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A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explained that dolphins and some monkeys have “meta-cognitive” abilities.

In other words, they know that they understand things, and they also know that there are things they don't understand. For example, when asked to identify whether one tone was higher or lower than another, the dolphins sometimes “told” their trainer that they couldn't tell.

In other words, these dolphins, unlike many marketing professionals, will admit that there are things they don't know.

The scenario is familiar to many: a client asks a question of his or her account manager, and that question happens to exceed the bounds of knowledge of that marketing expert. The marketer can choose to take several paths, each leading to different results.

One solution is to pretend that you know everything. Never let them see you sweat, as the saying goes. These marketers simply pretend that they know the answer and find a way to dance around it, and their infallibility remains intact—or so they think. Eventually they'll figure out a reasonable answer and give it to their client.

These marketing types are all too familiar. You won't find them at any educational seminars or workshops, because they believe that they already know everything there is to know. You'll also find them—after their client has taken and implemented their erroneous advice—looking for more dance moves to avoid responsibility for their bad counsel.

Nearly as bad are the one-trick pony marketers, who think that every problem is a nail—but only because being a hammer is the only thing they know. These are the public relations professionals who think that every problem can be solved with a press release, or the advertising execs who think that it's just a matter of different creative to solve any problem.

These marketers will turn the question around for their own purposes. For instance, when asked how best to deliver a news release to the media, such a marketer would convince the client that more focus should be placed on advertising. These folks are a marvel to watch, though….

Much better, I think, is the ability to look your client in the eye and say, “I don't know, but I'll find out.”

I had that experience recently, to dramatic effect. A client was scheduling a workshop and asked me whether it was better to have it on a Friday or a Monday. My only thoughts on the matter were that Monday would give us an extra day to plan and promote the event, and Monday would probably be an easier day for her to manage the project.

Instead, I let her know that I wasn't entirely sure but would look into it.

Just a quick Google search later I was looking at a survey of training executives, who preferred Thursdays, with 55 % listing it as a good day to attend a workshop. Monday was the last-place choice, coming in with only 19%, and Friday was the second-to-the-last choice, with 44%—more than twice as many as Monday.

A few minutes after I had told my client that I didn't know, I had the data that enabled both of us to make the best decision possible.

But more importantly, I was able to strengthen my relationship with this client. By admitting that I didn't know the answer, and immediately putting effort into exploring and researching the options, I was able to gain and build her trust.

The same technique can be applied to the one-trick ponies. A client was promoting an event and wanted to focus on less expensive—but sometimes less effective—media-relations strategies. He asked me how much it would cost to purchase an ad in the local newspaper, and whether I thought that was a good idea.

Of course, by steering him away from the advertising, I could allow him to put more of his marketing budget into my pocket rather than into advertising—but would that be in the best interest of my client? I told him that I'd explore the advertising rates for him.

As it turns out, the cost of advertising is more than he cares to spend right now. But, again, he trusts me because I was able to give him good counsel that was in his best interest.

Savvy counselors understand that their clients look to them for advice on a broad range of marketing topics, and they take steps to stay informed on as many marketing strategies as possible to better serve their clients. And, hopefully, more of them will begin seeing difficult questions as opportunities instead of roadblocks.

Meanwhile, clients might find that they can get better—and more honest—counsel from a dolphin.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brian Pelletier is President of Green Cardinal Communications. Reach him at bpelletier@greencardinal.com.