The Complexity Of Helping

The Complexity Of Helping

Have you ever been in a situation where someone around you fell? I’m not talking about the times were someone was imbibing a little too much. I’m talking about a situation where specifically in a public place where someone slips or falls down on the ground. More specifically when the fallen is a stranger? Have you ever tried to offer help by extending your hand and showing your willingness to help them stand back up?


What’s the most common response witnessed in these situations? Usually it’s “I’m ok” as they’re waving your hand away – a polite way of refusing your help. While there are many psychological reasons why someone refuses help in certain scenarios I want to point to the overall lesson; that people don’t like to be helped. Edgar Schein, professor emeritus MIT, wrote a fascinating book on the study of helping and how in our culture we don’t like to ask for help. What industry suffers the most from trying to help?


If we know the majority of people don’t like to be helped in certain situations think about the first question you hear when you walk into a retail store. 9 times out of 10 it’s “can I help you?” coming out of sales reps mouth. And what do you do? You say no thanks just looking around or some version of that while your waving hand acts as a buffer to deflect the question. To make matters worse, the sales rep is almost always a complete stranger. Not a winning combo.


It’s 2013 and I still can’t believe that this is the go-to question in many retail environments. Haven’t they suffered enough no thank you’s to drop that approach? What thoughts do we get when we hear that question as a potential customer: “No way I’m not saying a word I don’t want to be sold anything”. Our defenses go up, we want to get away as quickly as we can, and we don’t want to admit that we need someone to help us. So, if this is our natural response-to deny that help, than what should the salesperson do to engage us in more defined and less intimidating conversation.


For one, stop using “can I help you” as the entree to your request. Instead ask a question.


A real example. A flooring & granite store experienced lots of walk in traffic. The bad news was their conversion rate from walk-in to consultation or estimate was abysmal. After observing the interactions it was noticed that the front desk staff & floor supervisors would immediately ask if they could help the shopper find something. They experienced an 83% denial rate. This business didn’t need better marketing or advertising; the marketing was working. They needed a new approach. They needed to “master the welcome.”


They were given a recommendation to change the welcome question from “can I help you find something” to something so different that it forced the shopper to answer in a positive way. It was a question so innocent the customer never perceived it be a sales-y and let down their guard and defenses which engineered a meaningful conversation. The company increased their appointment rate 41% in 30 days by changing 6 words.


“The difference between the right words and the wrong words is the difference between lightning and lightning bug.” – Mark Twain

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