Don't be afraid to admit what you don't know

As salespeople, we've all been in a prospect's office where the conversation is flowing, your product/service appears to match the prospect's needs perfectly and all indicators point to an imminent sale.

Then the prospect asks you a specific question about the capabilities of your product/service and how it will function in a precise application within his company's environment.

You begin to speak, but then catch yourself. You tell yourself, "I know the answer. I read about this specific scenario last month in our sales meeting. But am I certain of this?" Or, perhaps you ask, "I'm unsure of the answer, but the prospect appears to really want an answer right now. What should I do?"

As professional salespeople, we've all encountered a scenario similar to this many, many times. And I can write from personal experience that there is a right and wrong way to handle the situation. First, let's consider the wrong way that many salespeople employ, either intentionally or unintentionally.

Rather than making certain that an answer is completely accurate, many salespeople will respond to the prospect's question with the answer they believe is right, or, in the worst-case scenario, with an answer they believe the prospect wants to hear. After training thousands of salespeople, I've learned there are many motivators for doing so, with ego often being the primary culprit.

Like some professionals from every field, some salespeople simply can't admit that they don't know an answer. Others have a self-complex that they're supposed to know everything about all things in their company and industry. Others have personal insecurities and thus fear that they won't be deemed credible or knowledgeable by the prospect. And even if they're not motivated by any of the above, other salespeople selfishly and self-centeredly fear that if they don't answer the question, they might lose the sale.

Let's be honest - at one time or another, every professional salesperson faces fears regarding their selling ability, their perceived knowledge and competency, or their lack of knowledge costing them a sale.

While these are all understandable, they're also an inherent part of selling. Therefore, a salesperson must have a plan as to how they will handle such situations before they arise. If they don't, many negative outcomes can result.

Offering incorrect information, for example, can create an "overpromised, underdelivered" scenario in which the salesperson says his product/service will perform in a specific manner only for the prospect to learn, after the sale, that it doesn't. Or worse, providing the wrong information can influence a prospect's decision to buy now - who then might be stuck with a product that won't do what she needs it to later.

And most importantly, the ethical foundation upon which selling is based - the mutual respect, trust and integrity of the salesperson and the customer - can be jeopardized because providing inaccurate information, either deliberately or mistakenly, isn't professional and can ruin the client's trust in the salesperson and her company.

Instead of putting themselves in such tough situations, salespeople are better-served to have a plan for such a situation before it arises.

The strategy we teach our clients is the following easy,
but effective, four-step process:

  • First, the salesperson should acknowledge the customer's question and then share his lack of knowledge. It might be, "That's a very good question and I don't know the answer at this time."
  • Second, the salesperson must share his action plan. That is, he must tell the customer how he will go about finding the answer and/or necessary information.
  • Third, the salesperson must give the customer a specific date/time when he will provide her with the answer.
  • Fourth, and most importantly, the salesperson must honor his commitment.

Additionally, during the research process, it's a good idea for the salesperson to keep the customer "in the loop." If the process is taking longer than expected, the salesperson should let the customer know. He should tell her who he's talking to and exactly how he's searching for the answer.

Also, if he finds information that he feels might be of interest or value to the customer, he should let her know. Doing so shows the customer that he's working for her, even in her absence, and demonstrates his commitment to fulfilling her needs. This one step can set a salesperson apart from the countless number of salespeople who overpromise and then underdeliver.

There's a saying that goes, "The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know." So, while a salesperson may be fearful that her admitting her ignorance may jeopardize her credibility in her customer's eyes, or jeopardize the possible sale, the potential benefits far exceed the risks, and include:

  • Helping to build the customer's trust in the salesperson and her company.
  • Demonstrating the salesperson's professionalism, integrity and judgment.
  • Allowing the salesperson to make a commitment and the prospect to see if the salesperson follows through.
  • Providing the customer with the information she needs.
  • Increasing the salesperson's knowledge.
  • Helping to build a team culture in the salesperson's company where salespeople begin actively begin seeking and sharing information with their peers for the good of their client's and their own personal growth.

The late Sir Lawrence Olivier once said, "You have to have the humility to prepare and the self-confidence to bring it off." Similarly, salespeople must have the confidence and strength to admit their lack of knowledge, and then the commitment to acquire it. Doing so can make a salesperson's statement of "I don't know," one of her most honest, and most effective, sales strategies.



Roy Chitwood is an author, trainer and consultant in sales and sales management and is president of Max Sacks International, Seattle.