“Can I help you?”
A new kind of cliche…
Why? Because it’s a cliche – we’re conditioned to already ‘know’ the answer. Like a friendly “How are you?” at the service counter, or a comment about the weather, these stock phrases have lost most of their original meaning, and have actually taken on a different relational meaning. Linguists call these phatic expressions, exchanges whose only function is to perform a social task as opposed to conveying information.
Exchange of Information
Now of course, there is a sales technique that can bypass this cliche. Instead of asking “Can I help you?”, ask “Are you looking for pants or shirts today?” Because it’s not a yes or no question, it at least forces the next level of communication, an exchange of information.
But that’s just it – it’s a gimmick. You might end up establishing a genuine rapport with your bold rhetorical flourish, but you’re just as likely to annoy your customer with a forced interaction. There’s a growing trend toward automation where once there existed intense, personal customer relationships. I know I prefer shopping online to going into a department store. Instead of movie stores we have Redbox and Netflix, instead of bank tellers we often just use the ATM, and at the fro-yo place they’ve figured out how to eliminate human interaction for everything but the final checkout.
Too often the discussion of sales technique is focused on just that – techniques – when the goal of great customer service is not cliches, not giving information, but establishing empathy. Empathy is what makes the difference between a good experience and a great one. Empathy is the difference between a consignor feeling deflated or snubbed when you reject 80% of the clothes they bring in, and a consignor realizing that you’re selective with everyone and it’s not a personal judgment.
The reason empathy doesn’t get as much time as flashy sales techniques is that there’s no magic phrase prescriptive steps to finding it. You may be able to establish it with open-ended questions with some customers, with some customers it may come by just remembering their name. For others it may take more time, and deeper conversation, and these are some of the harder customer relationships to establish.
No matter what you teach your employees – whether or not they should ask customers “Can I help you?” or “Did you find everything you’re looking for?” – remind them that the goal is empathy. Make sure you strive for a level of sincerity behind whatever you ask, and your customers and consignors will love you for it.
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