"Actionable Listening" vs. "Active Listening"

IStock_000004060935XSmallDuring this week’s 3rd and final Radian 6 Twebinar, the theme was “Listening.”

As I prepared for my own role on the call with Chris Brogan, poring over some industry and agency examples of “good listening,” it occured to me that there are two types of listening.

There’s “Active Listening.”  That’s what most savvy brands are doing.  It’s mostly about Social Media Monitoring.  “Quick!  Somebody said something about us!  Say something back!”  I liken it to the excitement one might feel when toying around with an old ham radio.  This is a good thing to be doing, for all brands, regardless of size.

But you can take it further, into the realm of “Actionable Listening.”  The difference here is that the folks doing the listening/responding are empowered to effect change within their organization, on customers’ behalf. 

Best examples to date?  Dell (I’m looking at you, @RichardatDELL) and Comcast Cares.  In both cases, customers who tweet or blog about these brands receive a timely response that includes an offer of assistance.  And that offer is no B.S.  These listeners have the juice in their organizations to ACT.  They are getting RESULTS for these customers. 

When I bitched on Twitter about my Comcast phone service, Comcast’s famous Frank Eliason contacted me immediately and had someone call my (befuddled) wife to check the line.  When I moaned about receiving a “blue screen of death” during the Twebinar, one of Richard Binhammer’s compatriots DM’d me to see if I was using a Dell, and if so, could he help?

To successfully engage in Actionable Listening, the corporation must make an investment not only in Monitoring tools but in providing infrastructure changes that back-up the lip-service with speedy and effective results. 

Reg’lar folks who willingly engage in a conversation with an official brand representative need to feel that the interchange is going to add real value, not apply a band-aid.

Are you listening?  Great.  But are you also empowered to act effectively on your customers’ behalf?

Posted on: August 20, 2008 at 5:45 pm By Todd Defren
8 Responses to “"Actionable Listening" vs. "Active Listening"”


  • Tim Jahn says:

    I think you’ve made an important distinction here. There are many companies that are actively listening (they are starting to realize that they must this day in age) but not as many actionably (sp?) listening. I think we will seem more and more companies act this way.

  • Todd Defren says:

    Thanks, all, for the great comments. I want to respond most especially to Jason Baer: You’re right, of course, that this level of empowerment cannot be readily “gifted” to outside agencies (nor do I suggest that this should happen). In fact, that may be where the line between client/agency is most clearly drawn: the Agency can be the Active Listener but the company must possess Actionable personnel to whom the agency reports? Split the load, as it were?

  • Jason Baer says:

    Excellent coverage Todd.

    In practice, what I see is a big psychological chasm between active listening and actionable listening. It’s not that folks don’t understand the importance of the latter, it’s being empowered to do it.

    Most companies are not comfortable with any employee representing them in a highly public fashion via ad hoc, real-time communication. That’s why JetBlue, Dell, Comcast et al are such commendable examples to the contrary.

    This issue becomes even more acute when you factor in agencies. Certainly, the future of PR is in facilitating and managing conversations on behalf of brands, but PR firms will have to establish DEEP mutual trust with their clients to be able to play that role.

    I don’t see many PR firms that are (to date) great at building bridges with their clients that are strong enough to set up the agency as the social media mouthpiece for the brand.

    Jason Baer
    Convince & Convert – making agencies better at digital marketing

  • davidcushman says:

    absolutely Todd. There’s elements of this in lean-too marketing (ie when I get intersted in something and lean towards it, the company leans back.

    All of this is possible IF the company concerned takes on board the belief that customer service is everyone’s responsibility – not a box to be ticked.

    Played around with this idea in ‘Take a fresh look at your resources (read, human beings)’ here:

  • Hi Todd,

    Love the distinction. Don’t know if you caught the Business Week article ‘Inside the War Against China’s Blogs’?

    Seems like the online forums in China are a bit like the wild west with lots of positive “Actionable Listening” vs. “Active Listening” but a great deal of sock-puppeting.


  • Could not agree more. So often we’re finding that once a company is finally ready to make the leap online, their perspective is an “Active Listening” one. It’s much easier to TALK and spit out a response than it is to LISTEN, strategize, and provide a substantive response with real change behind it.

    The tough part is that a lot of times getting people engaged in PR 2.0 is about baby steps–orgs are ready to start talking…and that’s about it. They feel that talking is a success. And in many ways it can be–talking openly is a real shift for so many companies who’ve pushed information for years vs. the push-pull dialogue. In reality, though, until that action happens–until that meaningful dialogue takes place–that real community- and relationship-building take place, they’ve not really accomplished the goal of connecting online.

    Geoff Livingston has a great quote in his book “now is gone” that’s stuck with me: “Participation really means more than acting as a member of your community; it means contributing to its success.” It’s so true, but you don’t often think of online communities as you would the community you live in…

    I liken it to the old “ask your neighbor for a cup of sugar” scenario. You can’t buy a house and immediately walk next door and ask your neighbor for sugar without getting to know him/her first, showing you care about them and building trust. It’s only when you show neighbors that you truly care about them, and perhaps offered up use of your mower a time or two or picked up their paper, that you’ve earned the right to ask for the sugar. At that point, you know the relationship’s there and is mutual.

  • Good distinction to make Todd. Those are great examples.

    My question, and I still haven’t really seen it answered anywhere, is that this is great, perfect response right now.

    But is it scalable? To be successful at this in the long run, as more people move to these tools, the *same level of service* has to continue to be available, or…this is a PR problem in the making.

    I worked at a retail store that in my opinion had good customer service down-pat. They did so by empowering even the front-line, temporary, Holiday season-only employees to make things right. Not give away the store mind you, but problems were taken care of. Not many retail stores do that, you have to talk to a manager, etc.

    So all of these companies that outsource thousands of call center calls out overseas need to start thinking about if they can continue to provide the same level of service that you experienced from Comcast, if even 10 percent of the customer issues move from those phone calls to, say, Twitter. That means turning a lot of control over to front-line employees to make what are ultimately bottom-line decisions.

    If they cannot, this will be a grand experiment that held great promise but ultimately collapsed under the weight of incredible expectations.

  • Hi Todd, Interesting topic.

    One of the stumbling blocks for many companies will be finding the right people to do the job of actionable listening (even active listening could be a problem)

    The sort of Employee, who, if you surveyed him/her walking out of the office after a crazy Monday would still be enthusiastic about their firm and have a passion for change.

    These individuals are rare, very rare. For the right people their is a bright future as actionable listeners.

    Mike Ashworth
    Marketing Coaching and Consultancy
    Brighton and Hove, Sussex, UK

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