ASK AN EXPERT: The Fine Art of Turning Business Lemons Into Lemonade

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Q: Steve – sometimes I wonder if this small business stuff is for me. I survived the recession only to find that I just lost my biggest client. I love being my own boss and yet I hate being my own boss!


A: I am not sure I could have said it any better myself.

Being an entrepreneur has its highs and lows, that is for sure. For every great new customer you get, you can lose a valued old customer; for every fun idea that works, you will have several that do not. That is, unfortunately, the price you pay for having your own gig.

One of the traits that they don’t teach you in small business school is resilience.

One of the traits that they don’t teach you in small business school is resilience. Anyone who has owned their own business for a while either already has that trait in spades, or has learned it the hard way. There are no two ways about it. Putting up with the lows, and learning how to deal with them, is not a little part of being in business for yourself.

And yet, at the risk of sounding Pollyannaish, I do think that it is true that the best entrepreneurs figure out how to turn the proverbial lemons into lemonade. For example:

The customer complaint: No one likes to get a complaint from a customer, but complaints we get.

Just yesterday I was in my dry cleaners and there was a guy ahead of me, very agitated, upset about some thing or other. The owner was doing his best to placate the guy, and also it seemed that the owner was just as nervous that the guy’s tirade would taint the rest of us who were in the store at the time.

Among other things, that is the problem with a customer complaint – negative word of mouth (see below).

But this is also true: Bill Gates once said, “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning.”

The beauty of someone complaining is that it is data that you can use:

  • Is this complaint indication of a systemic problem? Have we heard this more than once?
  • If so, what are we doing wrong?
  • Do we have an employee that needs re-training, or has a bad attitude we need to know about?

The lemonade here is that, in the end, the complaint allows you to run a better business.

The negative review: In this e-age, the customer complaint takes on a whole new edge when it can go viral. Who didn’t hear the Comcast “customer support” representative refuse to let that poor guy cancel his service?

More likely for the small business of course is finding a negative review posted on a public forum like Yelp. But again, this is where a negative can be turned into a positive. I saw a poll a while back that stated that if the company in question contacts the negative reviewer and earnestly works to solve the problem, often the reviewer will not only delete the negative review, but will even stay a customer.

So, in a weird way, the negative review can actually be an opportunity to reinforce customer relations.

Losing a great customer: Look, losing a valued customer is never a pleasant experience, and I am not here to tell you to just look on the bright side. But what I can tell you is that the lost customer can be turned a positive in one of two ways:

First of all, the lost customer can free up time to find and service another, potentially better customer. It can also be a wake-up call that you are doing something wrong. In either case, while we are sad to see the customer go, we should be thankful that we are still in business and can rectify the situation one way or the other.

You get the idea here of course – there is no shortage of examples of things that can go wrong in business. The lesson is to stay resilient, and not just look on the bright side, but use the information garnered from the experience to grow as an entrepreneur, and as a business.

Do that, and then you will be on to bigger and better problems to learn from!

Today’s tip: Some small business owners have long claimed that the online review site Yelp gives better ratings to companies that advertise on the site. Yelp has denied this just as long. Last week, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, according to USA TODAY, “it doesn’t matter anyway. The plaintiffs did not prove that Yelp broke any laws. . . . Even if Yelp does manipulate reviews, it does not constitute extortion, [the court] said.

“As Yelp has the right to charge for legitimate advertising services, the (alleged) threat of economic harm that Yelp leveraged is, at most, hard bargaining,” Judge Marsha Berzon wrote for the three-judge panel in Tuesday’s ruling.””