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 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.


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 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.


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”?