The Secret Power of “I Don’t Know”

The Secret Power of I Don’t Know

It’s an SE’s worst nightmare. You’re rocking through your demo, hitting all the right points, and then it happens. Someone asks a question you don’t have the answer to. 

What do you do when confronted with something you don’t know? Do you try to answer anyway or do you admit you don’t know? 

It might not seem like it, but the simple response, “I don’t know” is actually a superpower that we all can use but often don’t. In fact, this overlooked expression was the topic for my DEMOFEST 2022 session

There’s a few reasons why we might be hesitant to use that response, but it actually can help us throughout a sales cycle. 

3 Big Fears Around “I Don’t Know”

There’s three common fears Presales practitioners have admitting they don’t know some information.

  1. I might slow down or damage the deal 
  1. I’m too smart to not know this (AKA old fashioned ego) 
  1. I will damage my credibility if I say I don’t know the answer to a question

While these fears happen to many sales engineers, it doesn’t indicate a larger problem or a failure.    

First a Disclaimer

Just remember, we’re all good at our jobs. You’ve been through hundreds of deal cycles and probably have a catalog of the most common questions that come up. If the customer has a question you haven’t heard before, it’s probably a fairly obscure one.

Today’s technology solutions are so complicated, it’s literally impossible for one person to know every detail of every corner of every feature. You’re not bad at your job if you don’t know everything. 

Fear 1 – Damage the Deal

As a solution consultant, one of our jobs is to uncover what problem the prospect is trying to solve, then shorten the deal cycle by illustrating how we help the prospect solve that problem. 

Unfortunately, there’s this notion that time kills deals. This gets drilled into sales teams so we become  subconsciously conditioned to think that adding a step or two is bad.

Since “I don’t know” usually adds a step to the deal, we assume we’ll be the cause of the deal slowing down. In reality, if an entire deal hinges on the solution consultant knowing the answer to every question, it’s probably not a real deal anyway. 

“I don’t know” doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer. In fact “I don’t know” is actually a commitment to the prospects. It’s a commitment to go find the answer and respond in a timely manner. It provides an opportunity for another touch point in the cycle and a reason for a meaningful follow up.

Fear 2 – Blow to Your Ego

Ego is tricky. We’re all tasked with being the technical explainer for our solution, so oftentimes, we’re looked at as the person who has all the answers. It’s easy to let that reputation turn into a need to be the smartest person in the room.

A question we don’t know the answer to disrupts this all knowing identity. We might even find ourselves tempted to make something up. 

Prospects are sophisticated and can pick up on answers that are made-up on the spot. That’s actually going to do more to damage your credibility than just admitting you don’t know.  

Sadly, there’s not an easy way to combat this. The only antidote is being honest with yourself and the customer when you don’t know something.

Fear 3 – Destroy Our Credibility

If you admit, “I don’t know,” it feels like that will become part of our identity to this prospect. That they’ll assume we’re not good at our job or be perceived as someone who isn’t a trusted source. 

But is that actually what makes us credible? There’s all kinds of things that make us credible and often they’re more simple than we expect:

  • Show up on time 
  • Be prepared 
  • Be respectful 
  • Listen closely 
  • Speak plainly and clearly 
  • Be honest 

The ways we present ourselves to the world are far more significant than being able to answer every obscure question. 

Caveats to I Don’t Know 

You can’t answer “I don’t know” to more questions than you can answer. As I mentioned before, you probably have a list of questions that come up frequently. If you make a database of every question you’ve encountered, you can house the answers there for reference. 

And you have to find the answer and get it back to the prospect even if it’s not the answer they were hoping for. Don’t blow off responding when you find out your solution can’t do something they’ve requested. That destroys your credibility more than admitting you’re not sure.

Why “I Don’t Know” is a Super Power

“I don’t know,” actually gives us a secret advantage. It provides the opportunity to do some additional research then come back with a more detailed response. Even when the answer isn’t what the prospect was hoping for, you can craft your response to focus on other ways you can help. 

Be very clear when the answer is still no. It may be disappointing, but you’re not doing anyone a favor hiding this from the customer. What you’re doing is creating problems for the implementation teams that come after you.  

I’m not saying this is a comfortable place to be, but opening up to the customers honestly and putting their needs first builds trust and credibility. Learning to navigate this place of vulnerability takes skill and practice, but most of all, it takes courage. 

It’s ok

Prospects want partners who listen and are honest, including admitting we’ve hit the limits of our knowledge on a specific topic. Turning that “I don’t know,” into a promise to research the answer and deliver it back to the prospect builds trust. We can’t know everything and that’s OK. 

When we show up in a way that’s authentic it actually moves the deal forward. Besides, no one likes to work with a know-it-all, anyway.

Consensus is Intelligent Demo Automation that scales your presales function.
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