I sat with a friend today who described frustration with a colleague who had lost a sale my friend had been pursuing for a long time. The client had asked the colleague, whom I will call Ernest, if he had ever done work in a foundry. Ernest had answered, “Yes, but only once and it was over twenty years ago for a company that was so different from yours that there isn’t much relevance to your situation.” After the meeting, Ernest had argued that a less detailed response would have been misleading, and so, dishonest.
First, I want to commend Ernest for his desire to be honest. There is, unfortunately, too much lying in selling situations and it gives selling a bad name. I do not think Ernest was being prudish nor that his colleague wanted him to do something unprincipled. Yet, I think his answer was a mistake.
In making his defense of his answer, he committed at least two logical fallacies. First, he assumed he could read the client’s mind. Ernest presumed that the question was about relevant client experience. What if it wasn’t? For example, it may have been a simple devise to get Ernest to talk to get a sense of what he would be like to work with. If so, and I think this at least as likely as the reason Ernest assumed, he showed the client that he was likely to bore him with unwanted detail and, worse, that he was none too savvy.
Or the client could have wanted to know how Ernest felt about spending a good part of the next few months in a place with a lot of banging and crashing. We will never know. If so, Ernest’s answer showed no tolerance or interest in such a place. Unless you know why a person is asking a question, you don’t really know how to answer.
Second, he assumed that an accurate but imprecise answer would be misleading and dishonest. The distinction between accuracy and precision should be kept in mind when answering client questions. An accurate statement, such as Ford Harding is between 20 and 70 years old, can be imprecise. And a precise one; Ford Harding is 18 years, four months and six days old; can be inaccurate. When we answer questions, we often make tradeoffs, explicitly or implicitly, between accuracy and precision. An answer that is sufficiently precise in one context may not be in another. If a policeman asks a young person’s age at a bar, he requires a precision not usually necessary, for example.
Answers to the question, Have you ever worked in a foundry?, such as Yes or Yes, but it was a while ago are both accurate, if imprecise in that they don’t give much detail. If they satisfy the client and are true, he may be put off by having more information pressed upon him. He can follow up with more questions, if he wants to.
If you are concerned that you may have misled him or that you may appear to have been evasive if he does ask for detail, the solution is simple: ask before you tell more. Yes. Is experience in a foundry important to you? His answer will guide you to the right level of precision. For example, he might answer, Only in that it would be better, if you knew what it is like to spend months in a place with so much noise, before you take the assignment. This might open the opportunity to describe work you did at a heavy metal stamping plant or the noise your child’s rock band makes when it rehearses in your living room, information relevant but not obvious.
But Ernest assumed he knew what the client was thinking and the level of detail the client wanted. Ernest is a nice man and generally good to be around. But trying to read another’s intentions, as he did in this case, can be an annoying thing to do. How would you feel, if you asked a travel agent if she had ever been to Sweden, and you got a lengthy, qualified answer which seemed to suggested she wasn’t certain about anything on the subject, when all you really wanted to know is if the currency there is the Euro?