Listen, engage, innovate
Can distributors overcome the dehumanizing downsides of digital transformation with deep listening and engaged conversations that promote a human-centered way forward?
Today, I am attending the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors’ (NAW) annual Executive Summit and announcing the launch of a new Facing the Forces of Change® initiative. For nearly 40 years, Facing the Forces of Change has said what needed to be said, challenging distributors to embrace change, transform their businesses, and lead markets forward. In my last newsletter edition, Epic times demand a bold purpose, I suggest that as an $8 trillion industry serving "every company in every sector, working in local communities, side-by-side with customers in the real world where business actually happens," distribution can go beyond transforming digitally. Distributors can help society overcome what comes with doing business virtually: a gradual dehumanization born of virtual-only connections, automation that replaces the human spirit, and social contagions that make us not well. In this edition, I offer a way forward—a foundation for innovating with customers that distributors can execute with distinction. Distribution's innovators can lean in, but first, they must listen—as humans, with humans, in the places and spaces where customers live and work.
Rethinking what it means to connect
When asked how they measure customer loyalty, distributor leaders often respond with "repeat purchases." That's a problem. At best, repeat purchases are an outcome metric, measuring what can be measured and inferring that continuing commerce means that a distributor is "doing the right thing," whatever that is. Working with leaders to research and write Innovate to Dominate: The 12th Edition in the Facing the Forces of Change Series, we found that the best way for distributors to innovate powerfully was to lean in and help customers innovate their businesses.
But there is another problem. In the vast quantity of knowledge, experience, advice, and methods for innovations that may lead to out-of-the-box, over-the-top, disruptive, or system-changing results, nearly nothing is dedicated to innovating as an intermediary, a business in the center of commerce, adding value to products, bringing resources, and solving problems. That's what distributors do every day in the real world, where customers live and work.
Searching for a process for innovating with customers in the customer's business, I found inspiration and practical advice in this podcast featuring David Brooks. As a New York Times columnist, conservative commentator, and author of many books, Brooks is working to heal what ails us as a society and as individuals. As the episode's show notes explain, David Brooks is "on a mission to spread the skills of deep listening and engaged conversation, which lead to real recognition and understanding between humans. If you want to get to know someone, he says you need to know how they see the world. And in this talk, he tells us what he's learned about how to do that and gently nudges us all to take a step toward rebuilding trust."
Listening, I learned that if distribution's innovators are to help customers innovate, they must get to know them profoundly, not through data and analytics, market research, or focus groups. Helping customers innovate their business requires earned trust and human connection. Among many insights, Brooks explains how our minds work—how our subconscious shapes our reality—and offers three stages for getting to know one another to heal our society, starting with individuals. He names the stages as the quality of attention, the quality of accompaniment, and the quality of conversation.
For distribution's innovators, Brooks’ stages point the way to building customer relationships that will allow collaboration around innovating in the customer's business. And they are metrics for measuring the quality of those relationships. Brooks explains his first stage, attention, drawing on religious parallels. Attention is about recognizing a soul's value and dignity, he says. As creatures created in the "image of God," we are all creators. These are potent frames for respecting and honoring customers, and essential first ingredients for building innovation-centric relationships.
Brooks’ second stage, accompaniment, is the "way that you walk with somebody" on their journey, not yours. In a way, this stage rings true with marketing techniques for researching and intercepting a customer journey, but it goes much further in ways that are more about wholly human interactions. For distribution's innovators, accompaniment is a "centered way of paying attention and traveling with" a customer. It's about being there and being present. Accompaniment is a way of living and working, not a research technique.
The quality of conversation is the third measure of building a customer relationship for innovating with them. Brooks argues that it is impossible to "empathize your way into another mind," which is to understand how someone feels at a moment in time by imagining that you were able to "walk a mile in their shoes." No. What works is asking questions, not as research, but as a conversation—an exchange of ideas, experiences, and values, back and forth, between two people, human-to-human, in the real world.
The most critical conversational skill is the learned ability to ask good questions. In any conversation, Brooks explains, "the quality of the conversation is going to be determined by the quality of the questions.” Bad questions limit potential responses or imply a value. Business examples include "how do you measure success" or "what skills do your people lack?" Good questions are open as in, "tell me about a time that was a success" or "how do your people do their work?"
Digging deeper, Brooks offers several tips from conversation experts. I share his advice, emphasized in bold, followed by what it might mean for distribution's innovators:
Treat attention as an on-off switch and not a dimmer. Have a conversation, or don't. Eliminate distractions. Don't think about getting the sale or solving a problem. Just talk.
Be a loud listener. Be animated. Show your humanity—not in a way that intimidates, but that demonstrates you are listening and validating what is shared with you. Leave no doubt.
Make them authors, not witnesses. If asked to explain their story, customers will not go into detail. Ask for more information with questions like "where were you" or "what was happening?" Gather a narrative rich in granularity, and you will gain a better, deeper, and more actionable understanding.
Do the looping. Brooks says, "When somebody says something you're unclear about, try to paraphrase it back to them, you'll be amazed how often you are wrong." We tend to listen poorly, so we must restate, paraphrase, and clarify.
Keep the gem statement at the center. If there is a disagreement, emphasize something aspirational or foundational, which is an unquestioned agreement. Emphasize or stress a commitment to bettering communities, employee fulfillment or wellness, creating wealth, cleaning up the environment, and so on.
Don't fear the pause. Brooks explains, "The part of your brain that thinks of what it's going to say is the same part of the brain that does listening. Let the person finish and then pause. Show them you're listening, and then respond. So, don't fear the pause."
Brooks offers that some questions are introductory: How did you get started? How did you name your business? Others aim for a higher vantage: Do you see a tipping point? What would you do if you could overcome risk? And one of the best questions is asking for foresight about the not-too-distant future: When we meet a year from now, what will you be celebrating? Where do you see your business in five years?
Brooks ends his exploration of getting to know someone by offering a word that confers the highest level of understanding—beholding. I looked it up. Behold means "to see." To help customers innovate, we must view them with respect or even awe. We must perceive them with dignity, understand their purpose, and confirm their calling. Innovating with customers is about working with them as humans, even as we are all transformed in the digital age.
There you have it. Brooks’ three stages for getting to know one another are a formula for fixing society's problems, starting where things matter most, where we interact with each other in the real world—listening, understanding, engaging, trusting, and acting. His insight offers a human-centric approach for distributor-led innovations focused on helping customers innovate in the customer’ business. By developing the qualities of attention, accompaniment, and conversation, distributors can create change. As a North Star for distributors acting as an $8 trillion industry, Brooks’ advice will help distribution's innovators transform companies, communities, our society, and ultimately, the economy. Epic times demand a bold purpose, but as it turns out, the responsibility for change rests firmly on the shoulders of individuals. (Click here for more on this.)
Foresight and footsteps
I need your help with my NAW Facing the Forces of Change initiative. I am looking for volunteers to contribute as distribution's leaders and innovators. Together, we will work to help distributors innovate with customers. We will look for a new language, gather stories, and build processes.
Our work is organic, and there are many ways to contribute. If you would like to join in, please click here to schedule a call or send an email to email@example.com or my partner, Bart Tessel, NAW's Chief Innovation Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org. We will announce our project at this year's NAW Executive Summit, January 31 to February 2, at the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, DC. If you are there, please say hello—and if you can, volunteer!