All ears Featured

7:00pm EDT November 25, 2008

Jeffrey Sopp makes it a point to take time out of his busy schedule as a president and CEO to listen to his 40 employees and to his customers.

Each day, Sopp calls at least two customers to see how they’re doing and to find out what Expesite LLC can do better for them.

“A good leader has to listen carefully not only to the CEOs and CFOs but also to the people who are the end users, the people who affect the business every single day,” he says.

Sopp’s focus on listening has helped him grow the company, which provides Web-based project management for construction and real estate development, to 2007 revenue of $5.3 million.

Smart Business spoke with Sopp about how to become a better listener to help develop trust with your employees and clients.

Q. What are the keys to being a good listener?

Listening skills are not always innate, they have to be somewhat learned. You develop great listening skills by spending a lot of time with a variety of different people at a variety of different levels.

When I walk around my office or when I’m on sales calls, I try to spend quality time by sitting down and talking with people and not asking them stuff that’s just business related. I am interested in their families and how their kids are doing.

It’s the management by wandering around and not be disingenuous when you ask questions. Ask questions about what the person just said, ask clarifying questions.

The way to build loyalty is to spend time with people. If you don’t spend time with people, you can’t build that loyalty and you can’t fool the troops. So you’ve got to be genuine with your questions, and if they ask you to do something, you better darn well follow up on it.

The benefit is building great relationships, and the result is top- and bottom-line success.

Q. How can a leader become a better listener?

No. 1, they’ve got to be prepared to invest the time. And it’s not a one-hit wonder strategy, it is something that has to be part of the DNA, not only in the leader, but the customers — internal or external — need to know that that is part of the culture that that leader is going to develop.

They have to practice effective listening, and effective listening means it’s two-way communication. ... It’s asking a lot of questions about what that person just said, not in the back of their mind worrying about what issues they have when they get back to their office.

They have to be prepared to always follow up and follow through with that particular discussion he or she just had, whether that’s in an e-mail or a handwritten note or a phone call to show appreciation, because it’s an investment on that other person’s time, as well.

Q. How do you listen to customers and stay close to them?

It’s building the relationships and spending time with them. You have to be with them face to face, you have to travel to their locations, you have to get out of your office so it’s not always on the phone or it’s not always on e-mail ... either playing golf with them or having lunch or dinner with them, but being physically with them, building that relationship.

That’s how you better understand what that customers’ needs and wants are and, more importantly, how you can help provide some solutions for them. And that, in turn, builds better relations.

When I hear something that’s great news, I will send a quick e-mail or a quick note to them, congratulating them, and I always try to put a personal touch to it — but do it sincerely. The worst thing somebody can do is to be disingenuous when they’re trying to congratulate a client.

Q. How do you foster a spirit of trust with employees?

You have to let people know what your intentions are, that you want to get better every day, that I am smart enough to know that I don’t know it all, and you give them permission to be candid and open and honest.

Leaders don’t always have to do it themselves. One of the things I’ve learned is that I don’t have to be the smartest man in the room, but I need to be able to ask questions and keep my ego in the trunk of the car and know that there are people who know a lot more than I do, and I can trust them to help make my company and myself get better.

The trickle-down effect of that allows their associates to feel like they can come with new innovative ideas or suggestions that will be listened to but not always implemented. It’s an environment where people can come in and talk about the good, the bad and the indifferent.

Trying to go through and being a successful leader, you’ve got to make sure you foster this trust environment at all levels within the organization.

HOW TO REACH: Expesite LLC, (614) 917-1100 or www.expesite.com