Just say “I don’t know.”

by Melody on January 28, 2013

Just say, “I don’t know.”

(A story about yes, no, and I don’t know.)

It was Christmas Eve, 2004.  I was working the closing shift as a sales associate at the Northgate Eddie Bauer, here in Seattle.  The Northgate Mall had slightly lengthened their hours to accommodate all the last minute Christmas shoppers.  However, it was literally about 30 minutes before closing, and my Eddie Bauer store was pretty quiet.  Most people had gone home to their families.  I began my routine of sizing and straightening clothes, beginning at the front of the store, and working my way to the clearance area in the back.  A co-worker was working near the registers.

In walked a very large man.  It seemed as though he was with two other men in suits, whom I saw from my peripheral vision.  I remember immediately thinking, ‘That’s odd.  Men don’t usually shop in groups.’

I cheerfully greeted the large man:  “Welcome to Eddie Bauer.  How can I help you?”  Eddie Bauer has strict rules about greeting customers promptly.

The customer said to me, “My wife was in here earlier and looked at a goose down vest that she wanted for Christmas.  Where are the zipper goose down vests?”

“Right here in the front of the store,” I said as I walked the customer to a wall of vests, some with zippers, and others that were button up vests.  The wall bay looked sadly empty, as it  had  already been heavily picked over already by last minute shoppers.

“It has to be the green color – in an extra large.  My wife gave me specific instructions.”

“I don’t recall that this vest ever came in green,” I said, as I thumbed through three or four left over visits, in a very limited size selection.

The customer was firm:  “No, I’m sure it came in green.  My wife came in here and tried it on, and then gave me a list of things that I am supposed to get her.”

I persisted, “No, I don’t think it ever came in green.”

“Yes, it did.”

At this point, I realized that all I was managing to do was deliver awesomely bad customer service.

“Sir, let me go grab the catalog.  We can double check.”

I hurried very fast to the back of the store where phones and catalogs were set up for those who wanted to order clothes and merchandise from the Eddie Bauer catalog.  I quickly found the page with the zipper up  goose down vests.

Oh dear.  It did come in green.

I went back to the large customer, still waiting for me patiently at the front of the store.

“Looks like it did come in green.  Can I help you order it from the catalog?”

He declined my offer, as I stood with my tail between my legs.  It was clear he wanted to buy something, so at that point I helped him buy a few other items for his wife.

We got up to the register, and I rang up his purchases, since the store was nearly empty and there was no line.  He handed me his credit card.  I looked at the name on it:  Greg Nickels.

Oh my.  Somehow I’d managed to argue with then-Mayor of Seattle about the color of a goose down vest.  And that was the year that Mrs. Mayor Nickels didn’t get the vest she wanted from Eddie Bauer!  (I hope that she later did get a nice Eddie Bauer zipper goose down vest!  Eddie Bauer is famous for their goose down jackets and vests!)

***

The meaning of “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.”

The interesting lesson I’ve learned is about the effect of “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.”  And I’ve thought a lot about why people say them.  And basically, I think the lessons are important regardless of the career you pick.

YES:

Yes is the easiest to understand.  It comes out of the mouth easily.  It’s usually a statement that you’re sure about, even if delivered as bad news: “Yes, we have that color and size of that vest right here.”  “Yes, we can make your Frappuccino with soy milk.”  “Yes, the department of licensing will  revoke your driver’s license if you’re arrested for driving under the influence with a breath test result greater than .08 or a breath test refusal.

NO:

I think that people like to give definite answers to things.  Both “yes” and “no” are clear answers.  They don’t have a lot of ambiguity to them – unless the person has guessed wrong.  Having said this, I strongly think there is a powerful human nature to gravitate to  a definite answer.  “I don’t know,” implies a number of things from “I need to do more research,” to “I need to learn more on this topic.”

People often jump to “no,” (and sometimes jump to “yes”) when the answer should be “I don’t know.”

In the story above, I should have said immediately, “I don’t know if that vest came in green – let me go check the catalog for you,” rather than arguing about the color.  But at that moment, I didn’t remember the color that the Mayor wanted, and I jumped to the negative situation – a mistake on my part.

At Starbucks, I’ve seen this happen many times where partners jump to “no” when confronted with something new.  I recall last year being at a Starbucks in Bellevue, and presenting my Evolution Fresh card as my form of payment.  I was at a Starbucks along Bellevue Way, less than one mile from the first Evolution Fresh juice store operated by Starbucks.  The barista at the register looked at my Evolution Fresh card (which regular readers of this blog know IS a Starbucks card) and said, “We don’t take those cards.”  At that time, the Evolution Fresh store was very new, and understandably, it was probably the first time she’d seen the card.

But really, the answer could have been, “I don’t know if we take that card – I know they’re operated by Starbucks – Let’s give it a try!”  I firmly explained that the Evolution Fresh card was a Starbucks card. Then the barista was surprised that it worked.

There are times that the answer is “no.”  One Starbucks rule that I’m sure of is that you can’t bring in outside food for baristas to prepare for your beverage.  If a customer says, “Can I bring in my own coconut milk from home for you to steam in my latte?”  The answer should be “no.”

The Starbucks photo policy is another one that causes confusion.  Many partners don’t know that you can take photos in a store.  Rather than researching it, it’s easier to jump to “no.”

My position is that jumping quickly to guess of “no” probably is not a good idea.  The damage may be harder to recover from also.

I DON’T KNOW:

I don’t know is the trickiest of the three.  When someone says “I don’t know,” it implies that there is more work to be done.  And in fact, that alone is enough to make many people in customer service jump to a “yes” or a “no.”  The fact of the matter is that “let me go find out,” can be a hassle in a busy store, regardless of what kind of retail venture it is.  However, if I’d continued to persist that there were no green vests, I would have likely lost a customer.

It seems silly, but many customers are lost in the very short moment when someone in retail doesn’t want to take an extra step and double check.  “I don’t know” often requires follow up – it means that the job is not done:  Also an uncomfortable position to be in.

I think that many people don’t like, “I don’t know” because subconsciously there is a moment of weakness.  This might not even operate at the conscious level, but “I don’t know” can make a person feel inadequate.

As a customer, I completely respect the three little words, “I don’t know.”  It’s honest.

CONCLUSION:

To anyone reading this, regardless of what kind of customer service you’re in, I think it’s worthwhile to have a certain kind of self-awareness about “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know.”  If you’re saying “no” to something, are you sure that policies haven’t changed or that you have the right information?  I think it’s worthwhile to take a split second to ask yourself, “Do I really KNOW the answer to this question?”

By the way, it doesn’t matter what kind of career you’re in for this to be important.  As an attorney, it’s terribly dangerous to make wrong guesses about legal questions:  You often have to go look up the answer.  The same paradigm of “yes,” “no,” and “I don’t know” applies to almost any profession.

I really do think though that people don’t like to admit that they don’t know the answers.  I have often thought, there would be a lot more hung juries in our system of justice if people could admit to themselves, “I don’t know what happened here, and I’m left with guesses.”

I suppose I could have renamed this article “Guesswork is Dangerous.”  Research first and be knowledgeable.   It’s just good food for thought for those in customer service (and life generally!).

Hope you enjoyed my true story about working at Eddie Bauer.  I took a small amount of creative license – I don’t really recall which color vest the Mayor was looking for, and I don’t recall the conversation verbatim obviously.  I did think it was a funny incident!  I thoroughly enjoyed working at Eddie Bauer back when I did.

Have you ever jumped to a “yes” or “no,” when really the answer should have been, “I don’t know”?

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

Hallie January 28, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Melody, awesome post. This is something that will certainly inspire discussion and self awareness, and it seems so aptly timed, at least for my store. Thank you.

Jayne January 28, 2013 at 9:40 pm

Lovely post and great message. I worked at Nordstrom for 9 years and I totally get the customer service experience. Now, as a customer at Nordstrom, I give the sales associate a bit more patience but I do inquire as to whether they really know the answer or are just saying no because its easier than finding out.

Rebecca January 28, 2013 at 10:31 pm

Which of these three words to use is tricky, and the really skilled in customer service can always seem to use the exact right one for the situation. I’ve never loved our ‘just say yes’ policy because I can’t, and shouldn’t just say yes to everything. Though in principle, I like what it stands for – my people are empowered to just say yes to making the situation right for the customer. I’ve heard it make partners lazy though…they just say yes, when they should explain further, or they should say no (as with the outside milks).

We’re re-focusing on customer service basics right now, and the common struggle is dealing with those grey ‘I don’t know’ areas. What if the customer is angry, and you feel an ‘I don’t know’ even if truthful, will make them angrier? What if this customer has a history in the store, like in some of our downtown locations? What if you don’t know, and you don’t know how to find out, or don’t have time to in the moment? What if a customer is upset over something you can’t change/do anything about? So many great, legit scenarios my partners brought up. And when you look at the age and life experience of some of the partners on my team, I can totally see why they’d have a hard time deciding how and what to do.

So, what I decided to focus on was the fact that we can’t possibly prepare for all the ‘what ifs’ – too many out there. Instead we talked about approaching any kind of disagreement/confrontation etc. with the question ‘How can we both walk away from this conversation with as positive an outcome as possible?’ and then start to quickly tackle the problems that are in the way of that.

I personally hate saying ‘I don’t know’ – anyone who knows me well knows that. Most of my partners feel the same way. So, we’re also focusing on the ‘on ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’ method – be as knowledgeable as possible, so you *can* give a definitive answer 90% of the time. And then remembering that the other 10% is an ‘I don’t know – here’s how and when I’m going to let you know.’ Good post :)

gregthebarista January 28, 2013 at 11:50 pm

You are awesome Melody! What an interesting post, very good read. I think about this conversation all the time and when working with people new to the workforce vs. workers who have been around a while.

I find with good management,partners are less scared to say the wrong thing. Empower the team to know how to find the facts, how to find out.

Bob Smith January 29, 2013 at 3:47 am

Excellent post! I think you captured the true essence of great customer service. I worked for a company where the mantra was more of a “yes, but…” we were told to start and yes and work backward. I think you captured the real challenge-to really know your answer and be able to communicate to the customer, “I don’t know, but here is how I can remedy this…”

I was just talking yesterday to my friend about customer service and how many companies use a script–which is fine, but a lot of the employees sound like robots on the script and get very lost off the script… no critical thinking skills development.

And yes, I have often jumped to a ‘no’ when it should have been ‘let’s look at this’ because of the nature of my work. Now I know to listen to myself before I give the customer an answer. Thanks again!

eric January 29, 2013 at 3:54 am

What a great post! I love the thought that went into this. Thanks for writing it.

In my retail / customer-service job days, we were taught to avoid “I don’t know” like the plague. Instead, we were to dodge it with responses like, “That’s a great question. Let me go find the answer.” I find myself still using variations on that theme today in the office.

Adam Jackson January 29, 2013 at 5:24 am

Reminds me a lot of Apple Retail training. Avoid negative sentiment at all times. Even if a customer is very wrong like, “I am totally sure iTunes plays WMV files”, you still have to get them to realize they are wrong (if they actually are) and do it in a guiding way.

“This is new to me and I wasn’t aware. Let’s verify this with the iTunes supported files on what we call ‘Apple Kbase’.” click click click

“It looks like WMV isn’t listed. Perhaps you were using an alternative player?”

Instead, some hires would say, “No, you’re wrong. there’s no way iTunes does that” and the customer would feel embaressed or leave the store angry.

====

Another tip would be never talk directly about the customer to the customer. Example would be that customer asks, “Why do I need a new iMac? Is it that much better?” Your response, “Our customers are in love with the new iMac. It’s lightning fast and easy to setup”

You can probe them to find out how they use their current iMac but you’ll see this in apple promo videos a lot. Management never says, “You’re going to love the iMac and you will want to buy one.” Instead, “Our customers are delighted to experience the new iMac in our stores and we’re confident those who experience it will fall in love.”

Use emotional triggers, blanket statements that include the customer but don’t directly point to them.

purple1 January 29, 2013 at 6:49 am

Melody as others have said a great post and this topic opens up so many issues. I have been questioned so many times about the Tazo card being accepted that I can see when a partner is going to give me a hard time. I really think this part of customer service needs to be addressed to partners on an ongoing basis. Every customer needs to be looked at as if they are the only customer in the store whether it is busy or not. Make them feel welcomed and appreciated. And if your answer is no or I do not know then as has been said make the customer feel like they understand why. Great post!

Hayley January 29, 2013 at 8:36 am

Melody, I love this post!! That was very nicely written! I feel the same way, I completely respect an ‘I don’t know’ with the intention to figure out the answer, than just a ‘no’. I’m a pretty picky person, I’m finding out…especially when it comes to shopping and I really appreciate a person who will take the time to really assist if I ask something. It makes me feel so much better about my experience if the ‘no’ was backed by an effort before saying no, or a concrete reason as to why it’s an immediate no. I’m so glad someone else feels this way!

denise r January 29, 2013 at 9:02 am

Great essay! Melody! I love the style and the story, and, advice. I still, repeatedly, urge anyone and everyone to read (any) book about Marshall Field of the store, Marshall Field’s. For over 150yrs, and eventually nationwide (not just the Chicago icon that it was) it was the best example of excellent customer service (and products. The infamous phrase: “give the lady what she wants” started eons ago when Marshall Field (the first) walked in upon a clerk who was arguing with a customer about some return or item she wanted. (It’s in most of the books about him, in its exact form). Mr Field immediately said to the clerk: “Give the lady what she wants”, and that became their well known phrase and attitude for yrs and yrs.
Obviously, it might not apply to todays circumstances….I think there are too many people who are literally out to scam a store. However, it’s a good phrase to remember. And, as I have also often said: there’s barely a job anywhere that doesn’t involve some form of customer service: doesn’t need to be in a store. It’s everywhere. When I was working (most of my life) in clinical microbiology in a large teaching hospital, and also as a personal trainer in a huge chain gyms, the theory and expectation was: everyone is your customer..whether it was a doctor you were giving results to, a nurse on the floor or your co-workers….all are your customers and should be treated as such. I think that’s the essence of human encounter: kindness, no matter what the ultimate ‘answer’ is.
I could go on about 100 or more Sbux experiences of all kinds but that’s already been done by others here. One of the biggest problems I see with/in Sbux today is very young people who,often but certainly not always, were either not raised with this kind of ‘etiquette’ and/or never received such training from Sbux.

@Melody: excellent thread!!!

purple1 January 29, 2013 at 9:19 am

Denise R great comments and so agree. It is so true that customer service exists in all areas of our lives and we all need to see that. Your last comment re SB training really needs to be addressed by corporate SB especially as they expand and acquire new companies. There just does not seem to be consistency in the training (as we all have seen in one form or another) and this comes out in ways that Melody outlines in this blog post.

Dorothy Stewart January 29, 2013 at 4:59 pm

Excellent post. Thank you for the reminder.

Chgo. January 29, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Great story Melody!!! I dunno what else to say! ;-)

Chgo. January 29, 2013 at 6:48 pm

@Denise – Great comment! (and so very true)

Phil January 29, 2013 at 9:17 pm

What a great article! All too often people are SO confident when speaking absolutes, which is one of my pet peeves.

On a related note, my wife got a Marshmallow Mocha this past weekend. I went to a Starbucks in North Seattle to get one and they had no idea what I was talking about. The barista (expertly) said, ‘I know don’t, let me ask around.’ While she was checking with others in the store I Googled it and found an image of advertising for one in a drive-thru line. No one had heard of it, so I showed them my phone. They passed it around, commenting on how good that sounded. (My wife said it was DELICIOUS!)
Later called the Everett store that she got it from. Apparently there are only a few stores in the Everett area making these right now. Was told it is ‘Seasonal’.
Thanks Melody!

merryncole January 30, 2013 at 4:24 am

@purple1 I have the same problem with my Tazo card. Baristas look at it and assume it’s not a Starbucks card. Some will try to run it as a credit card, and many others will just look at me and tell me it’s not a Starbucks card and I can’t use it. Wouldn’t it be easier to just try the card and then comment if it DOESN’T work? Most of the time just telling them that it does indeed work at Starbucks solves the problem, but sometimes I get baristas that argue with me over it. I have to reassure them several times that if they run it as a Starbucks card it will work.

Kat January 30, 2013 at 5:17 am

I loved your post (and I really enjoy your blog). This post hit home for me last night. My husband and I were at Starbucks and were going to use the holiday drink cards (the ones where you collected the ornament stickers) that we had been holding on to. He ordered a vanilla latte and tried to use his filled sticker booklet. The barista looked at him and said he couldn’t use it on his vanilla latte, it was just for holiday drinks. I told her that wasn’t right, it didn’t say anywhere on it that it had to be used on a holiday drink. She insisted that the code wouldn’t work. My husband tried to mediate, asking if maybe there was a holiday drink still available then he could use it on (the filled cards didn’t expire until 3/4 and it’s the end of January). I started to feel silly for arguing, but I’m literally reading the instructions to the barista, and she is telling me I’m wrong. Suddenly she says, oh, the code went through for his vanilla latte.

Now maybe this is a new barista. I didn’t remember seeing her before, and usually the customer service we get at this store is nothing short of fantastic. I was surprised and thought on what a completely different experience this would have been had the barista just said, “I don’t know, let’s see if it works” rather than insisting that it wouldn’t and I was wrong.

Becky E January 30, 2013 at 7:46 am

This just hits the nail on the head! Great post.

Melody January 30, 2013 at 8:02 am

I know I’m behind on replying to comments. Just want to say that I love the many great and insightful comments in this thread. Glad you liked this article too.

Feel free to weigh in! (If you’re lurking).

denise r January 30, 2013 at 9:05 am

@Kat: the exact thing happened to me with that little ‘holiday sticker’ booklet for buying those holiday drinks. When I first got the booklet, I immediately read it (I assumed the important details would be on the back.) Clearly, it gave that exp. date and said could be used for a “grande drink of one’s choice”. I had, eventually, two of those filled booklets. Both times that I went to redeem them for drinks, I had ‘an issue’. Both partners, different times, different stores, said immediately I had to use it for a holiday drink. I told them to look on the back, bla bla bla. So, obviously I did end up with what I wanted. But, in addition to the ‘only for holiday drinks’, I’d ordered a 4shot TALL something. The partner was really going to insist I could only ‘use this for a GRANDE’. I commented: so, you’re telling me I can use this for a grande anything but not a tall? I told him: then make my tall 4shot etc in a grande cup OR, can’t you just ring this as a GRANDE. This one actually called his sm over, as I was standing there in disbelief. The sm, of course, was fine about it all but this is a perfect example of everything we’re talking about here: lack of communication (apparently, with the partners, re: the details of the drink deal), partners lack of taking the initiative to read the details, the whole idea that even after (finally) seeing and looking at the details on the back, any partner would still make ANY issue of this, when clearly they were uninformed and one of them, especially, ready to argue his case??? too crazy.
also, off topic, but funny that your husband was gonna be willing to settle (sounds like) and you stood the ground;)

Melody January 30, 2013 at 9:15 am

@Kat & DeniseR – That little holiday booklet is a perfect “just say I don’t know” situation. Great example. I don’t expect partners to have seen every promo, know every possible rule, and know every possible promotional term. I do expect (or hope) that partners will 1) resolve ambiguity in favor of the customer 2) really be open to researching the situation and new information (‘what does it say on the back of the booket?’) before jumping to “no.”

Samantha January 30, 2013 at 11:28 pm

This post definately touched home for me today, I had a bit of a problem with a customer and had to connect with my manager for a solution since the customer made me nervous with how angry he became and because I never had really a problem with any of my customers since most of them are regulars. He came in today wanting a triple venti latte and when I rang him up with his total he came out very angry saying he was a gold card member and it was free because of his gold card status. Now, Im not a new Barista so i do know about the rewards drinks, etc. However, because my store is a lisenced store our registers are not up to date with the system to redeem the free drinks and food. Our DM has told us to give them 50% off the drink or food of choice. When I presented the customer with our first solution he became even more angry and made a huge scene, this is when i became very nervous. I one more time tried to explain our situation and why I could only give him 50% off of his drink and he just started yelling. This is when I went to get my Manager to help calm down the customer. My manager also tried to explain that our systems are not up to date to redeem the free drink or food and we could give 50%. The customer became outraged and went on to insult me and my manager. My manager went ahead and gave him the drink and informed him he would be in contact with our GM and his Commander. All in all I definately try to avoid saying ” I don’t know” because its a very fustrating thing for customers to hear, I try to say “Hmmm, you know Im not entirely sure. Let me find out for you!” Or “Let me get my supervisor/Manager since he/she is a more informed!”

Chgo. January 31, 2013 at 3:22 am

@Samantha – My wife comes home with horror stories like yours everyday. There are some people that no matter what you do to help them or make it up to them, it will never be good enough. And to berate you for something you can’t control in front of your fellow employees and customers???? My wife doesn’t work for Starbucks, but works for a large company. The worst customer she informs me, are those getting the food for free because of some Government assistance. They know the rules of what they can and can’t buy, and still try to cheat the system. My wife said that when something like a simple 10¢ mistake is made, they want to fight as if the money is coming out of their pocket. As my wife puts it…. You want to yell at my cashier who is working for min. wage and paying taxes, so that you could sit at home getting assistance that we are all paying for? They could fill out an app. if they need a job. Berating somebody over 10¢ that isn’t the employees fault, when it’s all free anyway, is a bit petty. They’re still going to get the 10¢ back, if not something for free for the mistake anyway. No matter what answer you give them, some people are never happy.

denise r January 31, 2013 at 6:51 am

@chgo: love your post! great example….

Samantha January 31, 2013 at 9:59 am

@Chgo: Some people really are not happy no matter what answer you give them haha. Even after the customer got his free drink he still was angry because when he picked up his drink from the top of the lid the drink fell on the floor.

Chgo. January 31, 2013 at 10:40 am

@Samantha – That Karma….. It can be a %&$#@.

Judy January 31, 2013 at 3:46 pm

Thanks for a great post!

Michelle February 1, 2013 at 11:41 am

Denise – re: the situation you mentioned with the quad tall drink and the holiday drink coupon. I understand your frustration, but I also know that sometimes when confronted with the situation described, the barista just freezes and can’t think of the work around. I’m called over to help with situations like this sometimes too, and while it seems obvious to the customer and obvious to me, the barista just can’t wrap their head around it. And, because everything needs to be rung into the register correctly they’re stumped as to how to make that happen. Of course your situation may NOT have been like that, but I know from experience it does happen that way sometimes. (in fact, I had a situation with that drink coupon and discount code where I couldn’t make it work, and couldn’t figure out why. I worked around the problem, but it took me a full day to figure out why it hadn’t worked in the first place, and then I had to follow up with that customer to let them know)

denise r February 2, 2013 at 4:42 am

@Michelle: I totally understand when a barista can’t find a code or has trouble with the code but this wasn’t like tat. I even said, (putting my gasses on!), what the code was…and still there was ‘argument’, at least mildly. It’s just unacceptable, to me, that at least once they’ve seen the ‘instructions’ clearly, any one wants to still see a problem with this…ie: you can only have a GRANDE not a tall. That’s too wrong. And trust me, I try and be as helpful and understanding as I can be, until maybe the partner just won’t give it up and accept what’s in front of him/her. This is just a lack of communication to the partners from, at least, the sm, in my opinion. Plus, as they put those tiny little stickers on those booklets all along, did they never think: what is this for? plus, they (many times) gave them out in the first place. Oh well…that one is over.

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