Two Reasons Why “How Can I Help You?” Is The Wrong Question To Ask

Two Reasons Why How Can I Help You Is The Wrong Question - amber et cetera

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.

Think specifically.

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.


  • Merlene

    Whenever I hear “can I help you” in my mind the old SNL skit “Delta, Delta, Delta! Can I help ya, help, help ya?” runs in my head. It’s not a question I feel has serious meaning behind it because so many people just state it on auto pilot. I like the idea of framing it with specifics like you’ve suggested.

    • Amber Naslund

      LOL! I loved that skit. I definitely think we keep using it because of exactly that: it’s become rote, not something we much think about. Bonus: asking something else gets people’s attention simply because they’re used to hearing the same thing! :)

  • jaybaer

    This is a very astute post. The better question (in my estimation) is to specifically offer something that you know you can do, such as “is there a way I can tweet the crap out of this blog post, so that more people will read it?” Why yes, that would be great. It makes the conversation way less awkward.

    • Amber Naslund

      Absolutely. I like offering something *very* specific so it’s a matter of them accepting an offer vs. having to make a request. Subtle distinction, but an important one! Thanks for making it.

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  • Kaarina Dillabough

    You are so right that most people don’t know what they need/want, but they can quickly tell you what they don’t like/need/want. I just shared some thoughts on the whole “what do you do?” question, which sort of ties into your post here, because it makes the person focus and be specific.

    When I get asked “what do you do?”, I respond: “What do you need done?” It doesn’t work online, but for over 25 years and in person, it works beautifully in person. And it’s as much about HOW I say it as what I say…a little smile, easy body language, and it soon gets followed up with “If I can’t help you, I’m sure I know or can find someone who can.”

    Two axioms: Do the ask. Make the offer specific. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Amber Naslund

      I often dodge the “what do you do” question depending on the audience/person I’m talking to, and refocus exactly as you suggested. Or rather, I answer it succinctly and then turn it right around to ask what someone is struggling with right now.

      You make a GREAT point, too, about the tone and presentation of HOW you say something. It matters a lot.

      Thanks, Kaarina!

      • Kaarina Dillabough

        Always a pleasure:)

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