Just Listening Well Isn’t Enough: You Need to Understand…

Simon Burgess

Xerini works with a broad range of clients, from construction companies to investment banks, helping them to navigate their most complex data stories and thereby unlocking incredible value and unearthing transformative insights from their data. No matter the size or type of client, one thing remains constant: value is maximised when we understand the client and what they are trying to accomplish.

You’ll hear lots of companies talk about how they listen to their clients and, whilst this is extremely important of course, at Xerini we realise that it isn’t enough just to listen in order to be as successful as possible.

Let me tell you a personal story to illustrate the difference between listening and understanding, and how listening but not understanding can leave a client with a great outcome but not necessarily the spectacular outcome they could have enjoyed.

When a member of my family, Christina, was turning 10 years old, as a keen (and accomplished) ice skater she decided she would celebrate with a party at the local ice rink, complete with an “ice-skate cake”. As the resident cake-maker in our household I took it upon myself to project manage the cake. The requirements gathering session went something like this:

Me: “So, you want an ice-skate cake?”
Christina: “Yes please.”
Me: “Ice skates are quite complicated, you know?”
Christina: “I know, but it would be really nice.”
Me: “Ok, just so I’m hearing you correctly: you would like an ice-skate cake for your birthday?”
Christina: “Yes. Absolutely. An ice-skate cake.”

There was lots of communication and active listening involved in that conversation. I nodded in the right places, repeated back what I’d heard, and confirmed that I’d heard correctly. An ice-skate cake it was to be.

Confident that I understood what was required because I’d listened so well, I failed to check back in at regular intervals or use any other tools at my disposal to confirm we both understood “ice-skate cake” to mean the same thing. And by “tools” I mean things as simple as describing what I was thinking, or even just drawing a picture.

Among myriad other things, to make the cake:

  • I bought mould putty to capture the shape of the ice-skate bladed and re-cast it in chocolate.
  • I bought complex cake tins that allow me to bake cakes in the shape of boots (yes, these things really exist).
  • I recruited other members of the family into spending hours of their time colouring frosting and icing to make laces, lace-holes, and boot-trim, soles, etc..
  • A prototype was made but failed – we learned a lot. The second iteration went as smoothly as could be expected and, at 3am on the day of the party, we finally had a masterpiece (to us) “ice-skate cake.”

Here it is:

Ice Skate Cake

OK, so it’s more ice-hockey-boot than a figure skating ice-skate but we were all obscenely pleased with ourselves.

The party was a roaring success (even though my wife spent most of it in the first-aid room with injured partygoers, after going to bed at 3am because of my cake making antics) and the cake … well, the cake was met with gasps of disbelief and awe-struck wonder when it was unveiled (I may be mis-remembering this slightly). It looked good, it tasted good, it was good.

After the party, I asked Christina what she thought about the cake. “It was amazing,” she said, “and nothing like I imagined it would be!” What? But surely it was exactly what she’d imagine it to be like? This thing took us hours and hours of effort and not a little bit of swearing at other family members – what did she mean it wasn’t as she imagined it would be?

“I was just after a regular cake with a picture of an ice skate on top.”

You could argue that we over-delivered and exceeded the client’s expectations but, in reality, we could have saved everyone a lot of time, money, and late nights and still had a delighted client – if only I had taken the time to understand what was really needed.