminder on the phone.  The right answer may lie in educating the patient that even an otherwise fit and healthy person still needs daily medication to avoid suddenly falling ill.  Or a better solution could be a device that measures markers in the blood to alert a patient to an imminent attack so medication is only taken when absolutely needed.


Listening is the most undervalued opportunity for startups

Big companies have a huge disadvantage: they are big.

This means they consist of many management layers and information gets passed from one person to the next.  And because most big businesses are analytical and numbers-driven, information is stored in spreadsheets.    

Information which stores well this way can be passed on easily.  But the results of empathic listening cannot easily be translated into numbers.  As a result, the information gets lost.

Another problem for big companies is that listening empathically requires energy and patience.  It needs motivation and willpower to block out the noise to clearly hear what is being said.  Most big companies are not willing or able to expend that energy. 

The reality is that there is no lack of access to people’s thoughts.  The internet allows us to experience people’s thoughts every day.  But there seems to be a mismatch between people wanting to be heard and people willing to listen.  This represents a great opportunity for entrepreneurs with good listening skills. 

Here are some examples:

Ben & Jerry became one of the most-loved ice-cream brands.  The founders started with $8,000 and knowledge from a $5 correspondence course in ice-cream making.  They beat the big competitors like Haagen-Dasz by understanding what better ice-cream would look like to the customer.  

Anita Roddick started The Body Shop single-handedly in 1970.  It was sold in 2006 for £650million. Roddick recognised that some customers were happy to pay a premium for organic, ethically sourced cosmetics. She understood that people cared about what they put on their skin and where it came from.  

Arguably the best entrepreneur story comes from the Dollar Shaving Club. It was started by two friends, Mark Levine and Michael Dubin, who had discovered that men hated the buying experience for razors in shops.  Their solution was simple: to home deliver razors at regular intervals.

Levin and Dubin spent $4500 on creating a video, which went viral.  Their first website kept crashing because demand was so high.  And they sold out their first batch of razors within 6 hours after launch.  Five years later the company was sold to Goliath, aka Unilever, for $1bn.

These examples show that entrepreneurs can beat the mighty competition with the skill of listening.