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“How Can I Help?”

by David Brock on April 3rd, 2020

One of my sources for blog topics is my friend, Brent Adamson. The other evening, Brent and I were trying to solve the problems of the sales world. I actually think he was trying to escape the “shelter in place” lifestyle we have adopted. One of his daughters was downstairs exercising, the rest of the family was some place else in the house.

He posed the question, “What’s the worst question you can ask a customer?” After brainstorming a few alternatives, he suggested, “How can I help?”

Think about the emails you are getting, calls you are getting, or perhaps the emails and calls you are producing. They all pose the same question, “How can I help?”

At first, it strikes us as appropriately empathetic and sensitive. But the problem is, the customer (or even your own people) don’t know how to answer the question.

We are all facing things we have never faced before. A global health pandemic, massive business and economic impacts. Jobs being eliminated, companies being restructured, even the viability of many companies or industries.

Our customers and our people don’t know how to answer the “How can I help” question. They don’t know what help to ask for.

The only way they can answer that question is in the context of what they know. And they know they are facing huge cutbacks, so the answers might be, “can we cancel our contract,” “can we get a price reduction,” “can we……”

While those responses address the immediate pressure everyone is facing, they aren’t very helpful. Certainly, they aren’t what we want to hear. They probably aren’t really helpful to the customer because they bought to solve a problem.

So the question “How can I help,” actually isn’t helpful, because the customer doesn’t know how to answer. And if they did, we might not know how to respond.

More useful questions might be framed around our value proposition and the problems we are the best in the world at solving. They are the same questions that we should be asking but in a slightly different context.

Questions like, “How are you handling [this issue] in the current crises?” Or “What is the impact of [this issue] now?”

Just like we always should have been doing, we could share some insights, “We are seeing many of our customers doing [these things] now, and producing these results.

The problems and issues we have always helped customers understand are still there, but the context is very different. As a result, the greatest help we can give is to help our customers think of those problems in the context of what each of them face today.

We may not know the answers to the issues, ourselves. After all, we’ve only looked at these issues in a very different context. We’ve never posed them (unless you are a scenario planner) in the context of a pandemic or a massive economic/business reset.

But just like before, we develop the answers and solve the problems, collaboratively with the customer. And that’s how we solve problems now. None of us know the answers. But we develop the answers, collaboratively with the customer. We develop the answer in the context of what they are facing today. We help them figure out what to do now and how to go forward.

Of course we already knew this. We’ve always been asking those questions, we’ve always provided those insights, we’ve always focused our discussions and collaborative value creation in terms relevant to what the customer faces, and what’s important to them “now.”

Haven’t we?

So we know how to engage the customer. We know we have to help them learn and understand the issues they face now. We know we have to develop the answers, collaboratively, in a contextually relevant manner. We just have to do what we have always been (or should have been doing) but understanding the new context, the crises and confusion our customers feel, and the heightened sense of urgency to solve those problems, now.

And while I don’t want to seem predatory, that heightened sense of urgency, that need to address and solve a problem is what we are always looking for.

Having said all of this, what can I do that is most helpful to you, now?

(I’m sorry, long time readers know my perverse humor).

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3 Comments
  1. I will admit, I used this question frequently as of a few weeks ago. Very few people were able to give an articulate answer, for the reasons you have described. When I pivoted to instead ask “What do you need right now?”, that answer was on the tip of their tongues.

  2. I am supposed to help you help me by telling you how to help me?

    It seems like too much work for me….

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