The Absolute Worst Question to Ask: How Can I Help You?

For the past few years, I’ve followed one rule that I thought would help me break down barriers and rapidly build business relationships.

I would always ask people how I could help them.  In my mind, it was simple.  I like building meaningful relationships – not just transactional ones. Some of the most valuable partnerships and client opportunities have materialized because I helped someone and formed a trusting relationship with them.

I’ve come to realize that this isn’t always the best question to ask.  While some people are receptive, most people assume I’m trying to sell them something by asking them that question.  It’s unfortunate that the business world revolves around hidden agendas where asking someone how you can help them immediately elicits doubtful or even negative responses.

When Good Intentions Are Misunderstood

This understating dawned on me during a conversation with a major customer.  I realized that the person I was speaking with could benefit from a contact of mine who could help their brand reach its target audience.

It was mutually beneficial, but when I expressed interest in connecting them, his reaction was, “What commission will you be making from this?”

My answer was simple: It was valuable for me to have a strong relationship with both sides of the introduction and connecting the two was the best way to do that.

Six suggestions I recommend when entering into a research dialogue:

  1. Find out what’s valuable to the client. Ask the prospective client or partner what they find valuable and offer an example of how you can help. For instance, asking how someone defines a good client and pointing out how you can deliver on that will more than likely get them excited.  You’re not fishing for a contract; you’re just extracting how that person defines success.

 As our company has become a buzz hub for many of our clients who require various recommendations or assistance due to the large network pull that we nurture, I’ll sometimes ask the person I’ve assisted if they find the contact I’ve shared with them valuable.  This typically sparks a meaningful discussion and allows me to determine what’s beneficial to the individual.

It’s important not to make promises you can’t keep, but mention that you’ll keep an eye out for that person.  People appreciate gestures like these and can earn you a new level of respect and credibility.

  • Be transparent with any benefit or agenda. Most businesspeople admire full disclosure. In the example I used earlier, I simply told the executive I didn’t have a hidden agenda but found value in helping both parties because it could result in future business.  They seemed to appreciate the honesty and let their guard down enough to ask what I found valuable.
  • Ask more questions before you volunteer your help. Recommending resources too quickly turns people off. It raises a red flag when you offer help after knowing virtually nothing about the person or their company, so get that information before making suggestions.
  • Offer alternative resources besides your service. If you pledge to be a resource to new contacts but only offer your company as a solution, they’ll question your motives. After I get to know contacts and discover they could benefit from other products or services, I’ll offer those first so that they don’t question my desire to help.

This tactic fosters trust because the person realizes you’re not trying to sell them something. I sometimes have great conversations with people who don’t end up becoming clients, either because their budget is an issue or there are other steps they need to implement first.

By offering alternative resources to help them start the process, they may take your advice and then follow up to learn more about your service later because you’ve established that trust.  I may even go over our offerings and how we operate to increase our chances of success in the future.

  • Deliver on what you promise. Delivering for people on a regular basis strengthens your existing relationships and your extended network. I recently referred the contact to someone who consistently helps me.  In the email, I said, “He’s probably one of the most helpful people I know.”  I’m sure that when the two of them met, my short comment will have helped prevent any initial skepticism and the conversation will have been more productive.

If you tell someone you’ll be a valuable resource, keep that promise.  Don’t blatantly promote someone just to gain points and look good.  Offering help when it makes sense will build trust and nurture long-lasting relationships.

  • Surround yourself with helpful people. I’ve realized that, when I surround myself with helpful individuals and groups, I run into fewer barriers to meaningfully help others.  The more you surround yourself with helpful individuals, the more people will trust that you have their best interests in mind.

As much as I wish connecting people with valuable tools and opportunities was always easy, it’s not.  You have to think about how others perceive your intentions so you don’t come across as pushy or conniving.  Although there are many reasons people who welcome suggestions and are willing to reciprocate, these tactics can help you win over the sceptics too.

An adaptation from an article by John Hall, CEO of Influence & Co.; a company that helps brands build their influence.