When to respond ''i don't know'' to a customer

The reason for this post was a personal experience of a friend, in a cafeteria, which she posted on Facebook, getting a lot of mixed comments. I quote it in full:

Question to a waitress: ‘’do you know if there is a National bank near here?’’

Answer: I am not sure, I don’t know.

Thought 1: it makes sense that we don't have all the information, we're not Google or Wikipedia. 

Thought 2: when we don't know something that is relatively simple, we can ask a colleague and find out.

Thought 3: the answer could be: "I don't know, but let me just ask".

Thought 4: if she had answered me, she would have saved me a few minutes of trouble locating the bank on the map myself.

Thought 5: it's not that I just wasted a few minutes, it's that the waitress would have looked better at her job if she'd gone the extra mile for me.

Thought 6: the National bank was just down the street.

Reading this story, I was reminded years ago of the complaint of a hotel employee who was disgusted when tourists keep asking him "what's the weather going to be like tomorrow?

Out of curiosity i read the comments below the post, which were mixed, although I think that the ‘’I don’t have to know all the answers’’ was a little more intense…

Related: How did a restaurant handle a negative review...

Someone wrote: "How would she look better at serving drinks/coffee/food if she helped find the bank? Employees are evaluated within the context of their duties and when we say "going the extra mile for the customer" again within that context we mean it. For example, should she have known ALL the stores down the street so she could answer to similar questions from other customers?"

Another was even more strict: "The girl is a waitress! And all the customers have cell phones!"

Finally, should we say "I don't know" to a customer's question that we don't know the answer (because it's out of our jurisdiction, commonly we don't get paid for it)?

The answer is not clear-cut and always depends on the objectives set, both by the company and the employee. If the company wants to provide an average service, then "I don't know" is allowed. The same applies if the employee has no motivation (and perhaps is not driven by a service culture) to provide added value (although she should keep in mind that the one who pays his salary - and his tip - is the customer).

Now, if you don't want to be average, and you want to stand out, you want to go the extra mile (and create excited-loyal customers), then "I don't know" is not in your vocabulary. It doesn't exist in the vocabulary of Disney*, where cast members are trained to never use that phrase. 

Instead, if they don't know the answer, they say, "I don't know, but give me a minute to find out." Or "my colleague, who is local, will certainly know the answer". In any case, the customer should not leave without having his question answered.

*Disney is not just another company who provides excellent service. Over the past decades its facilities have been used to train millions of executives-employees from leading companies around the world, in customer service.

John Protopapadakis is a marketing and customer service expert. He is a professor, an author (has written 20 business books so far) and a seminar instructor.

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