The Power of “I Don’t Know”.

I recently sat through a conference call with a vendor in which he faced some gentle but legitimate pointed questioning. The issue was this: It wasn’t clear that we were getting much for our money from one aspect of their service. The value of the service we were paying for was not apparent. Not that the service was poor, but just not obvious that it was worth the money. This is a major problem, of course – nobody wants to feel like money is being thrown away.

The vendor was asked point-blank: “What is your company doing to add value to this process?”

Problem #1: The vendor was not prepared to answer this question. It does not instill confidence when a company representative cannot articulate the value that their organization brings to the table. This is what causes customers to wonder if their money is well-spent – and once a customer enters that state of mind, it is an uphill battle to rebuild their confidence.

Problem #2: It got worse – the vendor began to filibuster and ramble incoherently in response, making statements that were borderline non-sequiturs. None of this addressed the question at hand and it was painful to witness. He didn’t know the answer but could not bring himself to admit that – so he crashed and burned.

Again, this was not a harsh interaction and the vendor was questioned nicely – but we did not allow the incoherent reply to distract from the main question: “….Ok, but what unique value are you bringing to this process? That hasn’t answered our question.

After a few minutes of this, we took mercy on the vendor and allowed the questioning to end. He was audibly relieved. You could practically hear him whisper “Boom goes the dynamite“.

The vendor broke two major rules of service in the course of this discussion, both related respectively to the problems listed above:

Rule #1: Know your Unique Service Proposition (USP) and always be prepared to discuss it.

Your USP is why a customer chooses to go with your service or product specifically. In the best of all possible worlds, your customer does not even need to ask about your USP – the value is so overwhelmingly apparent that it floors them. Of course, that is not the world we always live in – so representatives of the business (whether sales, engineering, anyone) need to be ready to illustrate their unique value.

I am of the opinion that technology people like myself are notoriously bad at this. It’s easy for us to focus narrowly on our technical niche and not pay attention to the business service or product as a whole – which is very similar to saying that we do not pay attention to the customer and how they perceive our value. If you’re a technical person and can articulate the USP of your service or product in a way that customers understand, then it will set you apart positively.

Rule #2: If you don’t know the answer to a question, reply with “I don’t know” and promise the customer that you will get them the answer.

The worst part of the above described interaction was the floundering. It was painfully obvious that he had no idea how to answer the question. From his point of view, he seemed to think that the rambling was working, but it most definitely was not working and in fact had the opposite effect of making him look worse.

If you’re asked a question by a customer in the course of business and you don’t know the answer, just be honest. Don’t be afraid to take a momentary pause, breathe in slowly, and reply with something like “I sincerely apologize, I’m afraid I don’t know how to answer that question and don’t want to mislead you. Could I please discuss this with my supervisor and get back to you? I want you to get the most useful answer possible. I assure you that I’ll get back to you by the end of the day.”

If the vendor had said this, I would have been mildly impressed. The most impressive answer is to actually know the correct response when you’re asked – but the above reply is the next best thing. It’s apologetic, honest, thoughtful, demonstrates care for the value of the customer’s time and need for accurate knowledge, and ends with an assurance that you will rectify the issue quickly.

Let me reiterate: floundering, filibustering replies NEVER work. Even the most flighty airheads can tell when they’re being fed a load of meaningless fluff. I guarantee you’ve been on the receiving end of this before and know how ineffective it is – so why try it on anyone else?

Conclusions: Know your USP and always be prepared to discuss it. When a customer asks you point-blank “Why do I give you money?”, you should be prepared to make them feel good about that decision.

And if the customer asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer – about your USP or anything else at all – then tell them the truth. Apologize, admit that you don’t know, and give them a promise that you will get the correct answer and provide it to them ASAP – then make sure to follow through on that promise.

Categories: The IT Philosopher

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