The Question That’s Killing Your Retail Sales + 25 Better Ways to Engage Customers

As a retailer, you know that trying to engage customers in order to increase sales is a daily battle. That’s why you should steer clear of this one question: “Can I help you?”


First of all, “How can I help you?” is a closed-ended question that can only yield a yes or no answer. In stores, the customary response to that greeting is “I’m just looking.” Secondly, “Can I help you?” is a generic question that doesn’t encourage the retail opt-ins necessary to grow your business.

“Specific, focused, questions that urge interaction are the kinds of questions that will help you get your customers’ attention and make subsequent sales,” says Preneur Marketing. That means finding alternatives to “Can I help you?” must play a major role in your marketing strategy.

25 Better Ways to Engage Your Customers

Preneur Marketing offers a list of  25 sales questions you can use in place of “Can I help you?” to more effectively engage customers. Not all of them will work in every situation, but you can memorize a few different ones to use as needed (parentheses indicate that you should fill in the blank with whatever works contextually). While some of the questions may seem a bit random, again, you have to think in terms of context.

  1. What brings you in today?
  2. What kind of project are you working on right now?
  3. What’s more important to you (‘A’ benefit) or (‘B’ benefit)?
  4. Are you looking for (shoes) or (socks) today?
  5. Do you prefer (blue) or (yellow)?
  6. What are you trying to get (this devices/tool) to do?
  7. For whom are you buying this (gift/present/item)?
  8. Are you the only one who will use this (item)?
  9. Will you be using this (item) at home or in the car?
  10. What features are most important to you?
  11. What are your priorities?
  12. Are you looking more for savings or durability?
  13. Are you planning to do some traveling?
  14. Do you need a backup?
  15. How’d you hear about us?
  16. Is this your first visit?
  17. Are you just starting out (with this product/service)?
  18. Have you used one of these (items) before?
  19. What are your concerns?
  20. What alternatives have you looked at?
  21. What is your desired outcome?
  22. How long do you plan to use this (item)/
  23. Have you been using (competing product/service)?
  24. Are you familiar with this (technology/service)?
  25. Are you happy with your current provider?

The Importance of Context

As mentioned above, context is the key when engaging customers.

Preneur Marketing cites an example of a grocery store manager who is also a master of asking the right kinds of questions.

Each day, he walks around his store greeting customers with a friendly smile. When he sees someone with a cart containing whole chickens, barbeque sauce, and charcoal, he says something like “Are you having a cookout?” Then he follows that up with questions such as, “How many people have you invited?” or “Have you ever cooked it that way before”.

Eventually, he segue’s into something like, “Hey, do you have paper plates? Napkins? What about dinner rolls?”

As customers provide opt-in opportunities like, “Oh, I forgot about napkins!”, he personally walks them over to the napkins and shows them a value pack, for example. In so doing, this manager drives add-ons and increases items-per-transaction. There’s no cold selling involved. He simply warms up to the customers and uses context to sell more items.

And you can too. Just use the suggests above—or come up with your own—to help you seize each retail engagement opportunity and drive opt-ins, sales and revenue.

Sales is All About Engaging—Not Interrogating!

It’s important to remember that the purpose of questioning is to get customers to let you into their world so you can understand what they are trying to fix, solve or replace (The Retail Doctor). But as Preneur Marketing points out, it’s all too easy to get caught up in the interrogation aspect of sales engagement.

All of us has been “accosted” by a salesperson who has asked way too many questions. Not an enjoyable experience, right?

“Salespeople who approach customers with an endless onslaught of questions send a clear signal to their customers – that they aren’t real people. You want to avoid that, so in keeping with McLaughlin’s advice, make sure the questions you ask move the engagement forward.”


Source: Preneur Marketing

“As a rule of thumb,” says Preneur Marketing, “if you wouldn’t ask a question in casual conversation with someone you know, it’s not a good question in a sales conversation. Treat people like equals and, above all else, keep it real.”

Sherene Funk is the author of the contemporary romance Autumn in Your Arms and two small business e-books. She is a voracious reader who owns more books than she can ever read in this lifetime. A graduate of Brigham Young University, she worked in advertising for many years before moving to her current writing position at Rain Retail Software. She researches non-stop to see what successful retailers do and loves to share what she learns with small business owners.