About a month ago, Staples and Angus Reid released their latest “STAPLES Canada Small Business National Quarterly Index.” It looks like we believe we are over the hump. 70 per cent of business owners expect at least some improvement to their business over the next six months (compared to 58 per cent in March 2009).

Now that you’re feeling better, get out there and make sure that your customers will come to you rather than your competition when they are ready to buy.

Chances are you are a little tight for cash, so here are ten low-cost ways to market better that we’ve worked out with help from Joanna L. Krotz, co-author of the “Microsoft Small Business Kit”. (If you haven’t already, check out Advice for Entrepreneurs at www.microsoft.com/canada)

Stop servicing break-even customers. By now you know this is a theme with us. Every second you spend with a customer who doesn’t help you make money; you are short-changing those who do.
Make every customer feel special. Always add something to the purchase, whether it’s a hand-written note to a consumer o29r a recommendation on the latest, greatest business book to a business customer.
Create business cards that prospects keep. How about a good-looking notepad with your contact info and tagline on every page? Or a free or low-cost trial offer on the back—paper real estate that’s valuable and often wasted.
Develop an electronic mailing list and send old-fashioned snail-mail letters too.  E-newsletters are cheap to send, but you can quickly stand out by occasionally sending personal, surface mail letters to customers and prospects. Just make sure the letter delivers something customers want to read.
Boost your profile at point of sale, trade shows and conferences. You can quickly create your own signage, glossy postcards with your contact information, product news inserts or a web site for a special event—even if you are not a software pro.
Combine business with pleasure and charity. Spearhead an event, party or conference for a cause you care about. That puts you in the position of getting to know lots of people, and shows off your small business leadership skills.
Create a destination. Indigo Books & Music has its coffee bars. Ikea offers child-care centers and cafeterias. Steal this idea. Add a free advisory service. Add customer loyalty services, such as free delivery for second-time buyers.
Become an online expert. This is the “free sample” approach to bringing in business. Research active e-mail discussion lists and online bulletin boards that are relevant to your business and audience. Join several and start posting expert advice.
Court local media. Editorial features convey more credibility with prospective clients than paid advertising does. (Check our recent article on how to get PR.)
• Finally, don’t let customers simply slip away. It costs a lot less to retain a disgruntled or inactive customer than to acquire a new one. Send a personalized e-mail (you can automate this process), inquiring whether all is well. For a customer who suffered a bad experience, pick up the phone, acknowledging the unpleasantness and ask if there’s anything you can do. A discount can’t hurt either.

Being kind to customers is the smartest low-cost marketing you can do.


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Elizabeth Walker and Ken Burgin

Ken Burgin and Elizabeth Walker are the Marketing Masters, a full-service marketing and advertising partnership that helps build busy businesses.