Saying "I Don't Know," It's Not as Bad as You Think

by Diane Berenbaum

"I don't know." Three simple words, yet some people will do anything to avoid saying them. Maybe we feel a need to have an answer for every question to ensure job security. Or, if we say "I don't know," associates might doubt our competence.

No matter the reason, it is time to reexamine those simple words and discover why saying them may be a very good thing after all.

First, let's explore what can happen when you avoid that phrase. One of my associates went into a large discount store to purchase flooring. There were a plethora of options—making a decision was no easy task. When she asked the store's representative more questions, he just kept showing her his computer screen. When she requested additional specifics, he got agitated and barked, "It's all there on the screen.  Just read that info—that's all you need to know."

Hmmm...methinks that response belies a fear of saying those three words..."I don't know." It seemed that he just couldn't say them. We can guess his reasons:

  • He didn't want to look stupid—it was far easier to make the customer read the fine print on the computer. If she didn't understand it, then it was her fault, not his.

  • He didn't know the answers but didn't want to admit it.

  • He didn't want to provide wrong information, which could get him in trouble.

  • He didn't want to say anything that might undermine the sale.

Yet, the words he chose had the exact opposite effect on the customer than he hoped. Instead, they created distrust and left a distasteful feeling about the whole experience.  As a result, my associate went to another retailer to find someone who could really help. And, she made a note to herself to never shop at that other store again.

We may all want to be perceived as knowledgeable and accurate, but the truth is...customers, as well as your associates, really don't expect you to know everything. And, they will have far more respect for you if you admit when you don't know. Besides, if you make up a response to avoid that phrase, or tell others what you think they want to hear, it could come back to haunt you.

President and CEO of the Olympus Corporation, F. Mark Gumz, summed it up well: "If you don't know the answer, say you don't know the answer.  People will accept that you don't know the answer. But, what they cannot accept is if you tell them something that's wrong, because they are going to act on that. And, then if you have to come back later with a different answer, you'll lose credibility."

With that in mind, here are four ways to respond when you just don't know:

  1. Be honest about the information you don't know. Acknowledge it by saying, "I don't know."
  2. Follow-up those three words with a commitment such as, "I will research that further and get back to you tomorrow with the answer."  Setting a deadline builds security and trust.
  3. Provide another contact who does know the information requested, or suggest other options for obtaining it.
  4. Share what you do know and what you don't know. And, if you are not sure of your information, admit it and say you will verify it. For example, "I believe there were 245 incidents in January, but I will check and confirm details in our Friday meeting."
Not knowing is not so bad. Ben Franklin said: "The doorstep to the temple of wisdom is a knowledge of our own ignorance. We can't even begin to deal with the problem until we know what we don't know."

So go ahead, say "I don't know" and embrace your "not-knowing." It will allow you to listen with an open mind and heart; and who knows what new discoveries that will bring.
Diane Berenbaum is a long-time contributor and former editor of the MAGIC Service Newsletter. She has more than twenty-five years of experience as a consultant, coach, and facilitator. Diane is the co-author of How to Talk to Customers: Create a Great Impression Every Time with MAGIC® .
Before and After
Before and After
Just one "tragic" contact can influence your customers' perception of your company (and their buying decisions). Listen to the difference MAGIC® can make.