I love the spirit of the question “How Can I Help You?”
For starters, it puts the focus on the other person, emphasizing that you’re looking to give as well as just receive in professional relationships. The intent is a good one, because giving in business is as much a factor of success as anything else. (If you don’t believe me, read this great book by Adam Grant called Give and Take).
However, I don’t think this question is ideal all by itself. Here’s why.
1. If you really are asking for something, just ask.
If you need my help promoting something or want an introduction, it’s much more efficient and honest for you to just come out with it and ask me. Be polite, but just ask.
If I can help, if I’m interested in what you’re trying to do, or if I simply like you and want to do what I can to see you succeed, I’ll do my best. If not, I’ll tell you I can’t.
But don’t start out with “How can I help you?” if what you really want is something from me. I’ve seen this advice given, and don’t agree at all. Business is a give and take economy. I know that it’s a balance of asking and giving, and I’m happy to do my part when I can and when I know I’m working with someone with integrity.
So just ask.
2. It’s too generic.
The truth is most people don’t know how you can help them.
Unless they have a really specific understanding of what you do, it’s not likely they’ll immediately think that you can add value in a specific way. It’s also possible they’re not sure what they need help with until they hear it or have it suggested.
Most people end up answering this question with an equally-generic statement like “Oh, just keep me in mind for opportunities or introductions” (which gives the person zero idea of what kind of opportunities are a fit or to whom those introductions should be).
So, instead of offering “How can I help?”, try instead offering something specific.
- Can I help make an introduction to anyone in a specific category/industry?
- Can I help you promote a new project?
- Can I write a referral or a testimonial for you?
- Would you like to be a guest on my podcast?
If there’s something specific you can offer, offer it! It helps the other person get an idea of what you’re able and willing to help with and makes your offer seem that much more concrete and genuine.
When it comes to asking or offering in business, specificity is your friend.
Be direct, polite, and really targeted with your asks. Be direct, polite, and really targeted with what you can offer.
You won’t always get a bite on either end, but focus will drastically increase your chances of both giving and getting help.
Which, after all, is the whole point.