No, it’s probably not the three you’re thinking of. Of course “I love you” is a very important phrase to remember, especially on Valentine’s Day. But in everyday business transactions the three most important little words you can say might be “I don’t know.” Yet most people are afraid to say them. Why?
For starters, we all want to appear smart, knowledgeable, in control. You are not going to voluntarily admit that you don’t have all the answers. So you make an educated guess or, worse still, you fake it. Of course, you might get lucky—even a broken watch is right twice a day! But what if you’re wrong? That phony confidence could backfire, big time.
“I don’t know” is actually a very powerful communication tool. Used correctly, it can give you three important advantages when communicating with your clients and colleagues:
- “I don’t know” gives you credibility
- “I don’t know” gives you time
- “I don’t know” gives you room to grow
“I don’t know” gives you credibility. It’s easy to BS your way through certain conversations. When it comes to client communications you are, after all, supposed to be the expert. And your clients naturally have a lot of questions. Which direction is the market going? Where are interest rates headed? What’s a realistic offer for this property? Has this lot been surveyed? How anxious are these owners to sell? Of course the answers to some of these questions are, at best, educated guesses. But when it comes to property-specific questions, you’re better off to admit that you don’t know the answer. If you make it up and the client comes back to you later saying you were wrong, your credibility can be permanently damaged. It’s much worse to be wrong than to admit not knowing.
“I don’t know” gives you time. Make your “I don’t know” doubly effective with this add-on: “But I’ll find out.” You should always be able to follow up with an answer, and sooner rather than later. Either find the answer yourself or find an expert who knows more about it than you do. That way the client gets an answer to their problem, and you look smart in the process.
When it comes to finding answers, even to tough questions, the Internet is your friend. Learn to love it, if you don’t already. And don’t just refer your client to a well-known web site or suggest they “Google it.” Instead, be hyper-local with your research and make every answer client-specific. They have kids? You know where to find your school district’s graduation rates or how to apply for local scholarship money. They are hikers, bikers, musicians, or dancers. You’ll find just the right special interest group they can join. The Boomer couple has an aging parent who will need specialized care. You’ll find the perfect advocate to guide them through the system.
“I don’t know” gives you room to grow. Every challenging question is an opportunity to add to your knowledge base. Actually, it’s kind of a game to put yourself into a situation where you don’t know the answer. It can be fun to conquer a topic that stumps you. It gives you something new to learn. But before you dive head first into research mode, make sure you understand the question. If the client is asking about utility rates or insurance premiums, focus on their context. If they are used to heating with natural gas and local homes are all-electric, you could be comparing apples to oranges. Instead say “I don’t know, is that similar to x, y, z?” or “I don’t know, can you explain a bit more?” Then you can follow up with a plan for what you’ll do next.
Finally, it’s important to know what you don’t know. Of course none of us can be expected to know everything. That’s why we trust certain things to the experts, like nuclear physics and brain surgery. Personally, I don’t know much about those things and I don’t need to know. In real estate, things like property values and interest rates are important, but so is your credibility and your service mentality. The measure of a Realtor is not so much in the basics you offer—almost anyone can list a property or write up a contract. But how do you respond to unusual challenges? How do you treat your clients when they have special needs?
People who survive in this business are those who understand the lifetime value of their clients and who aren’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.”