Ignorance, Success & Wisdom

By Brett Yeager

One of the most powerful phrases in business and in life is “I don’t know.”

A large part of my business career has been in sales, sales and marketing management, as well as training, coaching, and consulting in sales and communication. There are at least three levels of “I don’t know” that are at play in sales and business.

1. “I don’t know” some specific technical fact or how to answer a specific question.

2. “I don’t know” why I lost a sale or didn’t get an expected result. Here, you need to learn from that failure and turn it into feedback, so you can improve your results and win the sale the next time. This is an upset, but one that is minor in the scheme of things and that is well within your known paradigm of sales or business or life.

3. This “I don’t know” can occur when you have a large loss or major setback. Something that is so large or unexpected that it doesn’t fit your paradigms at all. It “blows your mind” so to speak. My categories and solutions don’t work anymore.

Case 1 – not knowing a fact or how to answer a factual question – is very common. How you deal with and respond to this in business and sales situations is very important. In fact, mastery of this can lead to stellar sales and business results. It is always a differentiator to become an expert in your chosen profession and domain. But what happens when you DON’T KNOW something? The key is to KNOW WHAT YOU KNOW and start to recognize and admit WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. Wisdom is KNOWING THE DIFFERENCE and knowing HOW TO COMMUNICATE THIS TO CUSTOMERS OR CO-WORKERS. “Sometimes the best thing you can do is to admit your ignorance to your customer or co-worker.

When they ask you a question to something you don’t know tell them “I don’t know”. “- Brett Yeager It is best if you follow that up with something like “but I will ask someone back at the office and find out the answer for you” or “I will call you later today with an answer or response to that.” It is also possible you may need to ask them more questions to help get an answer for them. If you don’t even know what questions to ask, then say “I think I know someone who may be able to get you an answer. They may have some more questions for you. Is it ok if we arrange a conference call follow up for them to ask you some questions?” The above sequence requires wisdom and humility but is one of the most powerful communication patterns in business and in sales. Admitting your ignorance is better than saying something incorrect – which could then make you look stupid – and lose the customer’s trust.

Admitting your ignorance

Admitting your ignorance when followed up by action, by finding an answer to their question (checking with an expert and getting back to them) makes you look both humble but also wise. It is not about you looking smart and being a know-it-all, rather it is about demonstrating that you can get them the information and services and products they need based on your entire network and your entire company. Saying “I don’t know” when followed by ACTION is smarter than pretending to know when you do not. You serve the customer better by getting them what they need not by your superficial pride of being smart.

Note: this is not an excuse to be incompetent or dumb. Your customer will expect you to be a reasonable expert in your field. Those are table stakes. But if you competently can admit your ignorance when you truly are lacking information, go to your network to quickly get the customer the information they need, you are not only getting them the information but also demonstrating that you can orchestrate the resources within your company or network to the customer’s best advantage. If you cannot admit what you don’t know to your customer, then that is a strike against you. This may seem a little counter intuitive, but it sends a very powerful positive message about you and your integrity to your customers and prospects.

The second “I don’t know” – when you lose a sale or are getting an unexpected result – is where you need to turn a loss or failure into feedback or into a lesson. For example, when I have lost a sale (yes, I have lost sales, any salesperson who tells you they never lose sales is lying. In fact, one of the top features of top salespeople is that at an earlier point in their careers, they were willing to sustain massive losses and keep on going. That they were willing to get massive rejection, but they learned lessons from those failures. And they improved.

Sales approach improved

Sometimes minor lessons. Sometimes major lessons. And, over time, their sales approach improved and their closing ratio got better. They may have closed only 1 out of 10 sales, but then improved that to 2 out of 10. And then to 3 out of 10. That is a 200% Increase in sales. But it starts with trial and error, going through a sales process and then losing the sale. But learning what went wrong. And then on the next sale modifying your approach to get better. Brad Lea, CEO of Lightspeed VT and a master salesman, says that the secret to success is simply to: “DO MORE AND GET BETTER” But in order to learn from your mistakes and fail forward, you need to be willing to admit “I don’t know” when you have a failure.

The third type of “I don’t know”- a catastrophic loss or utter failure – is when your paradigms get shattered. These are setbacks so huge or so unexpected that it takes a much bigger shift to properly learn from them. It takes a paradigm change in your business and life. The ground has suddenly and unpredictably shifted under your feet and you need to re-examine your assumptions. Examples of this are when an approach that was working successfully for years suddenly no longer works, for instance: a valued and dependable customer or partner who was the bedrock of your business suddenly leaves or sells the business; a new product or technology suddenly makes your product or solution obsolete; major shifts in your family disrupts your life and your business and/or your purpose for your business; or major changes in your health make you re-evaluate your current business practice. These are sea-change moments in your life. Will you learn from them, or will you repress them and try to ignore them?

They require you to take a step back, say “I don’t know”, and re-evaluate your life, your business or your approach. Don’t rush to judgment. If you try to get business back to usual too fast in a major turn, then you may tip the car over entirely. Or you may temporarily seem to get things back to normal, but 6 months later things may be even worse. Take the time to step back and take stock of what this means. Of course, you need to address immediate business issues and get on with your day to day life, but if this is a significant loss, and things don’t make sense to you, your current paradigms and models cannot explain it, then do not rush to judgment.

Talk with a trusted mentor

Take your time, look at your life with an open mind, perhaps talk with a trusted mentor or colleague and examine your assumptions. Maybe you are operating under values and goals set long ago that are not as relevant to your present self. What lessons can you learn? What is truly important to you? What are the changes you need to make in your life and in your business? I recently had a major medical situation with pain in my back, with multiple ruptured disks. I am still grappling with what it means in my day-to-day life. My doctor said, “You need to make some fundamental changes, among them, not sitting at your desk all day, using better posture and things like that.

We can help you get better temporarily, pretty quickly. But if you don’t make fundamental changes, I will see you back here in a year with even more pain.” That got me thinking about my habits. And about how hard it is to change habits that you are unaware of – but, day by day, I am becoming aware of my habits and changing them. But this isn’t just about my physical posture and fixing my back, it was also about looking at what I wanted my life and business to look like.

Being a top sales professional in NYC in a Fortune 500 technology company, I was used to working head down, full speed ahead, marathon style on project after project without catching a breath. And now I am re-examining that as well. What kind of life do I want? How do I want to spend each day? Is it only about success and money? Or is also about the quality of each day? I love competing and winning. I love the challenge of selling and business, but I am wondering if it is time to change the pace? Or change the style? Time for my own sea change.

So, this is the third type of “I don’t know.” I’m in the middle of this right now and it’s not comfortable. I do not have a pat answer for these questions, other than to say they are important opportunities for growth and opportunities to change the course of your business and your life. Don’t force yourself to rush to judgment or to get this situation under control too quickly. A new paradigm may be taking shape – it may not always be comfortable and it will probably require a revolution in your thinking . . .