Growth Insights for CEOs

The Three Levels of Listening: Deeper Insights for More Enduring and Effective Sales and Marketing Strategies

Posted by Deborah Fell


No matter how many shiny new products and services emerge every year in an industry, there will always be a few established brand giants waiting at the top of the Mountain of Customer Loyalty, waiting to force the weaker ones into submission.

Perhaps one of the most colossal brands in history, Coca-Cola has been lauded for its marketing strategy savvy in leveraging both unique consumer insight and company vision in every thing it develops. A recently launched global marketing campaign called Taste the Feeling is designed to unite the entire company’s trademark under one brand strategy. It’s a prime example of how lasting brands, like Coke’s, are built on a combination of feedback from the customer, market-based perspective, data-driven insight, and creative, collaborative brainstorming. Let me explain: While the new Coke campaign is anchored in compelling visual storytelling and emotional that produces the brand energy and life that consumers expect; behind the scenes, customer research, relevant insights, testing, and validation also occurred before strategy implementation to make sure the campaign would be a success. 

Whether you run a small, mid-size, or large company, it’s paramount that you listen to your market in order to define the customers and segments you will serve, provide offerings that will differentiate and satisfy, and leverage deep insights to create compelling messaging and marketing. 

As Chief Outsiders’ leaders Art Saxby and Pete Hayes affirm in their book, The Growth Gears, relevant insights are logical, linear, repeatable, and measureable data points that can help you develop a highly relevant market-focused strategy for your business. Without them, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to execute your marketing strategy with efficiency and productivity. Add to that an even deeper understanding of your customer – at the level of human insight – that resonates with your customer (whether consumer or client), because you truly understand what they care deeply about and what motivates them at their core. 

So, are you ready to go deeper for more effective and enduring strategies? Let’s proceed. 

Gaining Insights with the Three Levels of Listening

  1. Internal focus: As Harvard Business Review notes, listening is one of the most underrated tools in business – and it can really help drive business success. Listening at the right level, however, is the key to getting the most from your qualitative and quantitative insights. The Harvard article states that listening is widely regarded as having three levels. The first level of listening is the most basic. When you’re listening on the first level, you’re hearing the audio that comes out of someone’s mouth – but you’re mostly focused internally on your own thoughts, priorities, and worries. In a personal sense, this means half listening about a project, while you’re wondering how you’re going to get the kids to practice this evening, and receiving a list of to-dos while you’re panicking about workload.

From an organizational standpoint, a lot of businesses get stuck in this first level – because they’re only listening from the inside. They’re enthusiastic about their new offerings, they’re excited about new campaign ideas – but really, there’s no call for feedback. In our own lives, this can cause a lot of unnecessary anxiety and turmoil. In the business world, this shuts us off from the reality of our goals.

  1. External market focus: The second level of listening is when you’re focused on hearing the actual message that the person is trying to send you. You’re genuinely interested in what he or she has to say, so you ask more questions to get even more feedback. Most businesses have the intention to be at least at the second level of listening for their customers, competitors, and sales and marketing team members. With curiosity and focus, it’s possible to gain good insights at this stage.
  2. Integrated focus: However, the third level of listening is what businesses like yours should strive for. This is really where the magic happens. When you’re at the third level of listening in business, you’re listening globally; in other words, you are reading between the lines to get a 360-degree view of what your market is saying to you. What isn’t being said, and what does that mean?

Do your customers get energized when learning about a certain topic on your website and social media profiles? Do they fail to provide feedback when you send them targeted email newsletters about one particular product? More importantly, what are their beliefs and motivations, and how do those show up in behaviors in the purchasing cycle? How do you take these multiple inputs and results, add curiosity and collaboration, and then develop the kind of insights that can set your business apart?

Practice listening to your marketplace on the third level to gain the insights needed to create a differentiated strategy and drive enduring growth. Customer feedback, competitive analysis and results analysis, combined with an old-fashioned dose of brainstorming and collaboration, can yield deeper insights that lead to strategies and tactics that set you apart in a cluttered marketplace.   

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Deborah Fell, CMO, Chief Outsiders, is an expert at helping companies identify where the opportunities are (whether growth strategy or marketing productivity), and help them assess and develop more actionable and effective marketing strategies. You can call her at 240.494.6404 or email her at 

She is an outsourced CMO with 30+ years of strategic and tactical marketing experience, including Senior Vice President, Global Marketing Marriott International; Division Manager, AT&T; CMO, furniture industry; Sr. Product Manager, detergent industry, amongst others. In recent years she has leveraged her strong strategy and implementation skills to help mid-sized businesses and mentor start-ups across numerous industries (including healthcare insurance, technology apps, craft brewing, etc.). Deborah resides in the Washington, D.C. area.

Topics: Business Growth Strategy, Business Planning, Consumer Insights, Strategic Insights