Can I help you?
I got off the plane from Cape Town this morning and wandered into the bookshop to fill in time before my lift arrived. Murphy’s Law states that if the plane arrives early the lift will be late.
As I approached the counter I was asked by the very nice lady “Can I help you?”
This is not unusual of course. In fact, if you were to go on a shopping spree anywhere in the country (and most of the English-speaking world for that matter), you would hear the same words in nine out of ten shops. “Can I help you?” And what do you think the normal reply is? That is right “No thank you, I am just looking”
This is fine of course, for the shopper but a terrible waste for the shop. If you ask a customer “Can I help you?” This is a closed question and is likely to get a “yes”, or more likely a “no” answer. Either way, you are no further forward.
Open and Closed Questions
An open question is one that will expect to get a long answer. Open questions start with Who, What, Where, Why, When and How. If you were to ask a question that started with any of these words you will get a long answer. It is difficult to answer by saying “yes” or “no”. For instance. If you were to ask a customer “What sort of problems are you facing at the moment?” it would be hard for him to say “yes or “no” as an answer, he would have to give you a longer answer than that.
A closed question, on the other hand, starts with Do, Does, Did, Would, Could, Should, Have, Has, etc, and will expect to get a yes or no answer. If you were to ask your customer, “Do you have any problems at the moment?”, you are already in trouble. If the answer is “Yes” you will still have to ask an Open Question to discover exactly what sort of problems he has got. If the answer is “No” you have just dug a hole for yourself and you might as well climb in the hole and cover it over.
At the beginning of a conversation with any customer ask open questions to uncover his needs. You may use closed questions later on in the conversation when you specifically want to tie the customer down to yes or no answers.
So what should the nice young lady in the bookshop have said? What about “How can I help you?” This is an open question and a great improvement of the standard “Can I help you?”
You may still get a “brush off” answer. “I am okay at the moment I would just like to look around”.
If that is the case you do not want to get too pushy but you can still go for another try at getting the customer talking by saying “You are very welcome to look around of course, is there anything specific you are looking for?”
If you know what the customer is looking for, you are in a much better position to help him to buy.