Not long ago, I had a problem with a product purchased from a small company. When I called, the phone was answered by a very nice person who told me to call so-and-so in a few hours. Since I didn’t want to wait a few hours, I asked the nice person if she could help me: Did she happen to know if…

The nice person responded with several questions of her own and I answered them. This back and forth went on for a few more minutes. I repeated some form of my original question, she responded with questions of her own… Pretty soon I was plenty irritated. Annoyed, I told her I’d call back later and slammed down the phone. (Like that would help, right?)

As I angrily planned to call the head of the company and thinking about what I’d say, it hit me: The person who took my call did not know the answer to my question but didn’t want to tell me, “I don’t know.”

When and how to say “I don’t know”

So why didn’t she just say, “I don’t know”? Well, a lot of people in service positions have the idea that would be an unacceptable answer and in many ways they’d be right. Saying, “I don’t know” and leaving it at that would probably generate a lot of customer complaints.

There are some tricks to telling customers you don’t have the answer. Here are some examples for the most common situations. The reasons they work are described afterward.

  • When the person who can help is not around:

“I’m afraid I don’t know and the person who does is not in right now. He’ll be back in a few hours. I’m sorry about the inconvenience. Can I have him call you in a few hours?”

  • When you know who can get you the answer, and you also know that person will want some information:

“I’m not sure about this one. Let me run it by one of our team leaders. She’ll want some background information so I need to ask you a few questions. Is that okay?”

  • When it may take some time to find the answer:

“I need to do some digging to get the answer. It might take me about 45 minutes. Can I get your number and call you back within an hour?”

  • When you’re not sure who can help:

“Hmm, I’m not sure. Let me go ask someone how I can help you with this. Can you hold for about five minutes, or should I call you back?”

  • When you want to have someone else talk with them:

“I don’t know, but I bet someone in customer service will be able to help you. Let me give them a call, tell them what’s up, then transfer you. It will only take a moment to do that. Can you hold?”

Why the above examples work (usually)

Notice that in each example the speaker specifically says “I don’t know.” Without that statement, being asked questions, being put on hold, and so on confuses people. With that statement, everything that comes next has more context and that helps put people at ease.

“I don’t know” is also an answer! It isn’t the full or final answer, but it’s enough of an answer that the customer knows you paid attention to them and understood their question.

Each example also clearly describes how the answer (or help) will be found. This tells customers that action is being taken on their behalf.

Many examples also give a timeframe; such as a moment, one hour, a couple hours, etc.. This helps set expectations better than something like “soon” or “later.”

The power of “I’m sorry”

I actually told a fib at the beginning of this article. I didn’t actually slam the phone down or plan to call the boss. What really happened was that the person who took my call ended it by saying, “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.” Jeez, I felt bad about getting irritated with her—and that irritation dissolved.

That’s why you should also include some form of genuine apology, if possible. An apology acknowledges the inconvenience. It also tends to calm things down when a person is irritated with you because it reminds them that nobody has all of the answers all of the time.

When reality bites

If you use “I don’t know” as described here, most people will not get upset. That’s most people, not all of them. There will be a few who get very upset, no matter what. Try not to let these few throw you off.


  • The above also works very well when you’re having trouble explaining something, or if the customer is having trouble understanding you.
  • Always get the person’s name and phone number before you put them on hold so you can call them if they hang up.
  • Be careful how you set timeframes. Tell the customer you need more time than you think you’ll actually need. And if it turns out that you need more time, call the customer before the time is up:

“This is Shawn. I was getting an answer for us on… I’m sorry to say I need some more time. Can I call you tomorrow afternoon?”

Practice makes it easy

If you have not been in the habit of saying “I don’t know,” then you will have to practice it. Like anything else, it will go easier if you jot down examples for yourself to use as a cheat sheet.

Use your cheat sheet whenever the situation arises, even though it feels awkward. Once you get through the learning curve you’ll be amazed at what a positive difference it makes.