Approach With Care: Getting Help for ‘May I Help You?’

No phrase in retail has more enemies among sales trainers than “Can I help you?”

“It’s almost a useless thing to say,” says blogger Seth Godin. “If you want to end a conversation with a teenager, just ask, ‘How was school today?’ If you want to end a conversation with a customer, just ask if you can help.”

“On the surface it sounds like a reasonable question,” notes Jeff Mouwatt, author of Influence With Ease, whose Web site is jeffmouwatt.com. “It’s an offer to help somebody. But it is probably one of the worst greetings, because it gets a conditioned response.”

That response is, almost invariably, “No thanks, I’m just looking.” It’s as rote as “Can I help you?” but is generally enough to chase salespeople away.

“The ‘just looking’ thing is a big reflex,” says Kate Peterson, president and CEO of Performance Concepts (performanceconcepts.net). “The customer doesn’t really mean it. And when they really do want to look at something, a lot of the times the salesperson isn’t there.”

While just about every sales trainer dislikes “Can I help you?” they disagree on how best to greet customers. Most believe greetings should be customized to the sales staffer’s personality. But all agree that the greeting is extremely important. 

“The greeting is the foundation for the whole process,” says Peterson. “If you do it right, you have a much better chance of making that customer comfortable.”

Here are some of the best tips JCK found for greeting your customers:

Welcome customers as if they’re friends coming to your house. That means welcoming them with a big smile, eye contact, and lots of enthusiasm. “When your best friend comes into the store, you are going to be enthusiastic,” says sales trainer Leonard Zell (zellit.com). “You’d say hello to a friend if you see them in the driveway. You don’t wait till they come to the sales counter.”

Introduce yourself early on. “When you welcome them to the store, say your name and introduce yourself and extend your hand,” says Peterson. “How can you have a 20-minute conversation with someone if you don’t know their name?”

Ask if the customer has ever visited the store. Mouwatt cites a study that found that asking, “Have you been here before?” increased retail sales some 16 percent more than asking, “Can I help you?” He theorizes why this works for repeat customers: “It reminds them that they’ve been at your business before, so it’s a familiar place. Familiarity means trust. And if there is trust, there is willingness to spend money.”

Peterson advises asking a slightly different question: “Is this your first time visiting with us?” “With visit it’s more comfortable,” she says. “You want to avoid the implication that this is a pressured sales environment.” For a first-time customer, Peterson recommends asking, “May I ask who told you about us?” That question implies that your store values referral business and gets a lot of it, she says.

Show people around. A salesperson should show first-time customers around the store and add some personal touches, Peterson advises. The salesperson could say, for example, “That’s my favorite area of the store—that’s where the diamonds are.”

Brad Huisken, JCK columnist and president of IAS Training (iastraining.com.), also recommends this verbal map as a good rejoinder to the dreaded “just looking.”

“As you give them a verbal map, most customers will come clean and tell you what they are really looking for, or they will at least start going in the direction of what they are looking for,” he says.

Start a conversation. When greeting someone, you don’t have to stick to jewelry. Huisken suggests talking about the weather or local events. “Anything but sex, politics, or compliments,” he says. (Compliments can seem phony.) The point is to have a real conversation—listen and react to what the customer is saying.

Mouwatt recommends installing a conversation piece near your entrance, such as interesting artwork or a talking parrot—something to get people talking.

Clean their jewelry. “If they have a piece of jewelry, get it off of them and into the sonic,” Huisken advises. “Say, ‘That’s a gorgeous ring. Let me polish it for you.’ So you have at least 10 or 15 minutes where you can talk to them and try to sell them merchandise.”

Ask open-ended questions. One of the reasons “May I help you” is out of favor among sales trainers is because it’s a closed-ended question—it can be, and often is, answered with a simple “no.”

Zell even recommends that salespeople not ask any questions, but instead make a statement such as, “There must be an occasion coming up” or “You must be looking for something special.”

“With a lot of salespeople, everything that comes out of their mouth is a question,” Zell says. “They don’t realize they are doing it. It becomes something of an interrogation.” Questions, he says, make people talk less. Statements encourage them to talk more.

Don’t ask, “How are you today?” Like “May I help you,” it sounds like typical sales speak. “It’s not sincere at all,” Zell says. “So we are throwing an insincere remark at them right away.”

If a customer isn’t friendly or doesn’t want to engage, don’t worry. “Sometimes consumers are skittish from the last place they have been,” notes Peterson. “They may be tired. They may be cranky. Don’t take it personally. It’s probably not about you.”

Acknowledge everyone who comes into the store. “The worst greeting is no greeting at all,” says Mouwatt. Of course, there may not always be someone available to greet every customer. If you’re already helping someone, Huisken says, give the person who just walked in a verbal contract. “Say something like, ‘I’m just wrapping up this customer,’ ” he suggests. “If we don’t acknowledge the new customer, they will probably make a loop around the store and head out the front door.”

Mouwatt recommends telling the new customer something like, “Just a few minutes.” He says that also helps motivate the current customer to move the process forward and make a decision. Mouwatt adds that, if the customer has to wait, make sure he or she is entertained. “Let them sit down,” he says. “Give them something to eat or drink. Or let them watch an instructional video about your store. It is important that be part of your retail store—how to handle people who are waiting.”

The key, Peterson says, is that retailers need to do “anything they can to stand out and be different and make the customer feel special and not just like another credit card.”

“Can I help you” works about 10 percent of the time, Huisken says. “I’m worried about the other 90 percent.”