This afternoon, I was thinking back to my very first "official" job, as kennel help at a pet store in northern New Jersey. It was hard work, and long hours, but playing with puppies was a pretty great benefit of working there. It also taught me a lot, and one lesson I remember being crystal clear – don’t be afraid to ask questions. 

The story is that after working there for a little while, the store’s owners let me assist with other kinds of work at the store, including running the register. This was not too complicated, but a job that involved a lot of trust (we were dealing with pretty big sums of money, for one thing). Most of the charges were paid either by credit card or cash. But there was one afternoon when a woman wanted to pay for her puppy and his associated gear with a check. 

Thanks to my fourth grade teacher who had done a unit where we all got "checkbooks" and had to learn to use them to make payments, my 16-year-old self was pretty comfortable with what a check looked like, and which fields needed to be filled in. But there was one extra thing I was required to get from this woman in order to process the check. 

Her driver’s license number.

At 16, at that time in New Jersey, I did not yet have my driver’s license (I may have only *just* gotten my learner’s permit). So I had no idea where the license number would be on this card that she handed over.

I’d grown up believing that I should have the answers to questions already (no one told me that, I was just born that way!) and internally, I started to panic. I wanted to look professional and intelligent in front of our customer and my bosses, but I really didn’t know what to do. 

Suddenly, it came to me – I could ask her! 

I said, "This may be a dumb question, but can you tell me which is your license number?" The customer was very nice about it, pointed it out straight away, and I was able to write it on the check and complete the transaction.

I learned two things: 

  • I didn’t have to have all of the answers to do my job professionally and successfully.
  • When I didn’t know something, I needed to (and could!) ask someone. 

That’s served me well in my professional life – there are times when it can be tempting to cover up not knowing something by glossing over a question, hemming and hawing over the answer, or even making one up. But that will ultimately cause trouble. Asking questions instead can come in handy in two ways: 

  • A client asks you something and you don’t have the answer. Saying to them, "I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you," and then following up on that shows transparency, honesty, and a willingness to be helpful. We don’t have to have all the answers to serve our clients – we only have to be willing to do the work to get the answers (whatever that work may be). 
  • As you’re discussing an issue with a client, you realize that you may not be entirely clear on all of the details of the matter at hand. You’d like to ignore what you don’t know, and just focus on what you do, but if you probe further with the client, you’ll ultimately come away with a better understanding of what their needs and wants are, and will be able to more successfully advocate for them. 

It is one of the great paradoxes of life – when you admit that you either don’t know something, or you need more information, it can ultimately show you to be more intelligent and professional than pretending you already have the knowledge. We all know that there are actually some pretty stupid questions, but asking the right ones, in the right way and being willing to admit when we don’t know something can be a huge asset in serving our clients successfully.