The phrase “I don’t know” holds a certain stigma in the development world.  The idea of admitting that you don’t have all the answers, especially in the consulting space can seem at first glance to be a monumental mistake.  We liken it to such other classic blunders as starting a land war in Asia or going in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.  Yet as I continue to grow in my career, I have found the simple phrase, “I don’t know, but I will find out”, coupled with actually following through, to be one of the best remedies for those surprise questions that are outside your comfort zone.  At the same time, clients come to us for solutions, and we don’t want to plead ignorance when a client is clearly looking for some guidance on a problem they are having.  The question becomes, where do you draw that line?  How do you balance the need provide expert advice on a subject with the simple fact that we can’t know everything?  Do you admit ignorance and promise to get back to them, or do you try and provide an educated guess?

Lets talk about when you can say “I don’t know”.  Requests for information generally have two time frames in which to respond: instant responses and delayed responses.  Instance responses would be things like meetings, phone calls, emergency emails; things that you will have to respond to immediately or in a very short window and may not have time to research an answer and are what I want to focus on.  Delayed responses are things like emails, or general requests where you will have time to do a little digging and therefore don’t need to inform the client of your ignorance.  I want to talk about some tips for immediate responses.

Immediate responses can be a literal minefield when it comes to how to respond.  Spending some time to plan how best to respond can go a long way to helping prevent a poorly thought out answer. So here are a couple of pointers that, while I don’t always personally remember to use them, have helped me in situations where I am unsure how to respond.

  • Be honest.  Always.  Be honest with yourself first and admit if you don’t know an answer and then be honest with the client or whoever you are talking to.  No one respects a liar, and even if your admitting you don’t know causes the client to be frustrated with you, they will appreciate the fact that you were up front and truthful in your response.
  • When possible,  provide a few solutions that might work.  Often times, I find the questions that are asked are more about the “best” way to do something and often times subjective.  Admit you don’t know the best way, but see if you can provide at least a couple of options that the client can consider.  You may find that with a little digging and thought, you can narrow down the list of possibilities to a few that will make the most sense.
  • Follow through.  If you tell a client you will find out for them, find out and make sure to communicate it back to the client and your team.  It may seem like a simple thing, but it becomes very easy to get caught up in the solution and forget to answer the original question.  Providing the solution, or at least an overview, to the client will not only help them learn something, but it will help build your credibility.
  • Whenever possible, be prepared.  If the client you are working for or interviewing with uses Dynamics CRM, it would probably be a good idea to re-familiarize yourself with some of the concepts they may ask you about.   This becomes especially true if you are being brought in for a specific task.  If you are going to be working with handling imports of third party data, it would be a good idea to figure out what tools are out there before you talk to the client.  You won’t always have opportunity to do this, but going into meetings with a little bit of preparation can make a big difference.
  • Ask Questions.  Sometimes the best way to get yourself to more firm ground is to ask some follow up questions.  It also helps identify what the client is actually asking.  Maybe the clients initial question is not actually what needs to be done, and often times doing a little digging can help clarify things.  It can also help narrow down what topics you need to brush up on.
  • Don’t stress.  Sometimes when we feel we are not doing our best on something, it can lead us to stress and we end up providing a long rambling answer that in the end has nothing to do with the question.  It can sometimes be the case that we try and use an abundance of words to cover a lack of knowledge.  Don’t be afraid to pause and think.  The old adage “even a fool is counted wise when he keeps his mouth shut”, applies here.   Other times, the stress can lead to frustration, and worst case that frustration comes out at the client.  Just remember to relax, take the time to think, be honest, and do not vent your frustration on a client.  Take time to remember that very rarely will saying you do not know lead to the loss of a client or job.
  • Put things in perspective, for both you and the client.  Sometimes we end up stressing over very minor details of a project.  We may be able to clearly define 90% of a task, but that last 10% eludes us.  Don’t make the 10% you don’t know how to do seem like a mountain when its really a mole hill.

Hopefully that provides a few things to think over the next time you find yourself in the situation of not being able to answer a question.