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International Clinical Trials

The Art of Listening


What really defines an ideal partnership? In researching this article I threw out this question to colleagues in my office, asking each person to “give me two words to describe what you look for in an ideal partner”. Leaving the question open to interpretation meant I received some tongue-in-cheek responses; ‘stunning looks’ and ‘selective hearing’ were two. Among the more sensible replies, however, were trust, honesty, reliability, understanding, flexibility, respect, compatibility, consistency and, last but certainly not least, the ability to listen.

Whether we’re planning to go on a date, choosing a person to spend the rest of our life with, or seeking a partner to collaborate on a new project, it seems most of us broadly agree on what we should be looking for. In reality though, are providers guilty of ‘selective hearing’? Do we really listen to what clients have to say and mould our service offering to fit, or do we expect them to squeeze their needs into an off-theshelf solution?

By engaging properly with customers, listening carefully to spot new opportunities, and remaining flexible to fill the gaps, service providers are more likely to win business

This question can be viewed from a different angle, too. Are buyers stifling the creativity and flexibility of vendors, with pre-conceived ideas that their providers can offer nothing original?

Status Quo

Most in the clinical trials industry see outsourcing as a model for streamlining operations, increasing competition, eliminating waste and, critically, gaining best value. Unfortunately it’s all too easy to fall into the ‘us versus them’ mindset. One commentator at a recent pharmaceutical outsourcing conference put it this way: “we tell our clients what they want, why, and how to do it. That’s what they pay us for – our proficiency and expertise.”

Sure, there is a case that innovation has to be led from the seller as opposed to the customer. No-one is denying that buyers may not know what they want until a service provider shows them what they could have. If you think about it, it’s improbable that somebody asked Steve Jobs to come up with the iPod, but the world, and most people I know, got the idea.

“We don’t see any real difference in what vendors offer. Their services and capabilities are pretty standard, even though sometimes the costs can vary,” complained an observer from the other side of the outsourcing fence at the same conference. Whose fault is that? The buyer or the seller? Where is the twoway communication, if this discussion is taking place during a panel session at a conference?

The Big Idea

In a way, it seems it all depends on your position in the food chain; the motivation behind your search for the ‘perfect partner’. For a purchasing manager, the main driver may be to reduce costs. A project manager, on the other hand, is likely to be looking for a vendor that can get the job done on time, within budget and with the minimum fuss. Those looking to develop business and drive new sales are probably on the lookout for the next big idea or cutting edge product.

So while no-one can argue that outsourcing to experts doesn’t make sense, isn’t there a more sensible way to approach the collaborations that are so central to the success of a project?

While we can probably take the list of words and file trust, honesty, reliability, respect and so on in a folder marked ‘completed items,’ we should perhaps take ‘listening’, ‘understanding’ and ‘flexibility’, and put them firmly in our in-tray for further development and discussion.

Ignorance or Arrogance?

If service providers listen to clients and open their ears and minds in order to understand their needs we realise that, actually, they may have more to offer than even they expect themselves. Vendors like to play on their ability to complete projects in a timely manner, cut costs, deliver results – a myriad of different buzz words to convince potential clients they can do a great job. They may even say that they listen. How much are they missing, though, by not understanding what they are being told – let alone doing anything about what they hear?

Let’s take an example from a different industry, one currently learning the hard way that listening is essential to success – the banking sector. A CEO of a community bank demonstrated the essence of not listening. Or rather, listening without understanding. Asked whether his organisation would be offering its customers the possibility of mobile banking, he answered, “maybe we’ll be doing something later this year. We surveyed our customers and only 20 per cent wanted mobile banking.”

Is this not listening, not understanding, or both? Is it a case of missing the point or just a bullish, chosen path of ignorance? In an economic climate where, more than ever those percentages make a difference, you can be sure that if you’re not interested in servicing those 20 per cent of clients, someone else will be – and soon. If the Pareto Principle – also known as the 80/20 rule – applies here, and it usually does, the bank may be in for a shock if they continue in this vein.

Achieving the Balance

It is up to the vendor to ensure that clients know how their needs can be served to create a solution that fi ts. In the same way, the experts all agree that the vendor needs to know their clients. How can this be achieved without listening and understanding? Are we forgetting about that elusive, perfect partnership – the one based on all of the words in the list, not the ones we’ve been focusing on?

“Customers thought they knew what they needed, but they didn’t know enough about the technology, the possibilities, the interfaces, or the limitations,” writes business expert Ann Latham. “It was essential to dig in and find out what problem they were trying to solve and what outcome they hoped to achieve. In these cases, catering to their wants would have been disastrous more often than not.”

Steve Blank, prominent US lecturer in business agrees. “Part of [it] is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not to please every one of them.”

The 80/20 rule mentioned earlier states that, among other things, 80 per cent of our business will come from 20 per cent of our customers. Therefore, it’s impossible that a vendor be perfect partners to every client. Every organisation must focus on the partnerships it is going to get the most from.

It’s highly probable, following the same pattern, that 80 per cent of any company’s business goes to 20 per cent of vendors. Listening, and understanding, could be the difference between finding ourselves as ‘the rest’, or one of the partners in the ‘perfect’ percentage.

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Andy Thurstan joined MD Events in 2007 to develop business opportunities in Europe and support growth in the US, leading the company’s establishment in the Russian Federation during 2010. From his beginnings as a journalist, Andy moved into corporate communications for a UK-based educational software company, helping to develop business proposals and tenders and win multi-million pound contracts with publicly-funded UK institutions such as the BBC and various educational organisations, before joining MD Events. In his five years at MD Events, Andy has helped clients align their meeting requirements in order to maximise return on investment and eliminate duplication.
Andy Thurstan
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