It’s Professional to Not Know the Answer

It’s true you need business acumen. It’s also true you need a deep understanding of how you help your clients. This doesn’t require that you know everything.

When You Don’t Know, Say “I Don’t Know”

The inability to say the three little words “I don’t know” doesn’t afflict only salespeople. It’s an epidemic with management, leadership, and all sorts of professionals. But true professionals have no trouble admitting that that they don’t know something when asked.

Even if you are a subject matter expert with years in your field, with all you know there will still be more that you don’t know. When your client asks you a question to which you don’t know the answer, the legitimate, professional response is: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out the answer for you.”

As a salesperson, you are going to encounter new questions all of the time. You are going to be asked questions that you will be wholly unprepared to answer. You know I am big on planned dialogues, and there isn’t any reason to have this answer in your repertoire for the many occasions when it is the only right answer.

Predicting the Outcome

Some of us sell outcomes that vary greatly from client to client. Helping them to achieve that outcome sometimes means that we have to get started and take a look at the results to determine how to help make an improvement.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the staffing industry, as such, I have helped clients with turnover issues. I have never been able to help them make a great improvement without first spending the time to study and understand what was driving the turnover. When asked for what I thought needed changed early on in a relationship, I always said I didn’t know but we’d find out together.

I’ve also spent time helping sales organizations improve their results. Even after reverse-engineering their sales process based on what works for them, invariably we learn more together over time and make adjustments.

It’s sometimes difficult to predict what might need to be changed to get the necessary outcome. When asked, the answer is: “I don’t know all of the challenges we will encounter or what we will need to change, but I know we’ll learn something we can act on together.”

Admitting that you don’t know the answer doesn’t diminish your professionalism; it builds it. Admitting that you don’t know some answers doesn’t destroy trust; it builds it.

Sometimes you do know enough to make an educated guess. There isn’t much harm in saying, “I am not exactly sure what our outcome will be here, but based on my experience, I expect to see these two things happen.”

When you don’t know, don’t pretend that you do. You destroy your credibility and your ability to be trusted. There is no harm in being ignorant. There is only harm in pretending not to be and not doing something about it.


Why is it important to be able to say that you don’t know something when asked?

Is it critical that you always know the answer to every question asked?

How does admitting that you don’t know an answer build trust?

How does your admission help to manage expectations and prevent your from being guilty of being dishonest?



  • Melissa Faughnan

    Great article. Build trust and credibility with your prospect or client.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      It’s the only way! Thanks, Melissa!

  • Sevan

    Good article. Sometimes it’s a challenge that you don’t know the answer, but a customer, client or candidate will understand if you have good arguments. We also have some examples on our website

  • Michele Price

    Yup!  You got it Anthony.  Growing up is where this limiting belief originates.  We were taught “don’t look stupid”.  Without being taught the boundaries and perimeters around what it means to look stupid, as well as when and how it does not serve you.

    I have found when I show a level of concern or compassion around their problem as well as a willingness to help them find an answer that works for them…then you are starting the trust factor.

    You are on point about expectations, that can trip you up every time if you do not give it consideration.  People do not believe everyone knows it all and if you come across like that, they will not like you anyway.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      I’ve seen you here before, haven’t I, Michele?

      I believe you are right. Children don’t fear not knowing the answer until we tach them to. We also teach them there is a single right answer, and life doesn’t work that way. You also hit the nail on the head with empathy and compassion. Want to win your dream client? CARE! They want someone that cares and that they can trust more than anything else.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


  • Belinda Smith

    I was just discussing this with a colleague! I completely agree that “I don’t know” is a good answer when you actually don’t and I have a lot more respect for individuals that first admit that and then GO and at least attempt FIND OUT the answer.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Respect. Trust. Credibility. You are spot on: admit it and then go find the answer.

      Thanks, Belinda!

  • MyCollegesandCareers

    A good way I’ve found to respond to skill testing questions is this: “That’s a great question! I don’t have the answer on the tip of my tongue, can I get back to you on that?” It works well. -Sarah

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Why not, Sarah?! It makes perfect sense to me–and it gives you a commitment for another conversation. I like it!

  • Anonymous

    Great post, Anthony. I caught a quote from it on the home page of Triberr and had to come and read.  I think not knowing is the safest place to be – it’s hard to be wrong when you don’t know and are willing to admit it, and then go find out. But it’s amazing how people will cling to the belief that they have to be expert in order to be professional.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks, Jayne! I shouldn’t be surprised how much this resonates with people, but I am. It’s easy to feel pressured to know the answer, especially when you dream client asks the question. But guessing isn’t professional. Going and figuring out the right answer is! Thanks for sharing your thoughts here!

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  • Peter Fuller MBA

    Hey Anthony

    Whenever I do not know the answer to a client’s question I have no problem telling them that I do not know, but I always let them know that I will find out the answer for them and follow up.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Always great to have a reason to follow up. Proves you keep your commitments, and you get another chance to create value and make a deposit in the relationship! Thanks, Peter!


  • Bettina

    So glad I came across this. It’s timely in reaffirming my decision to leave a work environment in which I was admonished for asking questions and admitting when I didn’t know things. This gives me hope!

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Sounds like a tough environment, Bettina! Who doesn’t like an employee who is trying to learn?

  • Anonymous

    Certainly this skill/response can be learned. But absent that, use a person’s ability or inability to admit they don’t know something as an almost sure measure of their confidence in themselves. Sometimes a terrible manager will cause this…but usually this is internal insecurity that isn’t a simple fix. Look inward to find this strength. It’s worth it.

  • Devon

    Great post Anthony – I think sales people often try to act like they know everything because they don’t want to appear vulnerable — that approach will always backfire. Admitting that you don’t have the answer shows that you are genuine, trustworthy (like you mention), and HUMAN. Buyers like human.

    • S. Anthony Iannarino

      Thanks, Devon. I think you are correct. We are human, and trust is the whole game when it comes to relationships–sales or otherwise.