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A better answer to the often-asked ‘What do you do?’

It’s the ubiquitous question from your seat mate that seems to start off every flight. It’s asked in grocery stores, restaurants, at parties and by the pool when you’re on vacation. Curiously, it’s a question that most people seem ill prepared to answer.

“What do you do?”

Most of us spit out a single word in the hope that it will encapsulate the enormity of what we do and satisfy the curiosity of the questioner:





“Stock broker.”


In the same thought, we’re hoping that — somehow, some way — they will understand enough of what we do to suggest that they themselves or someone they know needs our product or service. We experience that moment of excitement believing we have a customer or lead source sitting next to us only to be chilled by the inevitable, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” and the return to looking out the airplane window or paying for groceries.

Our one-word answer conjures a summary and judgment of what we do and truncates further discussion. We are damned by the stereotypes of our (collective) professions and the experiences of our listeners. MOREOVER, many of us COMPOUND the problem by adding, “If you know someone who needs a Realtor, let me know.” Like that will happen …

Given the frequency of the question — we probably get it five or six times per week — doesn’t it make sense to have an answer prepared? An answer that doesn’t put us in a labeled box but one that invites further discussion?

Make it better.

For a moment, stop thinking about your function (sales) and concentrate on your purpose. What problems have you solved? What clients are always happy to see you and why? What situations have you walked into and made them better? What is your mission in your job? Can you list any of these out in ONE sentence? If you can, you have the makings of a compelling response to “What do you do?”

* “Thanks for asking! I help parents get their kids through college without going broke.” (financial planner)

* “You’re kind to ask. I help companies smooth out their labor relations better.” (consultant)

* “Nice of you to ask. I train sales teams at their company conventions.” (speaker)

* “Thank you! I work with companies to help make their catered food more appealing.” (packaging)

The response to all of these statements will invariably be one of the following:

* “Really? How do you do that?”

* “Tell me more.”

* “That’s interesting, how did you get into that?”

* “I have a friend who could use you!”

* “Hey, I work with (Panera, Starbucks, Applebee’s …). Do you work with companies like ours?”

Your smart response to the initial question has opened the door to a real conversation about the meaningful aspects of what you do. Chances are the listener will stay engaged a bit longer.

Want to turbocharge even this?

Instead of saying the perfunctory (and worthless), “If you know anyone that needs a __________ , remember me.”

Substitute: “When you hear someone complaining about __________ or talking about trying to fix ___________ , you’ll know someone who can help!”

There are a host of reasons why this revision anchors you in their mind. It will increase the probability that they will remember you and what you do.

Now … what do you do?

Patrick Morin is a partner at BrightHammer, a team of experts that work directly with company leaders nationwide to develop and implement sales strategy, deliver targeted sales training and effect sales-oriented culture changes. Email him here, or follow him on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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