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Journalists ask questions, and people answer them. This is how the business works, and how it’s always worked. But: Why? Why do people tell us their stories? Why do they let us into their lives, their businesses, their most sacred of spaces? Honestly, sometimes reporters are shocked by the access they get. When I was a community newspaper reporter, my least favorite part of the gig was covering breaking-news stories about people dying in accidents or crimes — and yet almost every time I called a newly grieving family member, they’d graciously answer my questions about the deceased.
And here’s why. Because people want to be heard. It’s gratifying — a confirmation that your ideas and thoughts and experiences matter, and are worth someone else’s time. In the right circumstance, it can be flattering, too. When people feel heard, they feel valued. They gravitate toward an open ear.
I was reminded of that when I called Dogfish Head Craft Brewery founder Sam Calagione to talk to him for this month’s magazine. I was originally interested in sales strategies. He’d tamped down sales of his most popular beer — frustrating fans, bar owners and retailers alike for years — because he thought it would be better for his company’s long-term growth. I was curious: How did he resist the urge to just give these people the beer they wanted?
Instead, he gave me insight on how to win people over despite not giving them what they want. “We apologized,” he says. And he did a lot of listening, hearing out people’s complaints. “If we were just arrogant and said, ‘Tough shit; we don’t care if this is hurting you,’ that would have hurt our brand more than it would have helped.”
It worked out. Today, Dogfish is beloved in the beer scene. I’ve walked around with Sam at his Delaware brewery; fans snap photos of him so often, you’d think he’s Harry Styles. He’s practically a local hero.
Making sure people feel heard: It’s obvious, but still often deeply overlooked. I’ve never sold beer (though I’ve drunk plenty of it), and yet it strikes me now how universal Sam’s strategy is. Readers write me all the time when they don’t like something in the magazine — and their notes can be long, angry and come with a threat to cancel subscriptions. But I’ve developed a theory on what’s happening: They don’t expect to be heard, so they’re speaking as loudly as possible. They’re showing up at the door with a battering ram. In turn, I try to reply within hours. I don’t often say I agree with them. Usually I just explain why we made the decision we did. But I also make sure they know I heard them, and considered their words.
The reader’s response to me is almost always the same. “I didn’t think I’d hear back,” they’ll write. Then they’ll promise to keep reading the magazine. Just like they kept coming back to Dogfish.
The same goes in entrepreneurship. Customers want to be heard, perhaps more than they want anything else. Customer service is listening, but at scale. Marketing is listening well enough to reflect people’s needs back to them. A great product is a problem heard and solved, followed by user feedback heard and integrated. And if you do all that listening, and build a great company, some reporter may one day call you up to ask you how you did it. And here’s a bet: You’ll be delighted to explain.