What's Wrong With "Can I Help You?"


As soon as Can I help you? question leaves the mouth of a service provider, the service ceases to exist.

 If you think I've lost my mind, you really need to read on.

 American Social Miami location is a busy place for Sunday brunch. One Sunday I visited them with a guest right after they opened at 11.30am. The entrance was already crowded by a party of 4 who beat us there. When our turn came to be greeted we didn’t even get an eye contact from the hostess. She was occupied with the computer screen in front of her. We stood and waited for 2-3 minutes. These 2-3 minutes of wait felt a lot longer. Maybe because we were standing in front of a restaurant host whose main role is to greet guests.

When the hostess finally looked at us, she asked the worst question any service professional can ask.

"Can I help you?” She followed it up with a raised eyebrow.

My cynical side wanted to come out say, “Well, I don’t know, can you?” Thankfully, my more refined self took over and with a warm smile asked, “A table for two outside, please."

The hostess grabbed 2 menus and without saying a word, walked away. Me and my guest weren’t sure wether to follow her or stay waiting. Turns out she’d left to seat another party before us. When she returned, we got passed over to a different hostess with, “Take those two to Jasson, to table 48” pointing her index finger at me and my guest.

We were seated and the rest of the experience was surprisingly pleasant. I say “surprisingly," because the role of a host in a restaurant sets the tone for guests’ experience. The tone that was set for us was saved by a much friendlier server.

Here is what’s wrong with the Can I help you? question.

It lacks anticipation.

Service is about anticipating guests needs, not reacting to them. If I am standing in front of a hostess in a restaurant, I sure hope she can help me. She is the hostess who is put there to welcome, great and seat guests. Least I expect is that she knows what I want before I ask for it, such as a table to sit at!

 The Can I help you? question also lacks enthusiasm.

When we host our own dinner parties, how do we welcome our guests? Do we ask them Can I help you? or do we run to the door and welcome them with a smile, excitement and warmth? I think the latter. Nothing should change in a restaurant. If anything, even greater enthusiasm should be offered to strangers, who are the reason we even have a job or a business.

 Can I help you? is a transactional question.

When we hear it, we are put through a business conveyor belt.

"Can I help you? Would you like something to drink? Can I take your order? Did you save room for desert?" - this is the business conveyor belt. When a business becomes transactional, its days are numbered.

A job of a host is much more intuitive than tactical. It requires social intelligence, not just logistics of how to fill the dining room and increase table turnover.

Being a host means to make every guest feel like they’ve made your day by showing up. That’s because they do! Restaurants would not exist without its customers. Seating charts and computer screens are secondary. The guest is who makes it all possible. No tactical knowledge matters without hospitality.

 Here are some better questions restaurant hosts can ask.

What brings you in today?, Is this your first time visiting us? or What are we (meaning you) celebrating today?

Restaurants are a social business. Friendly and polite chit chat goes a long way with guests. The host is there to give the guests a taste of the upcoming experience. It all starts with a greeting.

As soon as anticipation and enthusiasm is lost, the service ceases to exist.

Service professionals have only one job: anticipate what guests want and give it to them with a polite enthusiasm.