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Why ‘Can I Help You?’ Is Wrong

I recently facilitated a selling skills seminar for a large group of retail sales managers and salespeople. I was amazed at the responses in the feedback sheets from the attendees.

One of the questions was “Which steps of the sale would you like to have spent more time on.” The overwhelming answer was “closing the sale” followed by “overcoming objections.” Let me explain why they are having difficulty closing the sale and one of the reasons they get so many objections.

Throughout the course of the training it was evident why they wanted more time spent in both of these areas. In most cases, they were not taking the time to build rapport with the potential customer. Many thought that the concept of never greeting a customer with the standard “Can I help you?” was radical. They had a hard time buying into the idea that salespeople should take the time to warm the customer up with a little non-selling conversation. Talking about the weather, the kids that were with them and so on would help them in the sales process by getting the customer engaged and would begin to build rapport; but they wanted to get right to selling the product as soon as possible.

There has always been an interesting dynamic between sales people and customers. It’s the understanding of those dynamics that can go a long ways towards selling success.

Customers walk into an organization with a natural skepticism of salespeople because they feel they’re only there to “take their money.” The salespeople, at least the ones that struggled the most, felt a lot of the customers were wasting time by “just looking” and were not ready to buy.

 This is quickly validated in the salesperson’s mind when they start the interaction with “Can I help you?” I don’t know about you, but I’m a busy person and if I have chosen to take the time out of my day to look at televisions, or home theater systems, it means I have an interest in them; I’m not just killing time.

Selling, done properly, is about building a relationship. The greeting is what starts the process. As the saying goes; “You only get one chance to make a first impression.” Well, the greeting is it.

Another point that these veteran salespeople seemed to object to was the concept of being willing and able to greet a second customer when they are already engaged with another. They felt it was rude to break away to acknowledge the second customer, treating them as an annoyance, particularly if that second customer was calling on the telephone.

Think of it as a party you’re hosting. If you are engaged with a guest and the doorbell rings, you don’t ignore it hoping they’ll go away. You excuse yourself, answer the door, and greet your new guest. You explain that you are with someone else and that you have to get back, but wanted to make sure to say “hello.”  You tell them to get comfortable, take a look around and reassure them that you will get back to them as soon as possible. It’s just common sense … and courtesy. It’s the same with your customers.

Surprisingly, the telephone customer caused the most controversy. Most felt that their efforts should be given to the person “that took the time to actually come to the store.” If I am shopping in a store where a phone is ringing off the hook and remains unanswered, two things immediately go through my mind:

1. “Would someone please answer the phone, it’s annoying!”

2. “Is this going to happened to me if I call back with a question?”

Neither thought is good. Not answering the phone from what could be another potential customer may make them think that you’re out of business or not interested in theirs. That kind of customer service could very well lead you to being out of business soon! That phone call could be the first impression they have of your organization.

Remember, little things can make or break a relationship right from the start. You may never get a chance to move to the next step in the sale, much less to the close. These poor practices may turn the buyer into a “looker” right off the bat.

Tom Hebrock is retail services VP at Stuart & Associates, a results-oriented consulting firm that has been helping major retailers and global manufacturers maximize revenue and profit for 20 years. For more information,