“Can I help you?” Language that slams the door on sales


Most of us, at one time or another, have worked in retail.  For me, it was a 7 month stint selling hiking boots and clothing at an outdoors store.

My sales usually started the same way.  A new customer would walk into the store, eyes darting between the overfilled racks of winter coats, to the wall of footwear, and beyond.  I would adorn my most helpful smile and approach them.

“Can I help you find something?”

They would shake their head and reply; “Just looking”…the politer cousin of “Leave me alone”.

I would gracefully back away as they wandered through the merchandise maze, thumbing through accessories and picking shoes off the display wall.  It was then my job to a) look for my opportunity to jump into the sale and b) make sure they didn’t steal anything (my manager was an especially suspicious type).

And on it went; the typical retail experience.  It’s something that I didn’t think about again, until recently when I read the book ‘New Profits in Wireless Retailing’ by consumer electronics guru Edmond Legum.  And Ed really threw me for a loop.  He asserts:

 “Can I help you?” is one of the quickest ways to build a barrier between you and your customer.

He explains,

“Customers have been customers much longer than your typical retail salespeople have been salespeople.  They have rehearsed their lines for years.  They know what to say when a typical salesperson greets them with ‘May I help you?’  The answer is, ‘No, I’m just looking’.”

     – Ed Legum, New Profits in Wireless Retailing (2008)

Shut down.  Game over.  That sale is over before it even begins.

I’m not going to lie, I was taken aback.

And it’s so true.  I dutifully follow this script almost every time I enter a retail store, even when I actually am looking for something specific, or really could use some help.

If we don’t know what our customer is looking for, we can’t sell it to them, and they risk walking out empty handed.  So we cope by stalking their every move, barraging them with information every time they touch something they pass by.  And, the last time I checked, harassment is not a viable sales tactic.

If “Can I help you?” is out, what SHOULD we say?

Legum suggests a personal introduction, followed by a pointed “What brought you into our store today?”

Break the script, and stalk no more.

How do you start sales with your customers?  What techniques have worked well for your business?

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Posted on November 8, 2011, in 'We Get Retail' Business Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. thanks for writing this it is a great question plaguing retailers everywhere! While I was working for a large hardware retailer the company spent millions of dollars researching employee and customer engagement and they also found that seven out of ten customers will shut down with the question “Can I help you?”. The company developed a ‘magic question’ as they termed it. That question was “what can I help you find today?” It was more engaging being open ended and resulted in more than six out of ten customers engaging the employee rather than shutting down. That question won’t work for everyone, but it is a great start. I don’t believe in magic, but I do believe in open ended questions. I also don’t believe in scripting, but you should give your sales force good working ideas on how to better engage the customer. Open ended questions and a geniune smile are a great place to start!

    • Thanks for your comment! That’s fascinating about the 7/10 figure, it’s great to be able to quantify it. I don’t think the casual observer realizes just how damaging such a common phrase can be. Great advice about the open ended questions. Cheers!

  2. It is so true. In business and in personal life, asking people open ended questions work. They work because you can’t answer “yes” or “no” to “what brought you into our store today?” Good reminder, and thanks for the tip on that New Profits in Wireless Retailing book. I am going to look it up.

  3. Also, from working in retail as a sales person for 15 years, something as simple as eye contact, smile and “hello” is enough to put a customer at ease and feel welcomed in your store. If they do have a question they will feel comfortable approaching you. They have always put me to work!

  4. Meagan: Great post, great question. In my 38 years of retail experience, most of which was running my own business, the most important thing I learned will help you with your question. From the first moment of contact to the end of your encounter with a customer, never, never, ask a customer a question they can say NO to. If you’re going to ask a question, make sure the customer will answer with something relevant.

    Having said that, here’s what I found to be the most effective approach that keeps the most customers at ease. “Hi, watcha looking for”? Yep, it’s that simple. If they specify, you’re on a roll. If they respond that they are just looking, here is the most effective way to help them:

    Say…..”If you have any questions, please come and ask me”. “I’m here to help you so please don’t be afraid to ask”. Then let them go. If they have been looking around for a while you might approach them just to ask how they are doing. Do this only once! Of course, you must say these things with sincerety in your voice.

    People enter your store with their “automatic built-in crap detector” turned on. They do this primarily to resist high pressure. The above technique is the best way to turn that “crap detector” off in the majority of cases. When you can do this and put the customer at ease, you’ve given yourself the best chance to really help them.

    Here’s the bonus. Even if you don’t sell that customer on that day, they will come back to your store again simply because they know they won’t be pressured. The operative word when working in retail sales is pressure. People just don’t, like it! Do you?

    • Great tips Joe! I especially like your suggestion of “Watcha looking for?”. It opens up the conversation without coming off too stuffy or scripted…and definitely gets around the crap detector. Thanks!

  5. I worked retail, selling outdoor clothing, for 27 months. I often simply said “Hello” or “How are you?” If someone asked me “Watcha looking for?” I’d be put off. I may not be “looking” for anything — I may just want to browse, or need a break, or be waiting for someone. People come into stores for a lot of reasons and giving them room to breathe is a good way to make them feel welcome.

    I would ask “Anything special I can help you find?” If there was, I took them to that section. I would also watch them carefully to see what was piquing their interest. I often simply initiated a conversation, which relaxed them; once they see you’re genuinely interested in them, a sale is more likely.

    • Thanks for commenting Caitlin! Interesting points. I’ve been in that position too, where I really was just killing time. And you’re right, an approach from a salesperson can be off-putting in that case.

      There seems to be an issue of balance. How can you approach people to:
      a) help the people that need it, and
      b) not annoy people who don’t want help, while
      c) doing your job the best you can

      Seems like a tall order!

    • Caitlin: Sorry, but I’ll put my 456 months of successful experience against 27 months any day. That short amount of time is just barely beyond training. I was responsible for building a business with a great reputation for customer service. And I might add, we had great customer retention. We had clientelle travel from a 150 mile radius for our service and products. If said correctly, and with the right tone of voice (which comes with experience), I stand by the greeting mentioned in my comment.

      If people were browsing or wasting time, that was o.k. with me. But when greeting customers you must ask the open ended question. Whatever the answer, you go from there. “Hi, watcha looking for” is much more relaxing than the canned greetings. How do I know this. 38 years experience! Will this put some people off? Obviously it might. But that’s always part of the package.

  1. Pingback: The Forbidden Phrase part 1 « mmspos

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