“I don’t know.” It’s ok to not have all the answers.


February 19, 2019 - 3 Comments

Co-authored by Nick Kelly

“I don’t know”.  Those three words instill fear into the heart of many of our Partners’ Systems Engineers (SEs). SEs are considered the subject matter experts and trusted advisors, and admitting that we don’t have an answer can be scary.  Don’t fear saying the words, “I don’t know” though. Embrace them!

We are Human

Most people, regardless of their job, hold themselves to a higher standard.  In many cases, impossibly high.  Our job is to help customers solve business problems using technology, but we can’t have all the answers, all the time.  So, what do we do when we have to say those three little words?

Back when I was a young and impressionable SE, I had a great manager that told me it was OK not to have all of the answers.  I was skeptical, but he reassured that it was more important to know how to get the answers. Not having an answer is relatable.  I want to pass along my experience now and reassure a new crop of SEs that it’s OK to say, “I don’t know.”

Truth vs. Fiction

The problem with not knowing an answer for many SEs, is emotional. We are problem solvers. When we don’t have the answer, we might feel like we are letting customers down. We are not. The fix is to set expectations so the customer knows we will get them the right information.

The cardinal sin is to make something up just to save face. Consider this scenario. A customer asks if a product has a feature and the sales team doesn’t know. Instead of admitting that, they say that the product has that feature (or can solve a particular business issue.) If the product can’t, the sales team not only betrays the trust of the customer, but the sale and future sales are in jeopardy, and there may even be legal ramifications.

The Challenge

So, how do you use “I don’t know” to your advantage?  Remember, it’s not always about having the answers, it’s about knowing how to get them. If you tell the customer that you don’t have an answer to a question, work it to your advantage. Research the answer and you can spark another conversation with the customer.  This can help gain more information about the opportunity and build trust.

Learn to detach emotion from the outcome. You are not defined by your ability to answer every question, and there will be engagements when the customer knows more than you. That’s ok. There will be engagements when no one, including you, have the answers. That’s also ok.

Try this.  In your next customer meeting, say “I don’t know but let me get back to you”.  Even if it’s just once.  It can open up so much more dialog.  It shows the customer that you are willing to do what is necessary to get them what they need.  It builds relationships, and relationships are really what sell!

Who knew that three little words could do so much?



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3 Comments

  1. Great perspective piece. I was talking with one of the top engineers on the team and they felt they suffered from impostor syndrome. I think most great engineers in this profession have similar feelings. The goal needs to move from knowing everything to getting the best answer for the customer.

  2. I like the thinking here. One strategy I have found to be somewhat effective in some cases is to take their question and begin to unwrap it. What questions can I ask them that help deconstruct their question, but more importantly, deconstruct their perceived challenge? There are any number of directions return questions can take the conversation, and the original questioner begins to see the value of the SE. They start to get that we, SEs, care about our customer's challenges and successes. Finding out the Why is a good way to dig a little deeper AND potentially uncover a new opportunity!!

    At some point the conversation does get to a place where the appropriate response is "I don't know".

  3. Great Blog and a great message for everyone in our industry.