How can I help you if you don’t know what you need?

Feb 6, 2014
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what can we do for you

This article is part of the “Unbullshit-able” series – a series of articles around questions & phrases that entrepreneurs are asked that are bullshit-proof. Today’s phrase is “Let me know what I can do for you.”

For many of us constantly trying to empty our inboxes (I achieve Inbox Zero about once a month), receiving emails with clear cut instructions for us can mean the difference between responding and marking the email as ‘respond later’ (good luck on that). For me, the big turning point came when I realized that I was responding much more quickly to people who clearly told me what they needed from me, and so I began asking anyone who didn’t tell me in advance:

“Let me know what I can do for you.”

I first learned of this magical phrase when I met Sunstone Capital’s Max Niederhofer at a conference. Knowing his reputation, I knew that talking with him would be interesting, so I asked if he would be free for a coffee in London (we were in Dublin at the time). He turned to me, and said abruptly, as he is known to do “I’m too busy to just get coffee, but let me know what I can do for you and I’ll see what I can do.” I said that I’d come back to him when I needed him. I still haven’t had coffee with Max, because the reality is: I don’t need anything from him today.

For startups, knowing that this is how the people you want to meet think, it is very easy to turn this around and easily gain access to journalists, investors, clients. Just ask yourself “what can they do for me?” The other side of that, of course, is “how will helping me help them?” and that is for you to determine.

I watched a great talk from Google Ventures by Rick Klau on “How Google Sets Goals” in which he talked about how, because Google follows an OKR system (watch the video for more info), everyone’s goals are public (at least, internally public), and so employees know instantly whether another employee will be interested in helping them. It’s pretty easy to guess, on a broad level, an individual’s goals in any company – most journalists want great article topics, most investors want deal flow, most marketing managers want opportunities that will return higher ROI than their superiors expect, and will check boxes on their company’s marketing strategy.

The interesting thing about “Let me know what I can do for you,” is that it helps avoid unnecessary meetings – no one’s happy when you get nothing out of a meeting, even if you think you wanted to meet them – and it expedites both person’s goals. Why sit down for a 45 minute coffee when you can say “I want you to write an article about our partnership with Danone” and you can get an instant “yes, let’s have a phone call so you can tell me more.”

This phrase puts the responsibility off of the ‘wanted’ and back onto the ‘wanting’ to figure out what they need, and make the leap into actually asking for it. I’m still surprised how many people reach out to me asking for lunch to “chat about Paris Startups.” Don’t get me wrong, I like talking about Paris Startups – I can do it all day – but if I sat down ‘just to have a chat’ with every person that asked me, then I’d never write any articles.

So – Let me know what I can do for you.(it’s my email)