The 3 Most Powerful Words In Business

The following piece originally ran in my regular column at
I don’t very often come out in full opposition to a popular business authority, but today I am doing just that. Sales expert Geoffrey James who writes the popular Sales Source on blog, made the following assertion last week:
When it comes to credibility-building, the three most powerful words in the English language are: “I don’t know.” Many salespeople and most managers think that they’ll lose credibility if they admit ignorance, especially about something about which they “ought” to know. However, the exact opposite is the case.
Admitting ignorance makes everything else you say more credible. Admitting ignorance marks you as a person who’s not afraid to speak the truth, even when that truth might reflect poorly on you.
I disagree. From the standpoint of sales, from the standpoint of public relations, in fact from every standpoint of conducting a business I maintain the most powerful words in business are actually this: “I’ll follow up.” Followed, of course, by an immediate plan of action.
James is exactly right in his assertion that people dislike a know-it-all. Most people have an immediate “sixth sense” about when they’re being “BSed”. It’s one of the surest ways to destroy trust.
The aversion to the words “I don’t know” is renowned. Here’s a classic example (and one that points to one of my own prior business mistakes.) Christmas was coming and on site staffing at most organizations was slim as people prepared for the holiday. A well known tech reporter, Susan Breidenbach, called up and asked for a last minute interview with one of Novell’s sales executives as a confirmation of the company’s channel plans for the coming year. I was Novell’s Director of PR at the time. (Disclosure – this incident occurred in approximately 1987-88 and has no bearing on the company’s strategies or programs today.)
Most of the senior executives were absent, already gone for the holiday break. We located a sales vice president still available in Chicago. I can’t recall the details of how he and Susan ended up on the phone without one of the PR team present—another lapse—but somewhere in the conversation she asked questions the executive wasn’t able to answer. Not willing to let the words “I don’t know” leave his lips and not fast enough on the draw to say “I’ll follow up” (what I would have done if I’d been there to interrupt him), he punted. Badly.
Imagine the company’s chagrin, and my own, when we saw the statements appear the following Monday morning in print. I phoned the reporter back and begged for a correction, a follow up, anything at all. “You say he misspoke?” Yes, I did. “But he’s a vice president of your company. He was on the record.” She had me.
Yes, the words “I don’t know,” while difficult to utter, would have been far preferable to this credibility damaging mess. But imagine the magic and power of the words “I’ll follow up.”
Not only do the words carry credibility, they convey integrity as well, in your desire to provide the party with the words and information they can bank on. I’ve said these words thousands of times over the course of my communications career. In journalism they’re especially welcome and beneficial—what reporter would want to issue a statement that is later shown to be wrong? (Well, perhaps investigative reporting that seeks to catch a “heat of the moment” statement aside.)
Sales expert Ken Krogue (disclosure-Ken’s company is a client) talks in presentations about the number of contact points it takes to get a sales prospect over the hump. Statistically it’s six. The follow up call is an ideal opportunity to shorten that cycle with a quick additional contact that is welcomed, because it’s a chance to deliver the information the prospective customer wanted. You’re also engendering trust as you’ve gained the opportunity to follow through on a promise.
The principle applies just as strongly to communications/PR: Every chance to engage with a writer during the reporting process is a good one. It’s one more opportunity to provide additional information that is thorough and focused on the objective at hand, and to come back with even more beneficial background than asked for now that you’ve had the advantage of time to prepare. And it’s one more chance to determine whatever is possible about the mood and the temperament of the story at hand and to give appropriate help and guidance to the piece where you can.
James does go on in his own editorial to state that “I don’t know” should be followed by a plan to discover the information that’s required if the issue is truly important. Good for him. He’s in the process of writing a new book, Business Without the Bullsh*t due to appear early 2014, his article says. I’m betting it will be a good one. And for the record, James is an excellent authority on B2B business. He’s also been interviewed for before by Dan Schwabel. You can read that article here.
But my position holds. The most important words to instill credibility aren’t “I don’t’ know.” They’re “I’ll follow up.”