“I don’t know” is more powerful than you think
People want to be heard.
I’m a podcast listener. One show I love is Judge John Hodgman, where John — most famously known as the PC in those “Hello, I’m a Mac” ads with Justin Long — adjudicates silly conflicts between friends: I came to the show late, so for a few months I’ve been working through the (deep) back catalog.
Just this morning, I listened to an episode from February 25, 2016: Phone of Contention. A wife brings suit against her husband because he rarely answers her calls or texts. John reads some screenshots of text “conversations” between the two of them, where the wife asks about what the vet said about a lump on their dog, and then checks in again 90 minutes later — with no response from the husband.
The husband explains on the podcast that he didn’t have the answer yet — he hadn’t spoken to the vet — so he didn’t reply.
John politely explained to the husband that this behavior was, in a word, bonkers. I agree.
I’ve written previously that I’m absolutely delighted to have a reputation as someone who responds quickly. And I wrote just last week about how to keep even difficult customers happy. This case gets at one key approach.
“I don’t know” is a great response to a customer, because it shows that you heard their question and are willing to respond. There’s a paralysis we get sometimes, where we don’t want to share something — including a reply — until we’re confident it’s perfectly accurate. That’s a problem.
If a client or a potential customer emails or texts with a question that you don’t know the answer to, you win so much good will just by replying: I actually don’t know on that one, but I will try to find out.
Similarly, messages that convey I’m actually not sure I understand this question — can you elaborate or can we talk live are powerful ways to convey that you want to help, even if you’re not sure how. And I also encourage you to send messages like Hey, just letting you know I saw this question, but it’s going to take some time to write-up the response. I’ll get back to you by Thursday!
This approach is meaningful to the person on the other side. They took the time to write you, and they need information. Even if the only information you can share back right now is I see you, I hear you, and I have no further information at this time, that means something to the recipient. It’s okay to not know the answer — as long as you say so.
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