05/03/2013 05:58 pm ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Mother's Day Lessons for Small Businesses

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Groupon recently conducted a survey of Mother's Day shoppers and moms. Among the findings were:

  • 51 percent of shoppers wait until a week before the holiday to shop for Mother's Day presents.
  • Most mothers want to be surprised by their present, and
  • Moms would rather get no present than a bad one.
  • Unfortunately, you may never know if you've gotten your mother a bad present because 84 percent of moms will suffer in silence when given the wrong thing.

An important person whom you want to please, but who won't tell you how to do so, and they won't tell you if you've messed up -- sounds like a nightmare or a typical day for most small business owners.

Whether you sell services, experiences, or a product, you've certainly had this experience. Customers or clients who don't know, or won't tell you, what they want and then won't tell you when you haven't given them what you want. So how do you solve it? The same way you solve it for Mother's Day, communicating and listening.

I'm one of the 67 percent of moms who likes to be surprised, and my husband likes his gifts to be a surprise, but after a few years of suffering in silence we both realized this wasn't working. He asked me to try and mention things I might like when it isn't gift-giving time. I also keep a list of possible gifts in the back of my "to do" notebook. In this situation, I'm the client, and my husband, like a good business owner, opened communications and listened to what I was saying.

The problem of unhappy, but quiet customers and clients may be harder to solve. Despite the presence of nasty online reviews, most people don't like to give negative feedback. In fact, many negative online reviews may spring from this fact. It's hard to tell the nice woman who just cut your hair that you hate it. It's easy to go online and and complain about your haircut.

But, if you're a small business owner you should want to hear negative feedback, you need to hear it in order to fix a problem, and you'd prefer to hear it privately instead of online.

Just like a Mother's Day gift giver, you have to know what to ask and when to ask it. Would you ask your mother directly, right after she opened it, if she liked your present? Of course not. Instead, you would try and see if she used the present, maybe ask indirect questions about specific elements of the present. The same is true of your clients and customers. You don't want to back them into a corner where they can only say "yes, I loved it" or "no, I hated it." Post-service questionnaires and surveys, especially of customers who don't return, can give you a wealth of information.

Kids and fathers aren't alone in causing Mother's Day gift problems, moms bear some responsibility, too just like your clients bear some responsibility for any miscommunications you have. But, as Mom always said, you can't change someone else, you can only change yourself.