The Myth Of The Expert: Why Saying “I Don’t Know” Is Better For Your Business

By April 30, 2014February 1st, 2018Marketing Insights & Strategy
The Myth Of The Expert: Why Saying "I Don't Know" Is Better For Your Business

I’m no expert.

I know more things about some things than other people but I don’t know everything.

Or nearly everything.

Or, in spite of the fact that I’m always right in an argument with Ralph, anything approximating everything.

You may wonder why someone would hire me to mange their marketing considering I’m telling the world right now that I’m not a marketing expert.

And yet I’m about to tell you why hiring an expert could be the biggest mistake you make. But more importantly I’m going to tell you why you don’t need to be an expert, either. And why, when it comes down to running a successful business, saying, “I don’t know,” can be your biggest ally.

The Coopting Of Vocabulary

Have you noticed how suddenly it seems like everyone is an entrepreneur? (A buck and a basement gets you that moniker.)

Or how titles have sprung up around imperial-sounding words like czar, mystical ones like wizard or just plain delusional ones like ninja or virtuoso?

You can add “expert” to a long list of words that perhaps meant something once but have been appropriated by business folks looking to sound a whole lot more interesting and important than they are.

These days it doesn’t take much to call oneself an expert. Just about anyone with an idea and a Barnes and Noble gift card can learn enough to deem themselves an expert and then sell you products and services based on many, many minutes – maybe even hours – practicing their chosen profession.

If you hire someone on the grounds that they’re an expert – especially if it’s a self-designated entitlement – you could be setting yourself up for disappointment and loss.

Especially when it comes to marketing. Considering that social media has existed for all of about ten seconds of human history and the entire internet for not much longer, to profess “expertise” in a constantly shifting and evolving field is either really, really egotistical or really, really deceptive.

We’ve had enough to say on that matter here. And even here.

There are better reasons to hire someone. And trust me on this one: anyone who has truly studied and practiced and learned a craft and turned it into an art will never call themselves an expert.

But more to the point, that’s a good thing.

You don’t want to hire an expert any more than you want to be one. Here’s why.

You’ll Never Set The Bar Over Your Head

It’s great to “aim high” and “expect the best”. It’s also great to know when you’re using a cliché and to get real instead.

Experts like to be know-it-alls.

Experts like to be smart and right and ahead of the curve.

Experts do not like to admit when they’re a bit over their heads.

That could be very bad for you if you hire one. Think of the web developer who yeses you to death about what he can do and how wonderful your website will be until you cough up the cash, make a few demands and then he disappears into the ether never to be heard from again (or puts you off indefinitely until you sort of give up and go away mad).

This was a lesson we discussed recently, too.

When you profess to be an expert there is an expectation associated with that. It says, “I’m that good.”

It says, “I will be, if not perfect, pretty darn close to it.”

The problem is that the “expert” doesn’t know everything but will not admit it. After all, he’s the expert. Being unsure or – gasp! – wrong is an admission of weakness.

The hardest words for a self-professed expert to utter are, “I don’t know.”

It hardly matters whether the impetus is ego or insecurity. The result is a relationship between a business and a customer that goes off the rails. Experts promise expertise, often can’t deliver on grand ideals and leave a trail of disappointment and distrust in their wake.

If you want to succeed in business then recognize that not knowing means understanding your strengths and weaknesses. It means being fair to customers. It means setting realistic expectations and not making pie-in-the-sky promises.

You Give Yourself A Chance To Grow

One of the greatest gifts that you can give yourself and your customers is not knowing.

Experts who insist that they know it all are denying themselves the ability to get better at what they do. After all, what’s to learn if you’ve been there done that and figured it all out?

Knowing your limitations opens the door to learning. And the more you learn, the better you will become at what you do. And the better you become at what you do, the closer you will get to knowing so darn much about your profession that it would never occur to you to call yourself an expert.

Sometimes life is just one great big contradiction, isn’t it?

Unless you can challenge yourself and what you think you know, there’s no way you’ll ever improve. And without that, isn’t the idea of calling yourself an expert kind of absurd?

Practice saying, “I don’t know,” and use that as your impetus for broadening your horizons, for experimenting, for studying and ultimately for delivering the best of yourself to your customers every day.

You Have A Chance To Prove Your True Worth

Next to, “Thanks for the check,” one of my favorite things to say to customers is, “I don’t know.” Followed immediately by, “But let me look into it and find the answer.”

Sometimes knowing something is not nearly as valuable as knowing how and where to find the answer.

In my industry it would be ridiculous to proclaim expertise when it comes to Facebook marketing. Facebook changes about every six-point-two seconds.


Did you hear that?

That was another Facebook change popping out.

So recently when an email subscriber reached out and asked me a specific question about business pages, I said, “I have no idea.” And then I took a look at the feature she was asking about, saw how it worked and passed that information along.

More than my expertise, my experience helped me find the answer and put it into context for her.

That’s one tiny example, but the grander point is that it’s nearly impossible to know that much about something, let alone something so changeable.

And you may know a whole lot. But when you don’t, you have an amazing opportunity to prove your value by sourcing the answers, by using your insight to make those answers meaningful for your customers and show them that you are willing and able to walk that extra mile.

You’ll Never End Up Bubblefied

Do you know what happens to a lot of experts?

They spend so much time focused on knowing a thing that they start to see everything through that lens.

Think of the social media expert who tells you that you don’t need an email list because you can simply reach your customers on social networks. Or who won’t listen to you when you say that you don’t want to use Twitter because they know better.

That’s dangerous thinking. Just because you know something doesn’t mean it’s the only thing to know.

Just as dangerous for your business, you could be knowing yourself right into obsolescence.

A colleague I worked with some time ago insisted on doing marketing in a very specific way because that’s the way he knew – he was the expert. Maybe for a little while he even was.

But there’s a good reason that I worked with him “some time ago” and that’s because he went out of business.

He knew so much that he never let go of his way of thinking and trapped himself in a bubble of his own expertise.

If that’s how you approach your business or your customers then do me a favor and say hello to Kodak on your way to the poor house.

Focus On Your Customers – Not On Your Titles

This was all a very long and roundabout way of saying that if you want to be good at what you do then stop telling people how good you are at what you do. Just do it.

Nobody expects you to know everything. And sometimes not knowing is not only a strength – because it allows you to grow and evolve – but an opportunity that you can capitalize on and use to the benefit of yourself and your customers.

So before you spend another second choosing from among mogul, maverick and maven as your next LinkedIn title, take a moment and remind yourself that experience trumps expertise and honesty beats hubris.

But the big lesson today is….



Heck if I know.

This post is part of the monthly Word Carnival series of posts. This month, our carnies talk about what it takes to be an expert – or to admit when you’re not one. This phrase from our ringleader says it all: “You’re not perfect – you can’t know everything.” Read the rest of the Word Carnival posts here for more great advice and insight from some of the smartest business owners and entrepreneurs you’ll meet.