“I don’t know” has no place in customer service

The young woman looked like a deer in the headlights. And all I’d done is ask a question. And it was a simple question, as questions go.

“Where are your exposed filament bulbs?”

She stood up from her stocking cart and pursed her lips. At least I think she pursed her lips, because her mask hid that part of her face. But let’s just say that studying expressions for clues as to impending behavior has taught me some things. And one of those things is that you don’t have to actually heavy sigh, or roll your eyes, or shrug, for that feeling to come across.

And in the greater scheme of things a pursed lip is better than those other two any day.

“I’m new here,” she said. “This is only my third day.”

None of which was an answer to the question posed. And all of which is usually used to avoid responsibility. But then she added the most important part of customer service, the part that often gets lost, or forgotten, or just plain ignored.

“Let me find out,” she said.

“I don’t know” is an answer that is often rendered in the modern customer service equation. And it is the least satisfying. In fact, it can often be quite infuriating.

“I don’t know,” said the middle aged grocery clerk when I had asked him if they had fresh salsa.

You can always tell when new management has taken over a grocery store. For some reason they always feel that rearranging things is a great idea. As if that is the problem. If only the milk were over there, then that would fix everything. It’s just as true in the restaurant business. A fresh coat of paint won’t fix endemic problems, it never has, and it never will.

“You don’t know?” I asked, when it became obvious that was going to be his final answer.


He didn’t have to shrug, or roll his eyes, for me to know that was what he was doing.

“Is there someone who does?” I asked.



Too often the younger generation gets the brunt of the “poor service” mantle, But I believe that is misplaced. There are plenty of young people out there who are trying. Just like there are plenty of older people out there who are not. I don’t know why, but I do know where. And that where is in customer service.

When did “I don’t know” become an acceptable final answer?

I don’t know, either.

But I for one am going to try and figure it out. And that is what makes good customer service. It’s not knowledge, or skill, or flair, or style. Sure, those can all help. But it’s caring enough to try that makes the difference.

Don’t get me wrong, knowing more about the products you carry than your customers is a good thing, but being condescending about it is not. True knowledge is not the ability to lord information over someone else, but rather the ability to use that information to help. Often times people wield knowledge as a weapon instead of using it as a tool. And that never goes well.

Furthermore, people are going to ask annoying questions. Because that is what people do. In fact, I might argue, that is what makes people, people. Get used to it or get out of the way.

That young woman couldn’t find anyone else to help with the lightbulbs, but instead of giving up, she took the time and effort to figure it out on her own. Together we spent five minutes on that aisle looking for those bulbs. I showed her a picture on my phone and eventually she found them on the next aisle over.

“Thank you very much,” I said.

The clerk at that grocery store, on the other hand, did not take the time.

“Maybe ask someone up front,” he said.

“OK,” I said.

“Good luck,” he added. And I’m not sure why.

Ironically on my trip up front to ask someone else, I passed the large, refrigerated, end cap that contained all of that store’s specialty house made fresh salsas. In a place it had never been before.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-“How can I help?” has a whole different feel than “What do you want?” And both sentences take the same time to say.

– “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time,” once said Thomas Edison, the man who invented the exposed filament bulb.

-“I don’t know” has no place in customer service. “Let me check” however, does.

-Rearranging problems is what most people do when they cannot figure out how to solve them.      

-Good service has nothing to do with age, it has everything to do with attitude.