The art of listening to hear

My husband is the Michelangelo of pet grooming.

To see him wield a clipper and scissor and artfully reveal the true essence of a dog from under a mound of matted, knotted hair is to witness a natural talent. He’s self-taught, having unofficially apprenticed with the resident dog groomer in the kennel where he worked years ago. He watched her carefully and purposefully while sweeping up the bundles that fell to the floor sometimes more delicate than snowflakes and other times all at once like a discarded coat, depending on the degree of neglect from its owner. She gradually taught him what she knew and, one day, quit to move to another state, leaving all of her clients to him, if he wanted them. And he did.

He is a natural craftsman, for like woodworking or stone carving, that’s what grooming most resembles. But, it’s also more than that.

What’s different, for one, is that the dog is a living, breathing thing with its own innate reactions to the appearance of a strange man with a sharp object next to its flesh. But the teeth and claws are mild compared to the demands of some of the owners.  He often gets sketches, photos, and conflicting direction from family members, and specific instruction on what tools to use and not use and how much where. I thought my advertising clients were tough, but his often are bickering, disagreeable spouses; detail-obsessed cheapskates; and/or dotting, obsessive parents to their furry surrogate children.

He’s also the Oprah of pet grooming.

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need. And by that I mean he listens patiently and then filters through his own experience and intuition to create a result that is always better than what the client asked for, while also managing to put both the nervous or difficult owner and his or her dog at ease.

“Make my [bichpoo, schnoodle, cockapoo] look like this picture from the Westminster Dog Show, and by the way, she bites.”

“OK, I’ll try.”

What my husband can do that I find most inspiring, and instructive, is he can both listen to what his clients want, but also hear what they really need.

Then with some comforting words for the dog and its owner, a graceful sweep of the clipper, and a strong grip on back of the neck, the dog is returned both beautiful and calm as the owner exclaims with joy and surprise something like, “wow, how did you do that?” The previously skeptical customer becomes a loyal, repeat client who then always asks him to just do what he thinks is best.

It’s an art.

I draw inspiration from my husband in my own work as a creative director. I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

Although metrics are the true measure, I know we’ve succeeded when we’ve made the client cry.

I remember one pitch presentation in particular. We had to come up with the launch and engagement campaign for a new, innovative product. Like many, but perhaps even more than most, the RFP was a bit convoluted, asking us what talents, methods, tools, and resources we would use to answer various challenging questions about how to find and engage with their core audiences at key moments in their journeys. Their fear of failure was palpable. As was, frankly, their hubris. Our labradoodle is unique and needs a special touch that you probably don’t have, but let’s see what you can do anyway.

I strive to both listen to and hear my client’s and the end customer’s wants and needs. To empathize and then interpret to achieve a result that exceeds their expectations by touching them emotionally in ways and to a degree that they didn’t expect.

We did all that hard work. Figuring out the answers to all of the questions, providing the required backup, and trying to instill confidence that we knew what we were doing. For the creative strategy, we learned the functional benefits of this new product were astounding – it truly was a better mousetrap that could kill an existing product category, alleviate a major burden, and provide peace-of-mind where there previously had been none. Maybe that was all we had to say, but in a clever, memorable way?

If we had just listened, that would have been enough.

But I like to think we did more than that. We heard what lay beyond those impressive benefits. We heard the emotional pain caused by missed opportunities, unfulfilled dreams, and frustrating vicious circles of negativity. Convenience and peace-of-mind were great, but not enough to truly capture the transformative power of this product.

So we stopped in our tracks and did another round of research, asking people more about the alternative universe that would open up should this current burden be lifted. We asked them to imagine in detail what life would be like without it. We interviewed carefully screened strangers, but also loved ones and friends and recorded their descriptions of aspirational, imaginary worlds. By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

These stories of unlocking hidden potential became the inspiration for the creative and flowed through the work in content, experiences, and look and feel.

Then, recognizing the power of the stories we heard, we wrote down short excerpts, one per index card, and locked the stack in a jewelry box.

By lifting this burden, this product not only created peace-of-mind, it allowed people to unlock their hidden potential and achieve dreams they never even considered possible because they were so outside of their reach.

At the end of the presentation, after answering the questions in the RFP and showing dozens of boards and slides of creative work, exhausted yet exhilarated, I took the small jewelry box from the table where it had been sitting silently waiting and handed it to the SVP seated at the head of the table.

Surprised, he opened it, taking out one card, and then another, reading and smiling, and reading another. Finally, the silence was broken as he started to read the stories aloud, punctuated by thoughtful sighs and bursts of laughter from the room.

Perhaps saying he was crying is an exaggeration, but eyes filled with tears and a hitch in his voice made it clear that the stories deeply touched him.

We were in a cab to the airport when he called to tell us we had won the business.

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