I don’t know


You are consulting for a customer, and they ask you:

“There is a problem with setup for this item, when I calculate the requisition plan, the system suggests purchasing it, while I have it on another location, and I’d like it to suggest transferring it from that location, instead of purchasing it. Can you fix it?”

Assume you aren’t completely sure in the answer. What do you tell them? What do you do?

This is what I’ve seen consultants do if they don’t know (or aren’t exactly sure):

  1. “Now let me see.” (You open the item card and go to the Planning tab) “This field should be filled in” (you set the Lot-for-Lot Reordering Policy, then go and recalculate the requisition plan) “Hmm, it still suggests the purchase, instead of transfer… Let me think. Ah, yes!” (You go back to item card, open the Replenishment tab) “We must set the replenishment system to transfer, then it’ll work…” (you go to Replenishment System field and find out it only allows Purchase and Prod. Order values—no Transfer) “Hmm, strange, I know it should be here somewhere…” (you recalculate requisition plan just for the heck of it; expectedly it still doesn’t work) “Er, I think I… or not… Aah, I’ve got it! Sorry!” (you give a broad hopeful smile and go back to the item card, open the planning tab) “There is a field here… hm, this one? Nah, it’s this one. Uh…” (scratching your head). “Where is that setting gone, I know it was here in the previous version, they’ve move it around with every new version, you know…” (fiddling with other tabs on item card, checking every single field). “Aha, yes! I know. There is this stockkeeping unit functionality, there you can set this up!” (you configure a new stockkeeping unit, go to Replenishment tab, check the Replenishment System field, and with the relief of an attendee of a seven-hour-long private audience with the Pope after water-drinking competition, you find out there is Transfer option there, so you choose Transfer, then go and recalculate plan again). “Uh-oh, it is Purchase again, and I’ve configured Transfer there…”. (scratchy-scratch) “Ah, but of course!” (you get it now, finally, phew!) “… how could have I missed that one – I didn’t set up the correct location in the stockkeeping unit card – you need it BLUE, I made it RED, let me fix it!” (so you fix it, recalculate plan and get a big fat error message saying that the Location ‘’ doesn’t exist.) “Uh…” (you do, or don’t do more retries; at this point it doesn’t really matter anymore)
  2. Or you just say: “I don’t know how, but let me check and come back to you. Would tomorrow be alright? How urgent is this?”

Let me asses the quality of these responses.

Response #1 is a disaster. It’s incompetence materialized. It ruins the trust your customer might have in you. You have exactly one chance to exhibit this performance, and you are doomed; it’ll take a lot of big successes before your customer starts trusting you again. Compare it with a surgeon: “Ah, spleen. Now where is it? Ah, here it is. No, it’s a kidney. Hmmm. Spleen. I know I’ve seen it in books, it should be right there…” How many times do you think you’ll want to try your chances on the desk of this guy?

While at first you might feel the thrill of solving the problem for your customer right there. But if you aren’t 100% sure you know the answer, or the solution, don’t go there. You might give it a try, but if it doesn’t succeed after the first try, give up, and do the response #2.

Don’t make the second attempt, don’t try this then try that. While customers might forgive you (and probably will) your first unsuccessful try, your second one will be frowned upon. At the third one, I don’t want to be you. Simply go for #2.

Response #2 is good. Not knowing is not the same thing as incompetence. Not knowing is completely alright, provided you don’t answer every single question that way, at which point I don’t want to be you again.

Why does this answer work? I can think of these:

  • Honesty: If you don’t know, and say you don’t know, you are candid, and honest, which are qualities customers value. Customers prefer honest answers to faked ones.
  • Gauging: Customers want to know what they can expect from you, what is your level of expertise. If you try #1 and it succeeds (but out of sheer luck, not because you knew it), you make an impression of a highly competent consultant. They might ask you more complicated things, you might have luck again. Their impression and esteem for you go even higher up. At certain point, you’ll flunk, and then you’ll collapse. Big. And loud.
  • Timeline: Your customers don’t always need the answer here and now. They might have an hour, or a day. Or a week.
  • Solution: Like it or not, the solution is more important to your customer, than your perceived competence. Having a solution tomorrow is much better than having an impression of an incompetent faker today. Even if it is urgent, they will let you know, and if you sit and look through help file and find the solution, or call a colleague who’s a subject-matter expert, your esteem will get a boost. In the end, they’ll remember whether you’ve solved their problem, and whether you did it smoothly; they won’t care if you had to lookup the solution in the help, or to try it out at home, or ask a colleague—as long as you solve their problem.

(Thanks to Dave, who made an important point in his comment to my last post; that comment actually made me write this post)

Thought of the day:
I know everything, but not everything at the same time. It’s the virtual memory problem.


Vjeko has been writing code for living since 1995, and he has shared his knowledge and experience in presentations, articles, blogs, and elsewhere since 2002. Hopelessly curious, passionate about technology, avid language learner no matter human or computer.

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