Six years ago, I decided to take up skiing. I figured that, at 57, it was about time for me to learn--if only because I was tired of watching my wife, who had been skiing her whole life, have all the fun out on the slopes. So Elaine and I rented a place in Telluride, Colorado, and I hired a full-time ski instructor, Dennis Huis, with whom I spent nearly every waking moment for the next two weeks. He taught me how to ski, all right, but first he had to learn a lesson about listening to customers.

Midway through one of my early sessions, Dennis told me I had to raise a ski as I was moving forward. I told him I couldn't do it. He assured me that I could--I just had to try. Again I said I couldn't.

"No, no," he said. "You've got to do it."

"No, I don't," I said. "Listen, here's the deal. I'm the customer. You're the instructor. You have to find a way to teach me within the bounds of what I can do, and I'm telling you, I can't do it the way you want me to." He didn't want to hear it. He was obviously unhappy with me when we parted.

But something changed overnight. The next morning, he said, "Okay. You can't do what I asked yesterday. We'll try something else." He had me do other exercises that created the illusion of my remaining on two feet, even though I was actually balancing on one foot. It worked. I learned what he wanted me to learn and was able to take a big step forward.

"That was great," I said at the end of the lesson. "What happened?"

He said that he had gone home frustrated the night before. He'd told his wife, "This guy is completely insane. He won't listen to me. He won't even try to do what I tell him. He says I have to find another way to teach him, as if I haven't already taught a million people how to ski."

"Maybe you should just listen to him and find another way," his wife had said.

Dennis had had to admit that she had a point. He had a sprinkler business in the off-season. There he did what his customers wanted him to do. But when it came to being a ski instructor, he had forgotten a basic rule of business. From then on, Dennis and I got along splendidly. When I showed up the following year, he was wearing a huge button that read, yes, norman. I laughed. "You're the customer," he said.

I only wish it were always so easy. Listening to customers seems to be a lost art these days. To be sure, we all say that we listen to customers, and that we always try to give them what they need. The problem is, we often assume that we know what they need better than they do.

Recently, my wife, Elaine, went out to buy a coffee table at a local furniture store. She told the salesman she wanted a square one.

To a certain extent, that's understandable. Most of us are experts in whatever service we provide or product we sell. We take pride in what we do, and we like to think that we know the best way to serve customers. Sometimes, however, that's not how a customer wants to be served, in which case you have to be flexible. I've been able to land accounts simply by saying yes to a prospect who's been told no by my competitors because they're convinced that the prospect will be better off doing it their way. (See "Listen and Earn," March 1997.)

The problem, I believe, has to do with being focused on what you're trying to sell rather than what the customer is trying to buy. Recently, for example, my wife, Elaine, went out to buy a coffee table at a local furniture store. She told the salesman that she wanted a square one. "You've come to the right place," he said and proceeded to show her a selection of round coffee tables.

"You've come to the right place," the salesman responded--and he proceeded to show her a selection of round coffee tables.

"They're very nice," Elaine said. "But do you have any square ones?"

"Oh, yes," he said. "Let me see..." He took her to a different part of the store. "Perhaps you'd like this one."

It was another round table. "I really need a square table," Elaine said.

"Apparently we don't have any in stock," he said.

"Do you have photographs I could look at?" she asked. He promised to send her some. Four days later, 10 photographs of coffee tables arrived in the mail. All of the tables were round. Elaine threw up her hands and vowed never to go back to the store.

That is, in fact, the risk you take when you don't listen to customers. You may lose not only the sale but also the customer. Had the salesman said up front that he had no square tables, Elaine would have looked elsewhere for one, but she wouldn't have given up on the store.

And it's every bit as important, and as rare, for companies to listen to the customer after they've made the sale. Too often they make the mistake of thinking that their job is simply to do, to the best of their ability, whatever they're being paid for. But that's only part of the job. You also have to make sure customers are happy with what you do and how you do it. If they aren't, you'll lose them, and you'll have to find other customers just to stay even, which is a tough and expensive way to build a business. So how do you hold on to the customers you already have? You need to do more than just listen to them. You have to probe deeply enough to understand what they're really saying and why.

We had a recent example at U.S. Document Security, the document-destruction business that we operate as an adjunct to our records storage company. We received a letter from one of our customers, giving us 60 days' notice that it was canceling its contract with us. Since we'd already had two complaints from the woman in charge of the account, an office manager, I hit the ceiling. "I thought I told you to go see her and deal with this," I said to my sales manager.

"We did," he said. "She told us the problem, and we corrected it."

"Well, obviously you didn't," I said. "Go back there and find out what this is all about."

The next morning, he and another salesperson went to see the office manager and quickly realized that they had missed the real problem. Maybe they hadn't listened closely enough the first time, or maybe she hadn't explained herself clearly and they hadn't asked enough questions. In any case, it turned out that the office manager didn't have complaints. Two other people did, and they'd taken their complaints to her. The complaints were fairly minor, and the other 48 people in the office apparently were satisfied with our service, but the office manager didn't want to hear any complaints at all. My salespeople talked to the complainers and promised that their issues would be addressed immediately. They were, the crisis passed, and we kept the account.

It occurred to me, however, that the episode had uncovered an opportunity for us. The problem had arisen, after all, because we hadn't given our client's employees a phone number to call if they had a question or a complaint. True, we had phone numbers on the secure bins that we put in the client's office and emptied on a regular basis, but people didn't look there. Instead they went to the office manager. We could have saved her, and ourselves, a lot of aggravation if we'd simply made sure that everyone in the office knew how to reach us. What's more, I realized, there were undoubtedly other accounts with similar issues. We needed to do something about that. We had to understand that, when we signed up an office with 50 people in it, we had 50 customers--not one.

The upshot is that we created a new position, service coordinator. He goes to all of our customers, introduces himself to everybody who might use one of our bins, and gives out cards with our phone numbers. "If you have any questions or requests, just call us," he says. "We'll be glad to help you."

That's the real payoff of listening to customers: Not only do you keep their business, but you find ways to improve what you do. And there's another benefit as well: The more smoothly your company runs, the more time you have to do things like, well, go skiing. Right now I'm a black diamond skier. Next winter I plan to move up a notch--provided Dennis is still willing to listen to me.

Norm Brodsky ( is a veteran entrepreneur whose six businesses include a three-time Inc. 500 company. His co-author is editor-at-large Bo Burlingham.