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'What Stands In the Way Becomes the Way'

When you hit an obstacle that's out of your control, view it as a way to improve your business.

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This story appears in the March 2022 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Q: I can't deliver for my customers, but it's not my fault! What now? — Lisa, Missoula, MT

Federico Gastaldi

Plans and strategy are great … when they work.

But if the past two years have taught us anything, it's that plans are made to be disrupted. Running a business in unpredictable times can feel debilitating. Any problems outside of your control, like supply-chain issues, are extremely frustrating. But businesses that survive and thrive know that a customer's frustration is both a stressor and an opportunity.

In his best-selling book, The Obstacle Is the Way, author Ryan Holiday shares how stoic philosophy teaches, "What stands in the way becomes the way." For you, this means reframing unfortunate circumstances as a way to improve your business.

Related: 4 Simple Ways to Communicate Better With Your Customers

First, assess the opportunity and determine if you should be patient or pivot. Problems are always most daunting when they first appear, so you should act quickly but not overreact. Play out scenarios and determine the worst possible outcome. Can your company withstand your doomsday scenario? If not, you may need to pivot. But if your company can weather the worst, stay the course with small adjustments.

Next, create a collaborative strategy. Great leaders recognize they don't have all the answers, and chaos can either break or bond your team. To facilitate the latter, talk to your employees, advisers, friends, and colleagues. You'll find better solutions and develop closer relationships, which is crucial during tough times.

Once you have your strategy, execute. Start by putting yourself in the shoes of your customers or clients. Think of their pain points and turn them into opportunities to connect, support, and provide value where others can't (or won't). Be open and honest with your customers about the obstacles you face, and listen closely to their feedback. You may find ways to improve your company that have nothing to do with the problem presenting itself at that moment.

Related: 10 Innovative Ways to Excite Your Customers

Tesla is a great example of these principles in action. Today, the company has the largest market cap of all automakers. But just a few years ago, it was in manufacturing hell, struggling with production and parts, and on the brink of collapsing. How did it go from one extreme to another? It embraced the obstacles.

First, it was transparent and became one of the first companies to "build in public." Tesla founder Elon Musk controlled the narrative by sharing (granted, somewhat chaotic) updates on Twitter and via email. There was no cover-up. Musk told people exactly what was happening, why it was happening, how hard it was, and what was needed to resolve the situation. This approach can both win your customers' trust and pull them into the narrative of your company's struggle. If they know what you're up against, they'll be rooting for you that much more. When hard times hit, be open about what you're managing and how you're attacking the problem.

Next, Tesla doubled down on customer service. Anyone who preordered a Tesla received email updates about the estimated delivery time. More importantly, Tesla created a "white-glove service" experience and gave every customer a dedicated account manager ("delivery specialist") to answer questions. It also set up individualized profiles so buyers could upload documents to streamline the purchasing process (things like a driver's license and proof of insurance). Every point of friction is an opportunity to reimagine the traditional experience. Never underestimate how much improving small burdens can make a big difference.

In the end, Tesla's success — much like yours will — came down to the quality of the product. But if you can bring your team closer together, share your struggles with your customers, and build better solutions in real time, then your company can withstand the storm and, potentially, come out better than when you started.

Related: 5 Reasons Why Your Business Is Losing Customers

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