6.24.2014

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

John Hall is the CEO of Influence & Co., a company that helps brands build their influence.
John HallFor the past couple years, I’ve followed one rule that I thought would help me break down barriers and build strong relationships more quickly.
Before I got off any call, I would always ask people how I could help them. In my mind, it was simple.  I like building relationships that are meaningful — not just transactional — and some of the most valuable partnerships and client opportunities have materialized because I helped someone and formed a trusting relationship.

However, I’ve realized this isn’t the best question to ask. While some people are receptive, most people assume I’m trying to sell them with that question. It’s unfortunate that the business world revolves around hidden agendas where asking someone how you can help immediately elicits the response, “What do you want from me?” or “What are you selling?”
When Good Intentions Are Misunderstood
This realization was solidified for me when I had a call with a major brand and asked that question. After jumping through multiple hoops to get on the phone, I realized the person I was speaking with could benefit from a contact of mine who could help the brand reach its target audience.
It was mutually beneficial, but when I expressed interest in connecting them, his reaction was, “What’s in it for you? Are you a consultant? What fees are you making from this?”
This realization was solidified for me when I had a call with a major brand and asked that question. After jumping through multiple hoops to get on the phone, I realized the person I was speaking with could benefit from a contact of mine who could help the brand reach its target audience.
It was mutually beneficial, but when I expressed interest in connecting them, his reaction was, “What’s in it for you? Are you a consultant? What fees are you 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.
To avoid these common reactions, I’ve adjusted my dialogue with new contacts.  Here are six things I do to be more strategic when offering help:
1. Find out what’s valuable to him. Ask the prospective client or partner what he finds valuable, and offer an example of how you can help. For instance, asking how he defines a good client and pointing out how you can deliver on that will get him excited. You’re not fishing for a contract; you’re just extracting how that person defines success.
Although my company isn’t a speakers’ bureau, many conference organizers come to us for recommendations because most of our clients are influencers or experts within industry-leading companies. Sometimes I’ll throw that out there and ask the person if he finds it valuable. This typically sparks a meaningful discussion and allows me to determine what’s beneficial to him.
It’s important not to make promises you can’t keep, but mention you’ll keep an eye out for him. People appreciate gestures like these, but actually delivering will earn you a new level of respect.
To remember what you’ve agreed to help each person with, organize your contacts. Our company has created a process for adding value to our connections, and we use Contactually to put connections into easy-to-find lists so we know whom to contact when an appropriate opportunity arises.
2. 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. He seemed to appreciate the honesty and let his guard down enough to ask what I found valuable.
3. 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 his company. So get that information before making suggestions.
4. 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 they don’t question my desire to help.
This tactic fosters trust because they realize 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 because you’ve established that trust. I may even go over the pros and cons of taking their content efforts internally initially so they can get things in line, which increases our chances of success in the future.
5. Deliver on what you promise. Delivering for people on a regular basis strengthens your existing relationships and your extended network. I recently referred a 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 get on the phone, my short comment will help prevent any initial skepticism, and the conversation will be 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.
6. 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. For example, I know people such as Adam Grant, Shane Snow, and Dave Kerpen, who consistently stand out for helping people around them. It’s interesting how people will simply see that I am connected to one of these people on LinkedIn LNKD +1.57% and then start a discussion about helping each other. Even if people aren’t as well-known, the more you surround yourself with helpful individuals, the more people will trust that you have their best interests in mind. There are also great organizations that encourage their members to form mutually beneficial relationships. I’ve seen a lot of barriers dropped within organizations like YEC, EO, and YPO because their members care about each other’s success.
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 reasonable people who welcome suggestions and are willing to reciprocate, these tactics can help you win over the skeptics, too.
Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnhall/2014/06/22/the-absolute-worst-question-to-ask-how-can-i-help-you/

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