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This is how it’s done — learning to listen

Enjoy these classic tales of great listening from smart entrepreneurs featured in Inc. Magazine. Read all 30 stories in this great article from April 2009.

Whistle blow while you work “Always communicate without fear of retribution.” That was one of the tenets on which Patrick Kelly and his partners founded Physician Sales and Service in 1983. Kelly wasn’t kidding: He encouraged employees to report shoddy performance by their supervisors. If the complaint was justified and the boss proved intransigent, often the boss was outta there.

Your wish is granite When Bruce and Steve Woolpert took over the construction supply company Granite Rock in 1987, they launched annual “How’re We Doing?” report cards, which ask customers to rate Granite in quality and service. These extensive surveys probe the effectiveness of each product line. The data are crunched into charts and displayed around the plant, so employees see their work through customers’ eyes.

I owe my role to the company store When Henry Nasella became president of early-stage Staples in 1988, he knew zilch about the office-supply business. So he spent part of the first month working in one of the chain’s stores, ringing up purchases, unloading trucks, and restocking shelves.

The circus comes to town In 1984, Connecticut grocery impresario Stew Leonard was contemplating opening a second store. (His first store, a 100,000-square-foot carnival featuring a petting zoo and cows dancing in the aisles, was already a $100 million success.) Before finalizing the new location, he wanted to do a little market research — Stew Leonard style. He pitched a big tent on the site and invited prospective customers to stop and bend his ear.

Errors apparent Prior to launch in 1995, Jeff Bezos gave Amazon.com the tire kicking to end all tire kickings. Employees asked friends to make mock purchases. The rehearsal was scheduled to run six weeks but expanded to three months as the 300 testers found glitches. When the site went live, it was virtually bugless.

Filing a flight plan David Neeleman’s business model for JetBlue, which got off the ground in 2000, explicitly revolved around not twigging customers off. Neeleman’s team assembled a long list of fliers’ bêtes noires, then methodically came up with ways to eliminate them.

“Do not press 1.” A few years ago, Commonwealth Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation invested $50,000 in a phone system and promptly disabled those irritating menu prompts. Founder Dawson Rutter replaced that feature with a recorded message assuring clients that their calls would be answered in three rings — which they nearly always are. Commonwealth’s service is the theme of its industry and customer plaudits.

Fight it out amongst yourselves Whenever Maria Fee, founder and CEO of Kitba Consulting, expanded to a new city, she would select a fresh slate of advisers — insurance agents, investment counselors, tax attorneys, financial planners. She did this by inviting two candidates for each post to her office, posing questions, and listening while they battled over the answers. Once her team was in place, she convened it whenever she faced a major issue.

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