Some sales professionals are allergic to three common words; “I don’t know.” I know I was. When I first started selling for IBM, I thought the way to earn trust with prospects and customers was to know it all. And, with the hubris that comes from a yearlong training effort that packed us full of knowledge and “turned us blue,” it came naturally.
What a mistake. It took me awhile – and some great help from friends and our systems engineers – to figure out it’s actually powerful to say “I don’t know.” We can’t possibly anticipate every question, every situation and every challenge.
Owning that shortcoming is disarming (to yourself and to prospects).
In my MBA classroom, I often talk with our students about “boldness & humility.” We often think of these two things as opposites; you are either bold or you are humble. Two different personalities for two different people.
I disagree. I think these two forces actually work more like a battery. A battery creates electricity by combining chemicals and throwing off electrons. The main chemicals mix together to cause a powerful charge.
This is what great salespeople do: they create a charge around them. They are at once bold in their approach, and humble in their interactions. They are unafraid, confident, direct, concise. They push. And then they listen, ask questions, tell stories, wonder why. They pull.
Humility packs its own form of power and influence. When you find yourself at a loss, under-informed, or simply lacking context, saying “I don’t know” is telling the truth. It actually puts people at ease, and earns you the right to seek more understanding. Imagine if your prospects and customers knew with certainty that you lied to them. We all want to be able to clearly answer every single question a prospect throws at us. Because if we don’t, we feel like we’re not good at our job, as salespeople.
But in an age when our prospects and customers are AS well informed as or MORE informed than we are, there will be many conversations where we don’t know it all. And we have to be comfortable with that. Because lying isn’t an option and doing so often creates problems in the long-term.
So relax and admit it that you don’t have an answer. Say; “That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer. Let me do some homework and see if I can find an answer for us.” You don’t have an answer right this instant—but you will have one soon.
If you can do that, you will build a bridge rather than burn it, and after all, no one likes a know-it-all.