Imagine you’re at the hospital getting a medical issue checked out. You ask your doctor a question -- and they reply with a shrug, “I don’t know.”
You’d probably start doubting their diagnosis and prescription. You might even request a different doctor. But no matter what, your faith in them would definitely be shaken.
Similarly, “I don’t know" can take a negative toll on a sales relationship. Not only does the rep's credibility take a hit when they answer a question with "I don't know" and nothing else, but they might also lose the opportunity to help a prospect in desperate need of a solution.
The problem with "I don't know" is that it puts the burden on the other person to find the answer -- and that runs counter to the "always be helping" mantra that modern salespeople should live by.
So the next time you get a question that stumps you, try one of these eight alternatives instead.
1) “That’s a great question. I’ll consult some resources and get back to you by [date] with the answer.”
Want to seem confident and in control even while admitting that you’re in the dark? Use this response. It acknowledges that even though you don’t have the necessary information right now, you’re committed to figuring it out.
Providing a deadline makes this answer even stronger. If your prospect knows exactly when to expect a response, they can temporarily put the matter out of their mind.
2) “Here’s what I can tell you.”
A partial answer is better than none at all. This response lets your prospect know that while you may not be fully up to speed about a given subject, you’ll openly share the knowledge you have.
Being forthcoming about what you know and what you don't will earn you trust. And even though you can’t give your prospect 100% of what they’d like to know today, you’ll still seem helpful.
3) “So I can answer your question as best as possible, can you help me understand why this information is important to you?”
When a question baffles you because it feels completely irrelevant or out of left field, you might be tempted to respond, “Unfortunately, I don't know, since that’s outside my field of expertise.”
But before you pass the buck in this way, consider that you want your prospect to feel comfortable asking any question that comes to mind. After all, if they don’t speak up when they’re confused, unsure, or skeptical, you’ll never get the opportunity to educate them or address their objections.
Remember that the buyer is asking this question for a reason. Use this alternative to "I don't know" to dig a little deeper and get the context around the question, which will help you determine how to answer it best.
4) “Without X data, we can’t know for certain. However, my hunch is … ”
You’ve worked hard to position yourself as a trusted advisor -- don’t let your status slip away with a flippant shrug of the shoulders. Next time your prospect asks a question that you can't answer even by doing research or consulting someone else, explain the difficulties before giving them your best guess.
(If, on the other hand, the correct answer is out there but you don't know it, say instead that you'll get back to them with the answer by a specific date.)
Whenever you're making an informed estimate rather than providing concrete facts,it's a good idea to explain your reasoning. Here’s some sample dialogue:
Prospect: “So, why does listening to public radio help students learn?”
Rep: “Without more research, we can’t know for certain. However, my hunch is that students have an easier time absorbing information when it's presented in a narrative format. Scientists say our brains are hardwired to love stories.
5) “I’m impressed -- no one’s ever asked that before. Since I don’t want to give you an answer I don’t feel confident about, mind if I take a day or two to look into that and let you know?”
This response is effective for a few reasons.
First, it focuses your prospect’s attention back on themselves. Instead of being frustrated about your lack of knowledge, they feel flattered by the compliment.
Second, it makes you more trustworthy by showing accuracy matters more to you than saving face.
Lastly, it puts your prospect at ease. They might not have the answer now, but it’s only a day or two away.
One caveat: If your prospect’s question isn’t unique, don’t pretend you’ve never gotten it before. Buyers can tell when you're being insincere, and a fake compliment will only weaken the relationship.
6) “That’s actually a very relevant question -- I’m currently [looking into, gathering information on, digging into] X.”
When you’ve just scratched the surface of a topic or area, giving a definitive answer is pretty risky. After all, if you’re off-base, the buyer might start to doubt everything you’ve told them.
This reply tells them that you’re actively investigating the question without forcing you to take a stance right then and there.
If you know when you’ll have an update -- or even better, the answer -- add, “I’ll tell you what I find by [date].”
7) “Actually, here’s where I could use some of your [expertise, experience, knowledge]. I know X, Y, and Z -- but would you mind filling me in on A, B, and C?”
Is a lack of background knowledge preventing you from answering the question? Asking for your prospect’s expertise is an excellent way to make them feel smart while gathering the necessary information for a thoughtful and accurate answer.
Plus, this approach puts the two of you on the same team. Once they see you as a partner -- rather than just a vendor -- they’ll value the relationship more.
8) “Here’s what I know: [information you have]. Here’s what I don’t know [information you’re missing]. Here’s how I’m going to find out: [plan for finding information].”
Start off strong by sharing the facts or thoughts you have at hand.
Then, outline what you don’t know. This step might make you nervous, but the buyer would rather have you be honest than give them false information. It also gives them a chance to jump in and correct you if you've made an erroneous assumption, said something wrong, or left out an important detail.
End on a high note by explaining exactly how you’ll get the answer.
When a prospect’s question puts you at a loss, don’t panic. With one of these eight options, you can increase your credibility and trustworthiness while being honest about what you don’t know.
Originally published Aug 25, 2016 8:30:00 AM, updated July 28 2017