The art of listening
In 1902, Hans Demant was shown a picture of the Danish-born Crown Princess Alexandra on the day of her coronation in London. Barely noticeable amongst the rich folds of mink and silk, the elaborate webs of pearls and jewels, the new Queen of England wore one of the world’s first hearing aids.
The following year Mr Demant set sail for England to buy the same type of hearing device, driven by a desire to help his wife Camilla, who had experienced hearing loss at a young age. Since the Demant family began importing and distributing electronic hearing devices in 1904, Oticon’s stature as one of the world’s leading manufacturers and providers of hearing devices has grown rapidly and resolutely.
Today Oticon is amongst the three largest providers of hearing care solutions in the world, with operations in more than 30 countries and sales activities all over the world. Its track record of innovative product launches has established a formidable technical reputation. Oticon is proud of its ‘firsts’. In 1992 it introduced the world’s first fully automatic hearing device. Since then, Oticon has created the world’s first fully digital device and the world’s first device with high-performance wireless technologies. Seen from the outside, Oticon appears to be a company that places technology first. But within a few minutes of meeting Søren Nielsen, the company’s President, it becomes apparent that technology is, as he puts it, just the tip of the iceberg.
“In our industry, technology plays a large role and those that master that technology are generally seen as leaders in the industry. Our promise includes a product but it is not limited to that product. Our mission and role is to support the personal interaction between the hearing-care professional and the end user, to play a supporting role in better understanding the individual challenges and tailoring a personalised solution.”
Oticon’s technological prowess is just the icing on the cake. What sets Oticon apart is empathy. In everything Oticon does, each action and interaction, a human hand guides. It is a business based on relationships and a deep understanding of the people it works with and works for.
“Since the company was started, we have been dedicated and completely focused on truly understanding what life is like with a hearing impairment and what it is like to be a hearing care specialist, interacting with people that are hard of hearing.
"Two people with theoretically exactly the same hearing loss react very differently to different settings. Some people can handle a very dynamic hearing aid that can pick up sounds from all different kinds of angles and others prefer a more calm and steady system. Being able to counsel that, to understand the nuances and to find out what precise solution works for the individual is of huge importance.”
Not content to rely on reports mediated through hearing care professionals and consultants, the company deploys its own support and research teams to observe how people interact with their products and consultants, deep-diving into personal experiences, emotional challenges and practical details. Members of Oticon’s sales and support staff spend over an hour with hearing care professionals, at least once every two to three months. Oticon have established a state-of-the-art independent research centre committed to deepening their understanding of the real-life implications of hearing loss and sharing those findings with others.
“We strongly believe that investing resources in deep-diving into these experiences and challenges feeds our ability to create solutions that are in tune with the needs of both the end-users and the hearing care professionals. The fact is that half of the people who go to a hearing care professional and are diagnosed with hearing loss still choose not to buy anything. We need to understand the barriers. How can we change the profile of hearing impairment or the way we present our solutions?"
Understanding the individual experiences of hearing loss is only one world that Oticon immerses itself in. The company has a clear sense of its role in supporting the relationship between hearing care professionals and their patients.
“I think that what we do really well is supporting specialists in understanding these practical, psychological and emotional experiences of the individual. We see a significant change in the mind-set of the consumer of the products that we create. People are looking for a counsellor, not a medical advisor. They don’t like to be told what is right, they want to be involved in decision-making. This is very different to 10 or 15 years ago when it was a very prescriptive model. This change in behaviour creates a need and demand from the hearing care professional in getting better support, better tools, so they can do a better job. We really see ourselves as partners with our customers. We want our customers to be the most professional and the best in the industry. Through providing marketing tools, open-house seminars, knowledge exchange programmes, we support them in becoming that.”
This ‘listening ear’ and earnest, compassion- ate approach guides every relationship the company has, from end-users and hearing care professionals to the company’s rapport with its own employees.
“Our people first mission — that same mission to better understand the elements of people’s experience of having and treating hearing loss - it is something that our employees are part of. We try to get everyone to share in this mission. We want everyone to have a relatively high level of understanding of the business that we are in. People are kept motivated and like to do what they do. We are good at creating a picture of where we can do better and where we can win the battle.”
For many companies with such a strong culture and sense of internal motivation, partnership, mergers and acquisitions are often a minefield of tensions, frustrations and often, departures. Over the past 8 years, the owner of Oticon, William Demant Holding, have welcomed around 70 successful companies into their group. Nielsen does not claim these successes for the ‘Oticon culture’. Despite immense pride in the culture of his organisation, Nielsen expresses characteristic humility in his reflection of this history of successful ventures. Even in these potentially highly contentious affairs, it seems that empathy and respect have been the guiding principles for Oticon and the bed-rock for its stellar record.
“If you buy something, you have seen a value in it that you don’t already have. You don’t want to change it with injections of your own culture. Typically, you share a certain perspective already. There are of course fundamental standards that we expect: transparent management, open-minded thinking, a sustainable, long-term approach. But beyond this, we don’t go in with a SWAT team of Oticon people. Then we would lose the people for which the company was bought. We don’t buy companies for assets, we buy them for people. If the people leave, the assets leave.” Ultimately Oticon’s success is the sum of its parts; strong leadership, a deep sense of internal motivation and shared purpose amongst employees, market-leading technological innovation and a professional, integrated service. But underlying each of these elements and binding them together is Oticon’s profound empathy, its willingness to listen to the people that the organisation works with and works for.
An important factor in the profundity of the Oticon culture can be found in the unique ownership structure where Oticon’s main shareholder, the Oticon Foundation, has approximately 60% of the shares of William Demant Holding. This constellation eases some of the pressure for short-term results, which a company listed on the stock exchange, may face and enables a long-term focus. Even though the demand to perform is still strong, the affiliation to the Oticon Foundation nurtures the awareness of the deep roots — in this case the shared story of the Demant family.
Furthermore, the Oticon Foundation each year contributes around EUR 10 million to charitable causes, and many of these donations are connected to the provenance of the Oticon business — audiology. This important facet also supports the unique sense of pride in the culture, the awareness that the company, in fact, makes the world a better place.
“Uniqueness — it is about culture. It is deeply engrained in everything you do. When I think of Oticon and what sets it apart, I think of the analogy of the iceberg. You can see a few facts on the surface but it is really what is underwater that makes the difference.”