Katherine O'Brien
American Printer

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How Can I Help You: The Phrase That Pays Far Beyond Checkout Counter


As a regular Trader Joe’s shopper, I always take keen interest in my interaction with the checkout person. I admire their almost inevitable cheerfulness—if a clerk is having a bad day, he or she never shows it. I like their hustle—lines are seldom long and, rather than invite a stampede to the next open register, a cashier personally escorts you to the next open lane. Very civilized!



As the Trader Joe’s clerk rings up my purchases, he or she always says the same thing: “Did you find everything that you needed?” I admit I wrestle with the sarcastic angel on one shoulder and the pleasant one on the other. The sarcastic angel whispers: “Well, actually no. Because you were out of the candy-coated sunflower seeds I wanted and then you cleverly disguised that fact by using the neighboring chocolate nonpareils to fill in the gap. So at first I couldn’t find what I was looking for and then I wasted more time looking at things I didn’t want where the thing I wanted used to be.”


But more often than not, the pleasant angel wins out and I simply say, “Yes, thank you. I did find everything.”


Trader Joe%27sThe conversations immediately following the “Did you find everything?” opening gambit always involve my purchases. The clerks selects a random grocery item, such as lentil soup, and remarks how much he, too, likes that particular soup or how well it goes with some other item, such as crackers. This is like catnip to my sarcastic angel, which is now jumping up and down and begging me to say: “Thank you. I pride myself on my excellent taste in canned soup, particularly those involving legumes.” Or: “Well, it’s not actually for me. It’s a gift for a friend.”


Once again, my pleasant angel wins out. I inevitably say something especially witty such as “Yes, that soup is really good, isn’t it?”


On the surface these encounters can be banal and frankly inane. But I always come away from my grocery shopping in a good mood. I’m not stewing about a pokey cashier or an impersonal employee who is so busy gossiping with a fellow worker that I feel invisible.


I thought of this as I read author and social media guru Dave Kerpen’s article on “The Most Important Phrase You’ll Ever Say in a Meeting.” Kerpen says that while “please” and “thank you” have their place, these words are secondary to “How can I help you?”


How can I help youEven if the person declines your help, he or she will come away feeling like you cared—and perhaps they will even help you. “If it seems simple, it is,” says Kerpen. “It doesn't matter whether it’s a customer, a prospect, or a colleague you’re meeting with—we all like to be cared about, and we all can use some help. Just make sure you’re genuine, never contrived.”



So thank you, Trader Joe’s, for caring. Let’s make a deal: You keep asking me how you can help me and I’ll keep my sarcasm to myself!



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