My Beef With “How Can I Help You?”

Would it surprise you if I were to admit, despite my unshakable belief in the practice of reciprocal networking, that one of my growing pet peeves is when people end a networking conversation by saying “So Matt, how can I help YOU?”

Sounds crazy, I know.  All the experts, all the books, all the networking blogs out there tout this question as pretty much the “be all and end all” of networking — and as one of the magic bullets people should use to improve their success rate in building relationships.  But I’ve got to be honest.  I think this line has become so over-used out there (is there a factory pumping people out, trained to say this?) that it’s lost a lot of its power and effectiveness.  It’s abrupt.  It’s predictable.  And to my ears, it often sounds contrived, as if the person you’ve been chatting with suddenly remembers to get back on script and realizes “Oh crap!  I forgot I’m supposed to always say this line at the end!”

So don’t get me wrong, I absolutely prefer people who are at least TRYING to act reciprocally in this fashion versus those folks who are “takers” at heart and don’t show any interest in a mutually-beneficial relationship.  But I think there’s a better way to go about it.  What if instead of ASKING a person in general how you can help them, as if you have no possible conception of what they do or what their needs might be, you were to actually SUGGEST some possible ways you might be able to support their efforts?  Is that such a ridiculous notion?  In most cases, after all, you can probably come up with a few useful ideas simply by doing some homework on the person you’re meeting (and/or their company) in advance in the meeting, as well as by listening carefully to what they tell you during the conversation itself.

For example, let’s say I’m just winding down a coffee meeting with a recruiter here in town I haven’t met before.  As the meeting starts to draw to a close, I suppose I could end the conversation with the standard “So Shelly, how can I help you?” and see what they say.  In most cases, though, I’d be much more inclined to say something like:

So Shelly, now that I’ve got a much better understanding of the type of recruiting you practice, is there any way I can lend a hand to your efforts?  Is there a certain type of candidate I can send over that might be a great fit for some of your placements?  Or would you have any interest in having me run some of your job openings out in my monthly newsletter, as a professional courtesy?  Or at the very least, should we perhaps get hooked up on LinkedIn, just in case I might know somebody at a company you’re seeking to do business with?  I’ve got a pretty large network on that site and would be more than happy to make any relevant introductions on your behalf that might be beneficial…”

Or let’s say you’re a job hunter, wrapping up an informational meeting with a VP of Marketing in the biotech industry.  You might close the conversation with a statement along the lines of:

Quigley, it’s been great chatting with you.  Thanks for your time.  And since I’ve been out talking to a ton of people lately on the networking circuit, definitely let me know if there are any certain types of people you want me to keep my eyes open for on your behalf, either in terms of job candidates or potential customers.  Also, did you want a copy of that list of 110 biotechnology firms I showed you earlier?  Might be something to just keep on file, in case you ever need it or wanted to explore partnerships with some of those other firms…

Feel free (as always) to tell me I’m crazy here, but to me, this type of approach is MUCH more likely to send a signal to the person across the table that you’ve listened carefully to what they’ve told you, sincerely want to help them, and are actively thinking about ways you can add value to the relationship.  And even if they don’t happen to need any of the help you’re proposing, right at the moment, I think the right message will still be sent and perhaps some other useful collaboration will come to mind, down the road.

So again, don’t get me wrong.  I adore the spirit of “How can I help you?” and know that the crowd that uses this line tends to have good intentions at heart.  I just personally believe there’s a better way to approach this aspect of networking.  With a little preparation and thoughtfulness, you’ll be able to evolve past a quasi-forced statement about reciprocity and propose some more specific win/win ideas that will deepen the new relationship you’re trying to build!


9 Responses to “My Beef With “How Can I Help You?””

  1. I, too, am not the biggest fan of the phrase. Yes, I appreciate the spirit with which it is asked, but I never know quite what to say when someone does ask it.

    “How can I help you?” is so vague. I don’t know what you’re capable of or what you’re willing to do. The most helpful thing you might be able to do for me at any one moment might include mopping my floor or picking up my dry-cleaning, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what you mean.

    So instead, please tell me “You know, I’m really familiar with social media tracking tools. You mentioned that you’re getting into Facebook advertising. Would it be helpful if I sent you that information?”

    If not, the next time you ask me “How can I help you?” I’m going to suggest that you paint the fascia boards on my house, haha.

  2. Matt, well said. This phrase is overused and ineffective when someone comes across as disingenuous. The attempt to connect/network always ends up falling flat with me.

    You don’t need to date everyone you meet, so don’t try so hard. 🙂 An authentic connection with a few is much more memorable and beneficial than coming across as a networking automaton with many.

  3. You’re right. Instead of asking “How can I help you?” one needs to rephrase the question into a “How I can help you” statement.

  4. Matt,

    Thank you for your kind words. I do understand what you are talking about and, like you, I am an absolute advocate of being in contribution to others.

    I think where we are perhaps a little out of sync here is in our expectations for the behavior of others.

    Over the past 7 years, I have immersed myself in the study of networking and having done that, I am pretty well versed in what it takes to be a good networker.

    The key factor, as I see it is in being a great listener. Which means truly hearing what the other person is saying. Not kind of listening … or half way paying attention. But t r u l y listening, hearing, and understanding their intent.

    I wasn’t always good at this. However, in understanding the importance, I trained myself to focus in and listen intently to what people were saying. I think that this one thing is the core skill of anyone who is a true connector for others.

    Connection, in some shape or form, is what the answer is to the ask. So if the question is, “How can I help you?” the answer is usually a connection to another person or to a resource or to a solution.

    To be able to offer a connection, the listener has to be able to tap into their intuitive nature and search through their mental rolodex for possible combinations of people, resources, or ideas and then have the confidence in their convictions to offer those up to the person that they are listening to.

    I’m not setting the bar too low, I’m just being realistic about the ability of most people to truly listen. This is a muscle that gets stronger over time and with practice.

    I wouldn’t expect someone who has never juggled to just pick up the balls and start juggling effortlessly. Frankly, I would expect that they would drop a lot of balls while they were learning. Likewise, I don’t expect that people who have not studied networking would be able to just pick up a conversation and immediately be proficient at juggling the many nuances of disengaging from self-interest, listening, sorting, imagining, pairing, suggesting, etc.

    People have to learn how to ask the question first and hear what the response is. They then get better and have success in making connections for others and their confidence naturally grows. Confidence and positive success in being a connector then fuels the ability to anticipate where you can be effective in making suggestions that others will appreciate or follow up on.

    So, this is my long winded way of saying – YES! there are a whole lot of people who have heard that they should ask, “How can I help you?” or “How will I know when someone I meet is a good referral for you?”

    And, good for them for trying. With practice, some of them will get better at the ask. They will learn to listen. They will learn to anticipate. They will gain confidence when their question is met with gratitude. And then the day will come that they will be on fire to be an ABC networker … for the will Always Be Connecting.

    In the meantime, all I’m suggesting is a little more patience for everyone. Patience, kindness, and caring.

  5. Zita: As always, your words carry humongous weight with me, given your role as a master networker/connector here in the area. In terms of your comments above, however, let me emphasize again that I’m certainly not against the SPIRIT of the”How can I help you?” request in any way whatsoever. While some people ask it innocently, however, perhaps not knowing what else to say, there is absolutely another camp of folks out there who are asking this question in a much more contrived manner — and with a manipulative energy behind it that I find greatly offputting. Perhaps you haven’t run into those folks yet, but they’re out there. And even more importantly, if we both agree that many people AREN’T comfortable with networking and need to get better at it, let’s not insult them by setting the bar so low. Let’s teach them how to be great at it! So since my personal belief is that it doesn’t take all that much more work for somebody to think ahead and come up with a helpful “reciprocal” suggestion or two, in advance of a meeting, my blog was merely an attempt to show people the merit of this approach, as an alternative to the standard HCIHY offering…

  6. I guess that I am going to swim against the tide on this one, Matt. In some cases, it isn’t that I have not been listening or caring while someone is talking to me, but more like I really have no idea how I can help based on what has been said. To look you in the eye and ask with my heart, “How can I help you,” is an opportunity for you to declare where I can be of assistance.

    This almost sounds like one of those married folks statements, “if you loved me you’d know what I need” … and, just to be clear, I gave up mind reading a long time ago.

    Matt, I know you well enough to know that you aren’t really saying that when people remember their manners, you’d really rather that they didn’t bother. For many, that may be exactly what is happening!

    I work with a lot of people who have all kinds of phobias around networking. The biggest one being that they don’t know what to say.

    With so many things to remember, is there really major harm done when someone realizes that they may have been too self absorbed either due to shyness, fear of being inadequate, or just plain old self consciousness – that they self adjust and remember to say (and show) that they do want to be in the practice of being aware of the other person and come from a place of caring and potential contribution?

    Those of us who are more skilled at the dialogue of caring and who are able to dial into and understand the nuances of each conversation are truly blessed where many struggle.

    I think it is a kindness to not judge a persons actions in this regard especially when an attempt was made. The grace in which we model the behavior that we would like to see in our exchanges with others can go quite a long way in helping others to learn by example.

    As for me, I always enjoy the surprise and delight when someone asks me how they can help me. To that end, I always keep in mind one or two things that someone could do for me and offer those up as a way for reciprocity to be in full play.

  7. Richrd Mcleland Wieser April 10, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    As I smack my palm against my forehead, “why didn’t I think of that?”

    I will use this technique on Wednesday. On that day I fly to Las Vegas to jobhun… opps… i mean network at NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) trade show.

    I debated with myself if this was a wise decision. After all, it is a trade show, not job fair. Is it a good ROI? So I emailed 45 industry people I know and respect for their opinion. Within three hours I received 23 mails and two phone calls. All but two were very favorable to idea. One shared a story of how ten years ago he left the rat race to change his life. He failed and became homeless. So four years ago he scraped up the money to drive to Las Vegas for NAB. He is now a Sales Manager for Harris. Others related stories of, while not so dramatic, a trip to NAB helped nab them a good job.


  8. In my opinion, when I’ve been chatting with someone (either in person or on the phone) and they throw out that line, my very first thought is “Are you asking me what you can do for me because you don’t KNOW how you can assist me – even after we’ve been chatting all of this time? Have you not been listing to what my needs are and then been thinking of how your knowledge can help me get to where I’m wanting to get to?” OK, maybe it’s the cynic in me or maybe I’m expecting people to be too much of a mind reader and maybe they really, genuinely DON’T know what I want from them because I’m not being clear enough in my “asks”.

    But honestly, I think people who respond with the “so what can I do for you?” (sounding like a fast food worker wanting to take your order) just aren’t paying attention to the dialogue and aren’t invested in REALLY helping. If the truth be told, I think they would rather say “Let’s just cut to the chase because I’ve got to get back to the office. I’ve been listening to you but have no idea what you want from me so I need you to tell me what it is you are here for”.

    If the person was REALLY paying attention, I *believe* they would phrase that question more in a manner of how Matt said and offer up suggestions on how they think they can help. This also opens the door to allowing you (the other person) to provide clarification on your needs, which is very important. Someone might say, “I am happy to do this and this for you or put you in contact with so-and-so” to which you could reply, “I really appreciate that and could really use that information. Could you also put me in touch with so-and-so or help me with XYZ because I feel it could also prove to be a valuable avenue to take or person to meet with?” (or something along those lines). Remember, just because someone offers up a suggestion or a resource, it doesn’t mean it’s the right one for the end result you’re trying to achieve. It could be helpful but there might be other, more direct and efficient ways to get the result you want. In doing this, you now have have multiple resources instead of just the one you were thinking of or the one offered to you. It never hurts to ask!

  9. I agree with you wholeheartedly on this, Matt! Simply asking, “How can I help you?”, always strikes me as a passive move. Frankly, I would prefer not to be asked at all if there is not going to be any ingenuity behind the offer.

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