11/11/2013 05:26 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

All Ears: Listening for Business

The basic conversation boils down to two basic components: listening and speaking.

Often, more emphasis is placed on speaking, but listening is arguably the most impactful facet. Listening is an art that requires one to be present and astute; it's the act that cues human reactions and likewise, overreactions. It requires consistent practice and careful finesse, but when done correctly, valuable insights can be gleaned from a conversation that can't be obtained in any other fashion.

In business, fine-tuned listening is crucial in client-facing scenarios.

When a business doesn't listen to a client properly -- or worse, at all -- problems tend to arise. Duncan Robinson learned this the hard way.

In 2003, as vice president of a company called Hair Club For Men, Robinson introduced hair loss solutions to the female audience through an infomercial. Though female demand for products was through the roof, the company wasn't accustomed to dealing with a women-based clientele. Due to a lack of unforeseen sensitivities, there was immediate backlash and scores of complaints.

This business snafu could have been avoided with an initial listening strategy. Though a reverse sequence of events, Robinson and his team backtracked and initiated phone surveys with these unsatisfied customers. Phone surveys evolved into focus groups which then turned into quantitative surveys.

"After the research we realized that men and woman hair loss are completely different issues. One is a cosmetic problem, and the other is an emotional psychological problem which had to be treated as such," says Duncan.

The company gained these insights after the damage was done. The old phrase, "Hindsight is 20/20," rings true in this situation, but this incident proved to be a valuable learning lesson.

"Our error was in treating women client exactly like men. Had we known this upfront, a crisis could have been avoided. But as a silver lining, we were able to develop a process for obtaining important client insights through listening to their input and opinions," he adds.

As learned from one business's mistake, companies must talk to and listen to their clients on a regular basis. After all, a brand is defined by what people say about it when they think the company isn't listening. Listening closely -- whether actively in focus groups or passively through social media -- provides a point of view that can't be attained through any other means.

Not every business has the experience or bandwidth to perform internal client research and listening campaigns. Sometimes a third party is required to get the most from client feedback and data. Following his departure from Hair Club for Men, Robinson founded TransDR which performs third party customer research for direct marketing programs.

Home Run Media, another Chicago-based company, is a media buying firm that builds successful client relationships through communication. This company also relies heavily on listening strategy, helping customers find their target audience faster from using upfront research and thus allowing clients to save money very quickly and gain necessary insights toward their consumer.

"Listening to clients and their customers is an effective way to increase engagement, which is a driving force in successful direct response advertising campaigns," says Andrew Blickstein of Home Run Media. "In the past with TV, it was all about getting more eyeballs. With digital advertising and the rise of Google, engagement is the main metric which can be amplified through listening to the right voices before beginning a campaign."

As technology evolve and channels of communication change, strategies for listening in business scenarios and the execs behind them will have to adapt according. But listening, at its core, is an extension of problem solving. By listening correctly and interpreting the data obtained those efforts, problems in business can be mitigated, resolved and new solutions appear.

And remember: Listening isn't just a great business skill; it's an underestimated transferable life skill can help everyone understand and interact with their surroundings to the fullest.