That is the question that is really being asked when you hear "how can I help you," or "what can I do for you today?" Light and friendly questions lead to light friendly answers: "Nothing at the moment...I'm just looking," or " can you show me/I'm interested in a _______."
"What do you want?" is too direct. It forces the person being asked to think...and answer in a deeper, more meaningful way. It is confrontational. It is forceful. It is demanding. Customers do not want to be confronted, forced, or have anything demanded of them when they walk into a bike shop. They do not want to spend the rest of their day off engaged in a debate about the artistic, political, scientific, and moral implications of leather saddles on monocoque carbon frames. Well, most of them don't, anyway. They want to be accomodated. They come in to fondle and drool over what's new and sexy, or to buy what they already know they need, or to get advice on a specific bike-related issue. In most every instance, things are wrapped up in a few minutes. Occasionally, the customer asks a heavy question that needs an equally heavy answer. I never shy away from those questions, and the ensuing discussions have earned me more than a few real friends.
I have walked up to thousands of customers and politely asked "how can I help you today?" I have never used the words "what do you want?" If I were to ask the latter, I imagine the customer would make an angry face and walk out. So I play the accomodating host. It's natural for me, and I enjoy it.
When I go to a shop, store, boutique, etc., I can't think of a time when I wasn't greeted with "how can I help you?" or something along those lines. Being in customer service myself, I am mindful of how I'm greeted, and even if the attitude is less than friendly, the words usually come out right. I appreciate the effort to be hospitable.
I never consciously considered the title question until last December. I was having an intimate and open conversation with 'J', a woman whose wisdom and integrity I count on. I was sharing with her my plans for 2011, when she sincerely asked of me the query in question. Point blank, no escape. The words I deliberately avoid were suddenly unavoidable. She was being confrontational, forceful, and demanding. I was surprised, both by the question and how uncomfortable it Initially made me. She really wanted an answer, and it occured to me that I really didn't know. Malice is not part of J's personality, and her curiousity was borne of caring. The question, and the answer that was collecting in my mind, spawned a welcome clarity. The initial discomfort evaporated. A calmness, an awareness filled me. The answer was clear.
To be continued...