Book Excerpt: How technology is enabling a new era of ‘deep listening,’ and why you should pay attention

[Editor’s Note: Aaron Painter is a vice president and general manager at Microsoft, based in Beijing. This excerpt is from his new book, LOYAL: A Leader’s Guide to Winning Customer and Employee Loyalty.]

The next time you sit down to discuss growth in your company, and your colleagues are focused on how to attract new customers or new employees, consider instead shifting the discussion to the people who are already part of the organization. A company with loyal employees often attracts satisfied customers, and together those factors create the strongest growth magnet.

Successful companies listen to their customers and employees. Those that listen well can build trust and create loyalty. In a world where customers and employees have more choice than ever, loyalty could not be more important.

“I used to think I should treat people the way I wanted to be treated,” says Tim Ryan, the new US Chairman of PwC. “But really, I need to treat people the way they want to be treated.” That’s a subtle shift, he confirms, one that requires a willingness to listen. “It’s good, I’m growing.”

We’re now entering an era in which technology can facilitate deep listening. Deep listening is a method of collecting increasing amounts of data and finding connections between them: improving customer engagement, optimizing operations, improving products, and developing lasting loyalty in employees.

Since the dawn of industrialization, technology has provided tools to make businesses better. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we stand at the dawn of an age of digital creation and ubiquitous consumption, enabled by cloud computing and machine learning.

While the digital era provides many things, it’s primarily characterized by new ways of doing business using technology and the mass proliferation of data that can be collected and monitored. Sensors and connections are capturing more and more inputs, and our capacity to listen via technology is greater than it ever has been. Just two years ago, there were perhaps a hundred companies with an interest in machine learning. Now, in 2017, there are thousands. Every industry, from food to automobiles, from computing to energy discovery and production, is being touched by this transformation. Every company is becoming a digital company.

The good news is that digital transformation is fiercely egalitarian. The concept of emerging markets is already becoming obsolete. Countries in the BRICS block (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), thought until recently to be the primary emerging economies, are nearly all facing economic challenges, stagnation, or political instability.

They still present enormous economic opportunities, but our definition of an emerging economy has changed. In China, specifically, the market is evolving. The country is moving from an economy based solely upon production to one based also upon innovation and consumption. Technology is becoming an equalizing force, which has the potential to create fresh opportunities for businesses—and nations—of all sizes. Technological listening is advancing and successful organizations are embracing the possibilities it offers.

The digital era is one in which the experience of being listened to and understood, which was once thought to be the preserve of the local general store, can be scaled across much larger organizations and locations, serving many more customers.

Digital tools are empowering employees to create experiences that make customers feel listened to in an intimate way. Organizations that succeed in this new era will be the ones that have not only the tools to listen effectively, but also a culture of listening throughout the organization. Technology invites companies to reconsider the ways they do business. Firms that fail to take advantage of these opportunities, however, risk being outcompeted and losing market share.

Pick up a business magazine and you’ll soon realize how universal the conversation about digital transformation is becoming. The power of new technologies built on Big Data and cloud computing are key areas of discussion and companies that fail to take advantage of what they offer will likely be obscured by competitors.

Companies that grasp the possibilities of digital tools, however, place themselves in a prime position to attract top talent in a highly competitive marketplace. A workforce that is constantly learning and improving in pursuit of a specific purpose is the most valuable resource available to an employer. Without loyal employees, it will be very di cult to attract, retain, and grow a loyal customer base that stays connected with the company as it transforms.

Over the next decade, we’ll see more and more industries transform themselves to take advantage of the digital era. New companies will be created, others will grow and develop, and still others will fade away.

None of this is to suggest that human relationships will be superseded by technology. In a world where technology is listening deeply, it will ideally supplement and support human relationships, not replace them.

Listening has always been a critical tool for generating respect and understanding. Faced with a wave of digital transformation, we now have access to exciting tools that allow us to listen better than ever.

In a world of choice, technology will help people make choices that align with their values, guiding them to companies that they feel most accurately represent their principles, and to brands with which they feel connected. When we combine the traditional values that nurture loyalty with the huge potential of digital technology, we empower ourselves to build stronger relationships and more fruitful connections.

In many ways, the currency of the twenty-first century is people, and what they can create through their skills and loyalty when they are empowered to do so. Ultimately, a commitment to better listening and developing loyalty can lead us towards building a better world.