Known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns


There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.

I'd love to attribute this quote to someone else, but it was a statement made by former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. He was referring to terrorism, and therefore I'm sure he wasn't thinking about how applicable such a quote can be to those of us in the client services and products industry.

Through the customer's eyes

This quote can be seen from at least two directions. We can apply it to ourselves, and think about how it affects us in our product or service offering. Or we can apply it to the customer's point of view, and think about how putting this quote in context can affect their decision making process for choosing our product or service. I plan to talk about how this quote can relate to the customer's point of view.

Known knowns

All of us do our jobs or run our companies with the things we know in mind. Based on research, continuing education, and hard work, we use the things we know to direct our decision making process.

Our future customers know they want a website. They probably know they want certain functionality or flexibility (like WordPress, or event management, etc). They go through their research phase and decision making process with these things in mind.

But customers are not often experts for the things they buy. I don't know very much about most products I buy, so why should I expect my customer to know the right questions to ask and things to look for when choosing my service or product?

This brings us to “known unknowns.”

Known unknowns

When I choose a shop to service my car, I know that I'm going in without a complete understanding of what I'm purchasing. I primarily know something like, “Something under the hood is making a weird noise every time I idle.” But I don't know exactly what could cause that, or what's making the noise.

When I choose the car shop to get this issue checked out, I expect them to known what I'm talking about when I say what is happening, and I expect them to educate me and fix my issue. Our customers expect the same when they come to us for our web services and products.

We probably know this. It's why most websites include a detailed overview of their services offerings on their website. You probably even have a step-by-step guide of the process the customer can expect to go through. You may have publicly accessible pricing information. You may have publicly accessible documentation or forums.

You likely do these things to ease the customer's inherent concerns. You're showing them that you know what they know they don't know, and you're helping them trust you.

But there is one last, and important, factor that it's very possible your client hasn't thought about. They probably haven't thought about the chance that there are things they don't even know they don't know about our industry, our services, and our products.

These surprises are what Mr. Rumsfeld defines as, “unknown unknowns.”

Unknown unknowns

Back to my car example. I take my car in and tell them that there is a weird noise under the hood when I'm idling. They tell me I'm going to have to replace something and it's going to cost me $250. “Okay, let's do it.”

Half way through this repair, the guy comes out and says, “Well, when we replaced that thing, some other thing became exposed and now we need to replace that too. It's going to cost $550.”

“What!? Why didn't you mention that before?”

“Well, sir, it only happens about 50% of the time, and unfortunately it happened this time and we have to do the repair since we've already exposed it.”

Hold on. Back the truck up.

Now I'm pissed. The mechanic knew there was a 50% chance this was going to happen, but didn't say anything to me.

In this scenario, the second issue and subsequent cost to fix it was an “unknown unknown” to me. The mechanic could have, and should have warned me about it. Instead, he didn't. I'm mad. But he made another $550. One time. I'll never use this mechanic again.

We have tons of “unknown unknowns” in the web development industry

As the service provider or product seller, we've probably been around the block a few times. We know that there are times where the client or buyer can get blindsided.

Maybe they didn't know it costs money to transfer content from their old CMS. Maybe they didn't know that buying that theme prevented them from being able to switch because of all the shortcodes and functionality baked into the theme instead of a plugin. They didn't know that their payment gateway wouldn't be supported in the new eCommerce platform. They didn't know there was a fee every time someone bought something off of their website. They didn't know what SSL was or that it requires a new IP address and monthly charge. They didn't know that WordPress needed to be updated and maintained.

They didn't know. And they didn't know they didn't know.

And if we don't do our best to educate them about what we know they don't know they don't know, we've failed.

I know, that sentence above is a mess. But read it again.

As service providers and product sellers, we will succeed more often if we help teach our customers the things they don't know they don't know.

If the mechanic had told me before I decided to pay for the first fix that there was a 50% chance I'd have to take a second step that cost twice as much, I would've been bummed. But I also would have been thankful for the warning, and not pissed off at the mechanic for not warning if it happened. In fact, I'd probably be that mechanic's customer for a long time.

Education is hard, and we may lose some customers because we destroy the fairy tale answer that we're going to solve all of their problems and there will be no headaches. But those customers that stick with us will be thankful that we've taken that extra step to keep them more informed and are prepared to guide them through this scary and unknown wilderness with our expertise and outstanding customer support.

So, look inward at your service or product and search for the unknown unknowns your customers may face. And fix them. Educate them. I think you'll be thankful you did it in the long run.

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