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That “I don’t know” thing

Yesterday, I wrote about the importance of approaching things each day on the job so that you do what you think is right—my belief that doing good is good business. After thinking about it more, I think I want to add an example of a moment in my life when I was feeling pressure to do something that I didn’t feel comfortable with and what I decided to do.


This happened to me many years ago—I was working for IBM’s Research division at the time. It was during the bad old days when IBM was starting to lose its grip on its customers and a few sales teams might have started to forget about IBM’s real core commitments to its customers.
I was leading a team of researchers producing an IBM product, and I was visiting a customer who had been promised an early version of the software. An impatient customer. And a very large IBM customer.
Unfortunately, the project I was leading had been delayed—the software was taking longer to perfect than we had anticipated—and the customer was not happy. I was being brought in as this top notch researcher who could answer all the customer’s questions about this technology and the project.
As I had breakfast with the sales team, I could see that they were very worried. They had built me up to the customer as someone who was a renowned expert in this area and the customer was loaded for bear. I was warned that they would have dozens of people arrayed around me peppering me with the toughest questions, because after the slip in schedule they needed me to prove my credibility.
Above all, they told me, “You must appear to be an expert. Don’t let them ever see you get rattled or thrown off-stride. Just handle everything even if you have to baffle them with BS.” Well, this wasn’t me. I started to tell them that I thought I could impress them doing things my own way but the senior manager cut me off with a glare, saying, “I know what my customer wants and I paid to bring you here to give it to him and that is just what I expect you to do.”
Breakfast was a lot quieter after that.
Later that day, as I stood in front of a faintly hostile group of customers firing tough questions, I found I was able to handle them all honestly, even though some were uncomfortable. But near the end of the session, I got a question completely out of left field, one that had nothing to do with my field of expertise or the project. It wasn’t a dumb question—just one I had no way to answer without a big bluff or an outright lie.
I paused for what felt like a lifetime, and then simply answered, “I don’t know.” I told the questioner that I would be happy to take his business card and find out the answer and get back to him. As I did this, I could see the senior manager in the back of the room doing a slow burn. If you could kill someone with a look, I’d at least have been maimed.
The rest of the session went on as it had, as I kept answering questions as best I could. After it was over, several people lined up to ask me private questions. As they each left one-by-one, the only people left in the room were the IBM sales team (including my buddy the senior manager) and the decision maker (the big boss) for the customer. The IBM senior manager was still eyeing me, just waiting to let me have it when there were no customers in the room.
Mr. Decision Maker asked me a few more questions, but then said something I will never forget. “We get a lot of so-called experts in here that can talk a blue streak but I never know when they are making it up as they go along. But when you said ‘I don’t know” to that one question, it made me realize that you must really know everything else you talked about. It made everything else you said credible.” Then he thanked me and left the room.
I was left eye to eye with the IBM senior manager, who looked as though someone had let the air out of him. He was no longer unhappy—he seemed thrilled because he knew that my visit had accomplished exactly what he wanted. I now awaited what he would say to me, sure that he now could see the value of being honest instead of always having some new trick up his sleeve.
The senior manager grabbed my hand, shaking it excitedly, and said, “That ‘I Don’t Know’ thing was amazing! I would never have thought of such a clever gimmick! I am going to have to remember that one. I’m going to tell all the other experts we bring in here to use that, too.”
If you fast forward to today, you’ll still find people who look at honesty as just another gimmick. Those are the folks that are dead set against allowing customers to post ratings and reviews on your Web site because of “the risk.” Then they decide that they’ll post fake positive reviews to make sure the products look good. Then they find out that customers actually buy more when there are a few mild bad reviews. And just at the point that you think they’ll stop posting fake reviews and be honest enough to let customers post their own reviews, they come to the conclusion that they need to post a few fake bad reviews too.
It reminds me of the age-old advice: “Customer relationships are based on sincerity; when you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Personally, I think that we’re better off working for companies (as I do) where these kinds of stories are rarities rather than everyday occurrences. But we all get to decide every day whether we will stand up for our principles, even in small ways like in this story, or whether we’ll cave in to the pressure to make compromises for short-term benefit. I think we would all sleep better at night if we really made the tough choices, and we’d have stronger relationships with our customers by treating them the way they should be treated.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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