It’s always fun to eavesdrop. Oh, I know: It’s not the polite thing to do, and other people’s conversations are none of my business. Nevertheless, you can’t help but overhear snippets here and there, and occasionally there’s a comment that can stop you in your tracks.

The article in this issue about alternative energy sources reminded me of a conversation I overheard at a rest stop in Indiana. I’d been mesmerized by the miles of giant wind turbines that dot the farmland, and desperate for yet another Diet Coke, I selected a gas station with a small café attached. As soon as I took my first sip, I was startled to hear someone bark, “Damn Californians!”

A family sat a booth across the room, and the dad was complaining about the same wind installation that had so entranced me. “What the hell good is that gonna do?” he asked. “This ain’t California! Why do ya gotta mess up the view with that crap?”

View? Thousands upon thousands of acres of flat farmland, planted with corn and soybeans. Flat. Flat. Dad’s young son muttered something about the installation being cool, and then told his angry father to think about how much electricity was being generated by the turbines: “The farmers even get to save money!” It was obvious that someone had schooled the young lad in the benefits of wind energy, but Dad wasn’t buying it.

You can learn so much when you listen to what other people are talking about, without becoming part of the conversation. Each spring I spend way too much time at garden centers, wishing I had more room in the yard and listening to other shoppers’ comments. (And, yes, buying too much.) I also listen to the interactions between customers and staff. It’s a delight to hear an informed salesperson discuss the merits of a new plant, but the most encouraging comment I hear is, “I’m not sure, but I’m happy to find out for you.”

A few hours spent as a “secret shopper” can often tell you more about customers’ concerns than putting them on the spot. One garden center manager I overheard approached a customer and politely asked if she could ask a few questions. The first was, “Why isn’t there more in your cart?” The second was, “Then what can we do to get you to buy more?” I’m sure the queries were well-intentioned, but the approach was off-putting, to say the least. The poor customer stammered, “Um, I don’t know …” and scurried away.

This is not to say that a direct – and tactful – question isn’t valuable. Engaging your clients and customers can win their hearts and their loyalty, not to mention their dollars.

Over the winter holidays, I spoke with the owner of a local garden center about his business. It’s one I visit often, and I always see him watering or fiddling with displays. We’d never met, but when he greeted me he said, “It’s nice to see you again. How are those grasses doing?” Yikes. How did he know? “It’s my job to watch and listen,” he said.

There are fancier, more upscale shops I frequent, but they’re struggling. You rarely see the manager, much less the owner, and customer service employees are few and far between. But this place? The parking lot’s always full. Their plants are healthy and their prices are competitive, but there’s one way they stand out: The owner has taught each and every employee to listen. And it works.