Engaging Alternatives to ‘Can I Help you?’ [Increasing Retail Opt-Ins by Asking Better Questions]

retail storeIf you’ve spent much time working in a face-to-face sales environment, you know that asking “Can I help you?” is the best way not to get a customer to take you up on your offer. In stores, the customary response to that greeting is “I’m just looking.” Generic questions like “can I help you?’ do nothing for encouraging the retail opt-ins you need to grow your business.

You need better questions to ask your prospective customers. It goes without saying that “How can I help you?” is a closed-ended question – one that can only elicit a yes or no answer. And when it comes to parting with money, people are inclined, by default, to say “no.”

A little basic psychology can help you overcome this challenge and win more sales just by asking more effective questions. Specific, focused, questions that urge interaction are the kinds of questions that will help you get your customers’ attention and make subsequent sales.

That means alternatives to “can I help you?” become a huge part of your marketing strategy.

In this essay, we’ll take a look at the following ways to help you skirt around the dreaded question, “can I help you?”

  • Understanding why “help” isn’t wanted
  • 25 Alternatives to ‘can I help you?’
  • A note on the importance of context
  • Establishing credibility
  • Following the steps
  • Why sales is about engaging, not interrogating

Asking the right questions will go a long way toward helping your double your profitability by pulling one of our 7 Levers of Business, Opt-Ins.

Let’s delve into the most profitable types of questions to ask your customers.

Understanding why ‘help’ isn’t wanted

Establishing the best way to start sales (or telesales, for that matter) conversations involves a little bit of introspection on your part.

When you enter a store to do some shopping, what do you typically say in response to the question “how can I help you?” or any of its many variants?

If you’re like most people, you typically say, “I’m just looking” or “I’m just killing some time” when asked that question, right?

Thinking about your experiences in the role of consumer can readily inform your words – and actions – in the role of salesperson.

What questions are you more receptive to? Chances are, you are looking firstly for acknowledgement that you have some opinions or ideas about a potential purchase. Secondly, you’re likely looking for someone to hear your questions and respond to them, rather than make a cold offer. Your customers are going through precisely the same thought process.

But there’s another caveat here. When a customer enters a small box retailer, for example, they are fully expecting the disengaged, disingenuous and typically unfriendly sales person running the place to ask the fabled question, “How can I help you?”

That said, we all tend to expect something different in different sales environments. As a blog post at Motor Trend points out, you expect to be offered food in a restaurant. You expect to be offered a membership when you walk in a gym. You expect to be sold a car when you visit a car lot. When a sales person approaches you in any of those situations, you know they ultimately want to transact business.

And that’s why, for many of us, the car salesperson is invariably “pushy.” The waitress is, predictably, fishing for a mouthwatering helping of gratuity. The dentist, without fail, finds that one tooth that simply has to be pulled. The workers at the gym keep contracts handy, right under the counter.

No matter what kind of business you are in, there is a psychological stigma to go up against. What’s really happening is customers visit your location or website because they do, in fact, want to make a purchase. They just don’t want to be overtly “sold.” When you approach them with “how can I help you?” you do nothing to separate yourself from the predictable salespeople of the world.

If you go with a dry, overly formal, “all business, all the time” line of questioning, you’ll get a resistive response from your customers – the kind of predictable reaction that ultimately doesn’t lead to the customer opting in.

Starting a sales conversation off that way sets up the whole interaction for possible failure. To get things off on the right front when approaching new customers, you’ve got to be creative.


Image from Keepitusable.com

25 Alternatives to ‘can I help you?’

We’ve put together this collection of sales questions with the idea that you’ll look for ways to use them in appropriate situations. You can’t take one of them and use it for every customer, or every situation. But we’d urge you to keep them in mind in certain contexts. More specifically, perhaps roll them around in your mind and figure out ways to apply them in different sales conversations.

Here’s our list of 25 sales questions for various customer engagements. Not that parentheses indicate that you should fill in the blank with whatever works contextually.

  1. What brings you in today?
  2. What kind of project are you working on right now?
  3. What’s more important to you (‘A’ benefit) or (‘B’ benefit)?
  4. Are you looking for (shoes) or (socks) today?
  5. Do you prefer (blue) or (yellow)?
  6. What are you trying to get (this devices/tool) to do?
  7. For whom are you buying this (gift/present/item)?
  8. Are you the only one who will use this (item)?
  9. Will you be using this (item) at home or in the car?
  10. What features are most important to you?
  11. What are your priorities?
  12. Are you looking more for savings or durability?
  13. Are you planning to do some travelling?
  14. Do you need a backup?
  15. How’d you hear about us?
  16. Is this your first visit?
  17. Are you just starting out (with this product/service)?
  18. Have you used one of these (items) before?
  19. What are your concerns?
  20. What alternatives have you looked at?
  21. What is your desired outcome?
  22. How long do you plan to use this (item)/
  23. Have you been using (competing product/service)?
  24. Are you familiar with this (technology/service)?
  25. Are you happy with your current provider?

These questions may read as being a bit random, but again, you have to think in terms of context.

An example of the importance of context

Context is really a key takeaway here.

One of the best salesmen I’ve ever met is someone I know from a local supermarket. The manager of the store is a master of asking the right kinds of questions.

Day after day, he walks around his store greeting customers with a friendly smile. If he sees someone with a cart containing whole chickens, barbeque sauce, and charcoal, he’ll say something like “Are you having a cookout?” He’ll then follow up with questions like “How many people have you invited?” “Have you ever cooked it that way before” and so on.

Eventually, he’ll lead into something like, “Hey, do you have paper plates? Napkins? What about dinner rolls?”

As his customers offer sales opportunities (by saying things like “Oh, I forgot about napkins!”), he will walk them over to the napkins and offer them a value pack, for example. He’s driving add-ons and increasing items-per-transaction. But he’s not doing it with cold selling. He’s warming up to the customers and using context to sell more items.

And that’s our main focus here: seizing each retail engagement to drive opt-ins, sales and revenue. It’s not rocket science; it’s common sense! 

Establishing credibility

Every sales transaction needs to start with credibility. Lack of credibility is the main reason for missed sales opportunities.

An essay that appeared in The Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management in 2001 stated the following:

“Trust in a salesperson requires a belief that the salesperson can be relied on to behave in a manner such that the long-term interests of the customer will be served (Crosby, Evans and Cowles 1990).”

And that’s ultra-important, frankly. You’ll never gain any ground with a prospective customer, unless you can first earn his or her trust. That logic has to shape and temper the questions you ask.

One of the worst ‘no-nos’ in retail conversations is taking out of your depth. Sadly, this is how it goes for some.

A customer walks into an electronics store.

Salesperson: “Hi! How are you?”

Customer: “I’m good. I’m actually confused, maybe you can help me.”

Salesperson: “I can try.” (Already evincing a lack of confidence!)

Customer: “I need something that will let me connect a Blu-Ray player, a Roku, and an XBOX 360 to my TV. Do you have anything like that?”

Salesperson: “I think so. We have some boxes that do that type of thing, but I’d need to know what kind of plugs each of your devices has.” (Zeesh!)

Customer: “Well, I mean, I need something that will work tonight. I’m having a party and I need to entertain some college students!”

Salesperson: “Let me ask my manager.”

The salesperson’s core mistake is, of course, not knowing his or her product assortment well enough to offer a solution that is commonly found in retail electronics stores: a multi-device input switcher.

There’s some low confidence language at play in our example: “try”; “I think”; “Let me ask…”

Those words are telltale signs that our fictional salesperson doesn’t have an answer.

Here’s a better hypothetical exchange that’s a bit more beneficially engaging:

Salesperson: “Hi! How are you?”

Customer: “I’m good. I’m actually confused, maybe you can help me.”

Salesperson: “Sure, that’s why I’m here.”

Customer:  “I need something that will let me connect a Blu-Ray player, a Roku, and an XBOX 360 to my TV. Do you have anything like that?”

Salesperson: “So do you just need to connect those three devices to your TV, or might you need more inputs?”

Customer: “Well, I have an old Nintendo Wii that I play sometimes. It might be nice to leave that connected, too.”

Now, just by asking an appropriate qualifying question, the salesperson in this example is able to offer the customer a solution by clearly demonstrating a confident understanding of the question at hand.

Following the steps

Speaking of “qualifying,” let’s have a little Sales 101 session to recap the flow of a real sales engagement, so that we can establish some of the best kinds of questions to ask at each stage in the process.

The basic sales conversation has a few variations, but it is generally as follows:

  • Greet
  • Qualify
  • Present
  • Close

You’ll also find that some add “Overcome” after “Present” to allow for any objections that arise, but most people tend to think of overcoming as an extension of presenting.

Here’s an example sales engagement dialogue:

A customer walks into a wireless phone store.

Salesperson: Hi! How are you?

Customer: I’m good. How are you?

Salesperson: I’m doing great! Thanks for asking.

Are you looking to change your service provider or upgrade your mobile today?

Customer: Actually, I’m just looking for a new case for my iPhone.

Salesperson: Great! We have several to choose from here. Please follow me. Which iPhone do you have?

Customer: Ahh, I’m old school. I still have the iPhone 4.

Salesperson: Hey, that is old school! Do you know that phone won’t work with iOS 8 when it comes out later this year?

Customer: Really? I heard about the upgrade on the news. Seems like it has some cool features – I love the hand-off feature! I could use it with my iMac.

Salesperson: If you’ve had that iPhone 4 since it came out, you’re eligible for an upgrade to the iPhone 5S. How long have you had your 4?

Customer: Really, I’ve been wanting the new one! I’ve had it for more than two years.

Salesperson: How about I pull up your account and see if you can upgrade today?

From there, the salesperson will, ideally, proceed through the process of upgrading the customer to the current iPhone. Note that the dialogue in our example is very natural and non-threatening – and not overtly salesy. It also hinges, as you might have noticed, on asking questions. And that means real conversations.

It’s important to respond to the customer’s needs (like showing the customer to the item that brought them into your store). But there’s nothing stopping you from taking the sale to the next level by asking probing questions.

Now, let’s take a closer look at some of the key questions in our wireless phone store example, and consider how those questions fit with the stages of the sales process.


“Hi! How are you?”

There’s no reason to try and reinvent the wheel. There’s no shame in simply being personable.


“Are you looking to change your service provider or upgrade your mobile today?”

This question substitutes for “can I help you?” quite cleverly. Taken in the course of conversation, it will come off sounding a lot like “can I help you?” only it has an almost throw away suggestive quality. Such a question hints at what someone who wanders into a wireless phone store might actually be looking for: a feature-rich new phone. The question also plants a “seed” thought in the shopper’s mind, leveraging the power of suggestion.

“Which iPhone do you have?

The salesperson seeks to solve the immediate problem first.

“Do you know that phone won’t work with iOS 8 when it comes out later this year?”

This question leads to an upsell. The customer originally came looking for an iPhone case. Now, the salesperson is poised to up the sale to a more expensive item. (Ideally, this imaginary salesperson will still sell the customer a case, albeit one for an iPhone 5S. Apple’s tight price controls on iPhones keep them low margin. Most mobile phone cases are upwards or 50% margin or more.)

“How long have you had your (iPhone) 4?”

This question rounds out the qualification step by eliciting an answer that confirms the customer is, in fact, within the upgrade window for most carriers.

“How about I pull up your account and see if you can upgrade today?”

This question connects back with the second question the salesperson asked. Assuming the answer is “sure, go ahead,” the salesperson would then have the opportunity to Present iPhones and plans and Close the sale.

Please note, our example can be applied to the sale of almost anything. More importantly, please note that each step in the process is carried forward by asking questions.

Why sales is about engaging, not interrogating

With all this focus on “questioning,” it’s very easy to get caught up in the interrogation aspect of sales engagement.

That’s a bad idea.

MindShare Consulting’s Michael W. McLaughlin explains quite clearly the pitfalls of over-questioning your customers, as follows:

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had to endure too many sellers peppering me with mindless questions every time I said a word. What galls me is that the question-after-every-comment seller seldom demonstrates how such questions help anyone.

That’s not consultative selling, but blind adherence to some generic formula for sales meetings.

 Of course, I ask lots of questions in sales meetings and so should you. But you should be sure that the questions you ask move the sale forward in some way.

Surely, you’ve encountered a salesperson who has asked way too many questions. Remember how that made you feel? Not so good, right?

Salespeople who approach customers with an endless onslaught of questions send a clear signal to their customers – that they aren’t real people. You want to avoid that, so in keeping with McLaughlin’s advice, make sure the questions you ask move the engagement forward.

As a rule of thumb, if you wouldn’t ask a question in casual conversation with someone you know, it’s not a good question in a sales conversation.

Treat people like equals and, above all else, keep it real.

PS – A few questions that just don’t work

As a word of caution, here a few lines of inquiry that really don’t work in sales situations – despite the fact that people try to use these kinds of tactics all the time.

The Merchandise Opener

Here’s a little anecdote to help you learn what not to do.

My wife and I were perusing the lot at a car dealership a while back, mulling a trade-in that we ultimately never opted to do.

We were standing next to a crossover SUV, kicking its tires and peeking in the windows. Here’s what our conversation was really like.

“Christ, that thing’s ugly, isn’t it?” she said.

“Good grief, I would never buy that thing. It looks like somebody made a mistake at the factory or something. Is it supposed to look that way?” I replied.

“I don’t know who would want to drive such an eyesore. Let’s go look at something else…”

Before she could finish her sentence, we heard a voice calling out to us from across the lot.

“That one has you two written all over it!” exclaimed a salesman walking toward us, friendly handshake already extended.

“Can’t you just see yourselves in it?”

The salesperson was attempting to use the merchandise we were eyeing to segue into selling us the crossover. Unfortunately, he only told my wife and me that we, in fact, share some common aesthetic traits with an ugly car. His attempt at rapport worked against him, as we left without trading.

The merchandise opener seldom works because it requires you to try to infer, or predict, what your customer is thinking, without asking. As with our friendly, yet ineffectual, car salesman, this can lead to inserting your foot directly in your mouth.

The flattering opener

A woman holding a baby in her arms walks into a store.

A salesperson approaches and says, “Aww, your baby is so cute! She looks just like you. Your husband must be so proud! How old is she?”

The customer replies, “Thanks, but he’s my nephew. I’m just watching him today. Oh, and I’m not married. I have a life partner, though!”

Can you say awkward, not to mention difficult to recover from? You have to be careful with flattery for many obvious reasons, not the least of which being that some seemingly innocuous statements could be misinterpreted as harassment. Keep in mind, flattery can turn out much worse than in our example here – and much worse than simply resulting in a lost sale.

Build relationships on earnest rapport, not idle flattery.

The Scripted Offer

Finally, one of the most annoying sales tactics is what we call The Scripted Offer.

You encounter this in lots of mainstream retail establishments.

You approach the checkout counter, ready to pay for items you’ve selected. But the salesperson – who has not assisted you thus far – kicks into automaton mode, prattling off inane offers because they have been told to do it “or else.”

“Would you like batteries with that?”

“We’re running a special on potato crisps, would you like a box?”

“Do you need a satellite dish?”

And so on…

Often, The Scripted Offer involves making cold offers of random items. This kind of thing is never a good approach for a sales professional. In fact, it reeks of retail big box employee mandates from management. As you might expect, offering everything and the kitchen seat rarely meets with profitable results! 

Pete Williams is an entrepreneur, author, and marketer from Melbourne, Australia.

Before being honored “Australia’s Richard Branson” in media publications all over the continent, Pete was just 21 years old when he sold Australia’s version of Yankee Stadium, The Melbourne Cricket Ground For Under $500! Don’t believe it? You will! Check out the story in the FAQ section (it really is our most asked question).

Since then, he’s done some cool stuff like write the international smash hit ‘How to Turn Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality’ (+ the upcoming ‘It’s Not About the Product‘) and he’s created a bunch of companies including Infiniti Telecommunications, On Hold Advertising, Simply Headsets and Preneur Group.

Lots of other people think he’s pretty good too! He’s been announced as the Global Runner-Up in the JCI Creative Young Entrepreneur Awards for 2009, the Southern Region Finalist in the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year, and a member of SmartCompany’s Top 30 Under 30.

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