Can I Help You?

“Let’s start at the very beginning / A very good place to start / When you read you begin with A-B-C…”

Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music

… In service you begin with “Can I help you?”

Let’s talk about this phrase. Can I help you is probably the most overused and redundant service question of all time. A customer walks through your entrance, a coworker comes into your office, hell someone even knocks on the bathroom door while you’re trying to sneak in a few minutes on Facebook. All you seem to be able to say is some variation of “can I help you?”

Of course you can help them. They came to you. Why do we feel the need to ask questions we know the answer to? You could try variations such as “what brings you in today?” but is that really any better? Let’s explore…

Customer walks into restaurant. “What brings you in today?”
… Food.

Customer walks into bank. “What brings you in today?”
… Banking.

Coworker walks into office. “What brings you in today?”
… A paycheck.

Coworker knocks on bathroom door. “What brings you in today?”
Probably a call from HR if you actually greet a bathroom invader like this.

You get my point. Don’t you wish you could saunter–I love that word–your way on over to this fresh-faced customer and say “I know what YOU’RE here for!” while throwing a huge thumbs up and aiming your best toothy smile their way? Unfortunately there are not many workplaces where where this is encouraged though we all know customers have any number of snarky replies ready for your mundane questions that you must ha-ha at (more on this topic in a future post). So how do you fix it? How do you escape from the monotony of can I help you?

Don’t ask.

Yep, there’s my earth-shattering, profound wisdom for this post. Stop asking how you can help your customers (the internal and external ones) and just help them. Strut your stuff over to that customer in the restaurant and ask how many are in their party. Grab your banking customer (figuratively, please. I’m not responsible for physical handling of customers because you think I’m writing literally here) and bring them to a desk. Ask your coworker if they know what knocking is you can set up a meeting because you seriously need to finish your coffee before anyone talks to you. Tell the person knocking on the bathroom door to move along. Just please try skipping the can I help you because you already know you can help them and you probably already know how you can help them too.

If you’re awkwardly blunt like me, you might even tell your customer “I didn’t ask if I could help you because you’re here for a reason. Let’s go discover what it is.”

Do you find yourself saying “can I help you?” or any of the many variations with your customers? Discuss!

Service Success Story

My partner and I went out for the dinner a couple nights ago. It was not particularly busy but we still had to wait a quarter of an hour for our drinks to be made at the bar. The waitress had no reason to come to our table during this 15 minute period–since there was nothing ready to bring over–yet she still made sure to check in on us to let us know why the drinks were behind and even brought over some waters (we didn’t ask for them) to hold us over until the drinks were ready. I thought it was thoughtful service to explain the hold up and not just leave us waiting until the bar was done making our drinks!

One thought on “Can I Help You?

  1. Interesting take.
    Maybe instead of “Can I help you”
    Say, “What can I help you with today sir/miss” instead, to avoid redundancy and start the verbal discourse off in the right direction. 🙂
    The other questions probably could be morphed into more useful and functional ones as well, but the more you refine the question, the more you’ll risk sounding too posh for the average American.


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