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I Don't Know

Let’s face the facts: we are seen as experts. Customers expect answers from us, usually immediate answers. How tempting it can be to make them happy! Armed with our expensive, high-tech tools, it is all too easy to forget we can’t always come up with those answers.

The temperature difference on this failing surge protection device was less than 3F. Was it a problem? I did not know at the time. Additional research suggested it was not only a problem but one that was probably in imminent danger of failure. The surge protection device, once removed from service, validated that fact. A seal had failed, corrosion was advanced and failure was probably not long off.

The three most important words in our vocabularies should always be “I don’t know.” If that brings to mind “failure,” it should not! Once we get over the stigma of saying it out loud, the phrase can actually become a valuable tool to work with a customer. Some customers will, of course, be disappointed to not have an immediate answer; honestly, these are often the kinds of customers you don’t want to have anyway! Most will appreciate your honest professionalism and caution.

Of course saying “I don’t know…” also opens up room to also say “…but I’ll do my best to find out!” That kind of attitude not only buys some time for further study but also usually endears the relationship with the customer.

Further testing—under different conditions or with additional equipment—may be necessary to discover answers. That may mean you need to renegotiate your agreement or contract. You may need to do further research. One word of warning: if you promise to do something (“I’ll get back to you with that information…”), make sure you do. Breaking promises is a simple way to lose a customer! Some unknowns, while they may be of interest to us as a professional, may not that important in the larger scheme of things. I find customers appreciate my focusing discussions on the big picture and helping keep things in context.

In the end there may be things you don’t know and never will. Can my ego handle that? Somewhere along the way I realized that if, in fact, I never used the phrase “I don’t know,” I was probably not really an expert who was continually challenging myself. Every time I encounter limits to my own knowledge and experience, I now see them as opportunities to grow and expand and do a better job for the next customer.

Thinking Thermally,
John Snell—The Snell Group, a Fluke Thermal Imaging Blog content partner

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