3

This question already has an answer here:

As a software consultant, clients expect me to have answers. But, of course, I don't know everything. Recently a client asked me a complex question and the best I could do was "I don't know" or maybe "I'd have to think about that."

I can't help but feel that there are better ways I could respond in such a situation, which I am sure will repeat itself many times in the future, but Googling didn't provide any great answers.

I would appreciate any suggestions and ideas, thank you!

marked as duplicate by Dukeling, Dan Pichelman, gnat, JazzmanJim, Michael Grubey May 2 at 23:53

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • If you don't know then you say you don't know. Anything else will lead to confusion. – Prison Mike May 1 at 15:02
  • 14
    I don't know the answer to your question, but I will look into it. – skymningen May 1 at 15:06
  • @noob I definitely don't mean that I want to lie or pretend that I do know something, just that there are more confidence-inspiring ways to answer than simply "I don't know" followed by silence. – Michael Liquori May 1 at 15:07
  • Nothing wrong in not knowing something but if you can assure that you will find about it that would be enough. No need to provide any false assurance. – Prison Mike May 1 at 15:08
  • 2
    @Dukeling - I think the potential difference between this question and that one is that people acting as consultants, responding to clients, may want to take a different approach than internal direct employees. – dwizum May 1 at 15:39
16

Let me get back to you...

This implies you're actively working on the issue and that it'll take time. The nature of our work sometimes is we often have to deal with known knowns, known unknowns and unfortunately, unknown uknowns... that last one there is the real challenge and I think it's best to not sugar coat or mislead. Be straight. You don't know now, but you WILL have an answer. That's a fair way to approach it.

... and be on top of it.

I would:

  • Email them after speaking them, indicating you're in the process of the follow up
  • Communicate back with them once you have an answer immediately.
  • If you don't have an answer and it's a very complex issue, communicate back to them your understanding of the complexity and try to have some solutions / answers.
  • If you need more time to understand the issue, then be up front about it.

This all boils down to communication. Always be up front and responsive about your work. People generally understand things take time, what they don't like, is being in the dark and not knowing. Let them know, keep them in the loop.

I hope this helps and good luck.

  • If it occurs in a formal meeting with minutes and such, your typical response would be something like "let's assign me an action item for further research on that" – pboss3010 May 1 at 16:52
4

Anything that indicates you are still willing to help is better than "I don't know".

"I'm not sure but I can try to find out from [resource]."

"I'll have to get back to you on that."

"I'm not sure of the answer to that myself but I'll ask a colleague who's a bit more knowledgeable in that area."

If it's nothing to do with your organisation or department:

"You might have better luck asking [Correct person, department or organisation]"

Hell, even:

"let me Google that quickly."

Is better than simply "I don't know". When you simply say that phrase with nothing to indicate trying to help, you may as well add on "and I don't care", because that is what a lot of people will assume.

And of course, follow through on what you say. No one likes to be kept waiting.

1

No mere human can be expected to know everything, even in a domain where they are an expert (as consultants usually are). An essential skill for a high performing consultant is the ability to learn, understand, and apply new information in their domain quickly and effectively. In other words, when a company hires a consultant, they're not just hiring someone who literally "knows everything" - they're hiring someone who can rapidly understand problems and help them apply solutions. Further - if you were somehow able to know everything in your domain as of this moment in time, you'd probably be outdated tomorrow - so, again, you need to know how to learn.

So - while you don't want to give the impression that you don't know anything, it's okay to indicate that there are things you haven't yet mastered or aren't familiar with. The is, "I don't know" is a terrible answer, as you've guessed, because it doesn't really communicate any meaningful resolution and it leaves the clients feeling empty-handed.

While you want to remain honest about things you're unsure of, you do want to communicate some degree of action or a path to resolve the gap. Something like,

I'm not sure how X applies to Y, but I can get so-and-so on the phone who's our in-house Y expert.

Or,

Can we plan on following up on that next week, after I've had a chance to review the data? I expect that I can show you A, B, and C once I've looked.

Or,

That's a good question, I haven't solved that problem before - but when I did X similar problem with another client, we tried Y. Let's plan out how we might try that here.

Or,

Let me show you the online documentation I usually reference when I need answers to questions like that

Of course, you want to make the answer relevant, but the goal is: have a plan to resolve the question, and communicate that plan to the client. This way, you're ultimately helping them solve their problem, while maintaining their confidence - despite your "gap" in knowledge.

And - of course - once you've communicated a plan, it's important to stay on top of things appropriately, which may include follow up emails, a meeting, or whatever would be typical for communicating status and updates with your client.

  • 1
    Let me show you the online documentation I use for figuring out questions like that...pulls up google...or stackoverflow... – rogerdpack May 1 at 16:13
1

I work in an industry with lots of complex rules, and come across this a lot, both in my own experience, and my experience with others.

My response would depend on the reason why I might not be able to answer.

Lack of Knowledge

I've never come across that before, and would have to research it.

Lack of Comprehension

Could you clarify the question?

or

I'm going to need some time to think about that. Let me get back to you.

Degree of Uncertainty

I understand what you are asking, but I need time to think it through.

There is no shame in buying time. People would rather you answer confidently given time, than rushing with uncertainty.

And if you don't know... you don't know. Honesty is the best policy, and most people will see that as a positive.

0

You don't know but surely you can find out, learn, discover, or get a close approximation, right? So tell the client exactly that.

"I don't know the answer to that, but I'll find out and get back to you as soon as I can."

0

After making sure that the question is clear to you (quote it back to them with different words but the same meaning to make sure and ask about the urgency); say you don't know but will get back to them within a specified time. Merely saying "I will get back to you" if often taken as a "blow-off" to the customer and does not address the concerns they might have about the urgency of the issue covered by the question. Make your own judgement about how long it will take to answer but once you state it get back to them on the specified date - you can't build any trust in your abilities by missing your deadlines - even if the answer is still "I don't know".

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.