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One of my most requested topics when I am asked to speak at events is about the right questions to ask to qualify a business opportunity. I happily share a formula for success that outlines the questions sellers can ask potential customers to determine if an opportunity if real or not. I want the audience to put these ideas into practice. So, I schedule a follow-up conference call weeks later to take any questions. The most common question is, “What if the person you are asking doesn’t know the answer to the question?” You need to understand what it really means when your client says, “I Don’t Know.”

It Could Mean Several Things

The truths shared below apply equally to clients, employees, job applicants, and possibly even your children. Whenever you hear “I don’t know,” recognize that the underlying truth is all that matters. Afterall, when you are trying to influence a decision, it’s not about persuasion or coercion. Effective “selling” is about getting to the truth as quickly as possible. Let’s say you ask your potential client (employee, or applicant) a question about how they would measure success going forward. They say, “I don’t know.” What could it mean?

They Don’t Want To Tell You

If you have not done enough work to earn the client’s trust, then they might be thinking to themselves, “I don’t want to tell you because you’ll have information you can use against me.” This is very common in the home renovation space. The contractor wants to know your budget in order to get a sense of your vision and the scope of the project.

“When the client doesn’t want to share their budget, it means that they don’t trust the contractor. In home renovations, the right outcome requires mutual trust and respect. You can renovate a kitchen for $15,000 or more than $250,000. They would be very different projects and finishes. If we have established trust, the budget discussion is very easy,” said Mina Fies, founder of award-winning Synergy Design and Construction in Northern Virginia (I love that their website is RenovateHappy.com). Mina goes on to say, “We can even share how they can achieve results they didn’t think were possible if we can get on the same page. It all comes down to building trust.”

If you sense that they just don’t want to tell you the answer, then you want to take responsibility for their lack of comfort. You might say, “I get the sense that I have made you uncomfortable. What can I do to build your trust so we can have an open discussion?” Without open and honest communication, you can be stalled forever.

They Really Don’t Know

In some cases your client (or your child or employee or your boss) does not want to tell you. In other cases, they just might not know the answer. Let’s say you had something go wrong with a client. You speak with them and ask, “What can we do to make things right for you?” The customer might not actually know what options are available to them. You might ask a potential client, “How would you measure the impact of that issue on your business?” In some cases the person you are asking might either a) not know; or b) has not considered that question before.

In that case, there are two things you can do: 1) Share 3rd party stories about how others measure impact to see if it would fit for them; or 2) Work with your contact to uncover who in the organization might know the answer to those questions.

If you sold phone systems and your prospect said they called you because their system kept crashing, it might sound like this: “I appreciate that you don’t have a way that you currently measure the impact of your phone system going down. Our other clients have told us that they find that about 20% of calls are from potential customers and that half of those who don’t reach them on the first call don’t call back. They then count how many calls they typically get per hour, and what their average revenue is per sale. They factor in how long their system is down and that is their basis. How similar would that be to your situation?” The goal is not to assume that other client information does apply, rather, it is to have a discussion so that the customer can see the possibility. Once again, you are just seeking the truth.

Why They Don’t Know

They might still say to you, “I don’t know if that fits for us.” In that case, it’s probably the case that you need to find someone with the answers. But, how you ask about others is very important. If you ask the wrong way, you’ll alienate your contact. It might sound like this, “I’m sorry for asking you these questions. I’m just trying to see if there is a valid business case for considering moving forward. In some cases, it’s just not worth the investment. Who else might have the answers to these questions? What’s the best way for us to include them in the discussion in a way that’s comfortable for you?” Notice that we are extending beyond the person in front of us by including the other party, not circumventing the person in front of you.

Uncover The Truth

Regardless of the reason someone says: “I don’t know”, getting to the truth helps you and your customer. With simple questions, you can stay on the same side of the table, and build trust.

It’s Your Turn

When have you seen someone use “I Don’t Know” to hide the truth (aside from teenagers)? I cover this in detail in a related podcast episode.

What To Do When Your Client Says I Don’t Know

Tune-In Here