Be a Sponge to Become an Effective Entrepreneur Each client interaction can make you a lot smarter, you just have to be a careful listener

By Ambi Parameswaran

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Customers are both loved and loathed in most B2B industries. They are loved since they pay the bills and you vie very hard to bag the biggest of clients. But they are also loathed because they make unreasonable demands. They bargain on the fees to be paid. And sometimes threaten to pull out their business from your firm.

What if we can reframe this dilemma? What if we can look at our customers with a new pair of lenses?

Customers and clients come in many shapes and sizes. But in most industries, they come with a lot of experience and wisdom from their industry. If we can get into a mood of listening and learning from each client interaction we can become a lot smarter. The way to learn from the customer is not a random process.

New Ideas, New Direction

This is where the S.P.O.N.G.E. framework comes in.

We are at a client meeting and the client makes a comment or an observation. We can take the observation at face value, but by applying the SPONGE learning framework, we can unpack the observation and build a learning from it.

First let us see what S.P.O.N.G.E. stands for:

S: Super Active Listening; not just listening but listening deeply so that we read what is being said and what is not being said.

P: Probing and Questioning; what was said, why was it said, what was behind the observation (what is the story, what is the real story).

O: Observe and Imbibe; what else can you observe at the interaction, what can you learn from what happened.

N: New Behaviour To Emulate; what can you emulate from what you have seen, and how will it help you.

G: Getting the New Behaviour Internalized; how to ensure that the new behavior becomes second nature to you.

E: Expand, Explain, Share; the next big task is to ensure that your team members also benefit from your learning, so share your learning.

Back to Basics

Let us look at a situation. The meeting is yet to start and you find the client spending time with his young colleagues explaining some complicated algorithm. It has nothing to do with your meeting with him/her. You can ignore the interaction, get on with what you went to the client meeting for, complete the job and get out. But that would have been "ordinary" behaviour.

Now let us try and apply the SPONGE framework to what was happening.

If you were behaving like a SPONGE, you would have listened to what was happening very actively (and I am assuming that the client was not involved in anything confidential; it is always better to clarify this before getting into the active listening mode). You realize that the client was spending time with a young colleague explaining something that is complicated. The next step is to probe and question the client (again I am assuming that you have a good working relationship with the client); what was happening, why was the client doing what he was doing. You have observed what had happened, is there something you missed out in terms of body language, tone, and manner of the conversation. Then figure out what is the new behaviour that was in show. In this case, the behaviour could be that the senior leader was taking time out to coach a young colleague, something he need not do.

The Benefit

What have you learnt from this episode? What are the benefits of adopting this behaviour? How will you benefit? How will the young colleague benefit? How will the organization benefit? You then need to take this behaviour to your own workplace. Can you take the time out to help your young colleagues on things that are not of urgent nature? Once you adopt the behaviour and find it to add value, then you may want to expand and share it with your colleagues.

The Effective Entrepreneur

The SPONGE Learning Framework can help you become a more effective entrepreneur. And it is not prohibitively expensive either.

All it calls for is an attitude change. You need to rewire your brain into believing that each client interaction is of value to you. So at the end of each significant client interaction, you need to ask this question to yourself:

What did you see happening? What can you learn from what you saw? How will that help you and your enterprise?

Like a SPONGE that lives deep in the ocean and gets its nutrients from the water it lets in, you should use the interactions with your clients and customers to enrich you with leadership nutrients and also remove impurities from your body.

This article was adapted from the concepts expounded in the author's book, Sponge: Leadership Lessons I Learnt From My Client.

Ambi Parameswaran

Brand strategist and author

He is a brand strategist, author, and founder of, a brand advisory. He was till recently CEO and ED of FCB Ulka Advertising. His latest book is SPONGE. 

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