There’s no shortage of experts in the business world today. But even the most dedicated expert doesn’t know everything. At one point, the world’s leading specialist in anything will get stumped by a smart question. But there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. It doesn’t mean you’re not an expert anymore. In fact, not knowing something can be an excellent opportunity to build rapport, especially in a sales pitch.
Early in my career, I once got burned in a meeting when I didn’t have the answer to a question. I got burned because I said, “I don’t know.” My boss later told me to never, ever, ever say you don’t know. Instead, he suggested, say, “I’ll look into it,” or just make something up using your knowledge of the subject. Many years later, I’ve come to the conclusion that he was half right.
Saying “I don’t know” is a definite no-no because it makes you sound like you’re not on the ball. “I’ll look into it,” is better, but it’s still a bit of a cop out. But the worst thing you can do—the thing that can instantly destroy your credibility with a potential client—is to make something up, or extrapolate an answer in an unconvincing way. In other words, bull***t.
Instead, be honest about not knowing the answer. But tell that to the prospect in a more thoughtful, nuanced way. For example, I like to say it like this:
“You know what? That’s a great question. No one’s ever asked me that before. I’m not sure if I can give you an answer for that off the top of my head.”
Notice the way that third sentence is actually a light compliment to the prospect? That helps deflect attention away from you and the fact that you’re missing information.
Next, follow this honesty with a few phrases that show off your expertise using concrete examples. Something like this:
“Based on my experience, I would probably ship the product in a custom container. I worked on a similar project for the Acme Corporation’s Brazil operation in 2011 and that’s what we did.”
What’s the difference between that and bulls***it? This is bulls***it:
“We have a complete solution and our experts are capable of surmounting any issue, so we would certainly be able to find the optimal shipping method for your product.”
Notice the way you’re not really saying anything here? Your potential client will smell it a mile away. Don’t do it.
The final step is to close things up neatly by showing the prospect that even though you don’t have the answer, you’re definitely the absolute very best person to find it for them:
“You know what? There’s a guy on our team who has worked with this kind of product before. I’ll explain the situation to him and I’ll get you an answer by Thursday.”
By giving the person a concrete timeline for the answer, you’re letting them know that you have everything under control.
This approach shows that you have the confidence and humility to admit that you don’t know everything and the initiative to find the answer. The prospect will appreciate your candour and they might even sympathize with your position. But they’ll only get on your side if they feel you’re being honest with them.