Keeping your ears open in hard work. We tend to put our nose to the grindstone and let our ears flop down. So companies have to put a listening system in place. Recently these systems have moved away from customer surveys and into "labs" where the target audience can experience a product or service and the marketers can observe them, or even ask questions. Such labs are, of course, very expensive.
Proctor & Gamble has been using what's called "pop-up retail" to run labs where people can actually take samples or even, in this case, make a purchase. Swash is a new test store across the street from Ohio State University where P&G is testing new laundry concepts. (The Columbus Dispatch: Procter & Gamble's new spin on laundry. 2007-Oct-24, by Amy Saunders)
How can you integrate listening and observing customers into your business? Is it as simple as sending executives to serve every now and then? Is your challenge more collecting and tracking data? Maybe your partners just need to set aside and analyze what they've learned recently. Are you using what you've heard to keep your business on the leading edge?