Oct. 1 2005 12:00 AM
Your company has come to a crossroad. You have been able to maintain the customers you regularly service, but sales have been flat. You would like to increase your customer base, but without added revenue, the cost of any kind of marketing just seems prohibitive.

In the traditional world of marketing, expense translates into increased visibility. You spend a lot of money on advertising, buy the biggest ads in the local newspapers and phone directories, all to get your name out there. But its a jungle out there, and while that advertising helps you keep up with the competition, theres no guarantee that it will make you stand out from the rest. To take it to the next level, you have to think outside the box. Surprisingly, it could cost you less than youre now spending.

Two of the tools in this brave new world of marketing are already at your disposal. With the advent of the Internet and the personal computer, reaching the maximum amount of people with the least amount of expenditure is only a mouse click away.

Its often been said that college is not the end of your education, but the foundation on which to build your education. The same is true of the clients you already service. They are not the end of your business plan, but the foundation to build your growing business upon.

Experts stress that a key goal is to never lose a customer. Yet, its often easy to take those customers for granted. But like all relationships, if someone is feeling neglected, they will go somewhere else for attention. And in the world of business, there will be tons of suitors waiting to take your former client to the dance. So dont drop the ball. You worked hard to get those customers. You should work just as hard to keep them.

An easy way to make them feel wanted is by keeping in touch. The traditional mailer is effective, but there is the cost of postage to consider. In the new millennium, theres an easier, cheaper hi-tech method. More than just annoying spam, and dumb jokes your aunt sends you, email is a valuable marketing tool to reach customers who will be happy to hear from you.

How you use email is only limited by your imagination. You dont need a marketing guru to guide you. Think about what you look for when scanning the inbox of your email account. You probably check to see whom the email is from and what the subject is before deciding to open or delete it. So when sending email, make sure your business is clearly identified, and make what appears in the subject column appealing.

You can send a monthly newsletter with updates on your company, or a simple flyer with a monthly special. Look at what works for other companies that email you updates and monthly newsletters. Think about what gets your attention. Chances are, it will do the same for your customers. The same holds true when it comes to creating a website.

In this age of mass media and the information superhighway, a good-looking, user- friendly website is fast becoming as important as a phone number. As people surf the web more, and let their fingers do the walking less, the Internet is an essential marketing tool. Its interactive nature allows simple two-way communication between you and your customers via email.

If you dont have the email address of all your customers, make it a point to get them on your next service visits. Put that information into a database that contains all your customers accounts. Then take the time to update that information on a regular basis. Input every time you visit a customers property, and include the services you provided.

Since youre probably already doing this for billing purposes, there should be little, if any added work to be done by you or your staff. But what needs to be changed is the mindset. Billing generates income for work already performed; marketing generates future business.

Take what you know about the client and make him an offer he cant refuse. Since youre on the property on a regular basis, make a list of what needs to be done. Rather then wait for the customer to call you, take the initiative and contact him. Offer those additional services at a discount. Not only will you generate additional income from a customer thats already on your route, but you will also generate good will that says you care.

Time and time again, business owners say the same thing: if a customer trusts you, he will listen to and act upon your suggestions. As those suggestions improve the look of his property, the client will be more and more pleased with your work. And a happy customer is the best form of advertising that money cant buy word of mouth.

Before you know it, that client tells a neighbor what a great job his landscape maintenance contractor does. The neighbor looks at your work, and calls you. You now have a new client in an area you are already working. While youre in the neighborhood, have your crews drop off flyers that you printed on the cheap with your desktop computer. Showcase the properties you are servicing on that flyer. Offer an introductory discount.

Now this should be obvious, but every truck should have business cards and brochures, or flyers of some sort. Your crews need to make it as easy as possible for prospective new customers to contact your company. Who you are should not be an Agatha Christie mystery.

Its important to realize that your work crews are very much your sales force. They are your public face. Their behavior in the field is a direct reflection on your company. While the quality of their work is essential, how they conduct themselves is equally important. Presenting themselves in a professional, courteous manner can make all the difference in getting additional work in that neighborhood. Would you want to hire an unruly, dirty, inconsiderate crew with a radio blaring as they block traffic?

And dont be afraid to ask those existing customers for referrals. You can make it worth their while. For every customer they recommend, offer a gift of some sort--a free mowing, a free rose bush--something that costs you very little but says thank you in a big way.

In her best selling guide to self-employment, Working Solo, Terri Lonier stresses the importance of referrals and positive word-of-mouth and says they are the most effective ways to build a small business. While you cant directly control how referrals are made, she writes, you can create an environment in which they can be made easily.

Lonier also advises entrepreneurs to put technology to work by staying connected to your market, and accessible to customers by leveraging your time and reach with technology. Everything from voice mail, cell phones and desktop publishing to the instant communication via email and the Internet can help you.

All too often, customers complain that contractors dont call them back. With the technology at your disposal, this should never be a complaint they make about you. If you get into the habit of using your cell phone, checking your voice mail and returning calls promptly, you wont be overwhelmed at the end of the day.

Even if the phone calls you return dont generate business for you, your courtesy will be remembered, and that is how you can create an environment that will generate referrals down the road.

Becoming an active member in your community is an invaluable way to promote your business with investing little more than your time. Lonier suggests that you join and become active in two different types of associations.

Choose an association that is related to your industry or field, and another that has more of a general business focus, she writes. Youll meet experts in your specific market in the first type, and mix with successful entrepreneurs from all areas in the other kind. Each will provide valuable contacts.

Joining a local civic or service organization is also an effective way to enhance your image and presence in the community. The benefits may not be immediate, but as you rub shoulders with other business leaders, your good deeds will not go unnoticed.

Volunteering your companys services to charity will go a lot further than just writing a check. Your staff will interact with members of community, and the service you provide will be remembered long after the check would have cleared. Your good deed will have a rippling effect that can generate business and publicity when you least expect it.

When Tom Davis of Bazutto Landscaping in Laurel, Maryland, gave an informative presentation at a local real estate seminar, he thought little of it. The commercial landscape contractor schedules several community outreach activities annually. They can range from donating services to a charity to speaking to a local group.

Imagine his surprise when Davis received a newsletter with his picture that was sent to local real estate owners. The caption under the photograph explained who he was, why he spoke and the company he worked for. And while Davis says he didnt do it for the publicity, he admits that the unexpected coverage was great and the cost to his company was nothing more than a little bit of our time.

While doing good work is honorable and noble in and of itself, theres nothing wrong with letting people know about your good deeds. Mention the organizations and the charitable works you do in the advertisement you run. Inform the local media when you are involved in a project that lends itself to the coverage that outlet provides.

A barbershop in Los Angeles with two outlets donated half of its earnings one day to help Hurricane Katrina victims. Several local television stations covered the story. All it took to get that free publicity was sending out a good press release, piggybacking off a national story. People getting haircuts is very news-friendly; its an easy story to send a crew to, and television news loves feel-good stories to end their newscasts.

Sponsoring a community service project that ties into your business is a great way to generate business. For example, at the start of the school year, your company could plant flowers in front of the local high school. Let the local media know about it. Both newspapers and television will cover stories with great visuals like that.

In the old days, getting someone to notice your company usually took spending a lot of money. Like a lion, the companies with the biggest advertising budgets roared the most. But times, like technology have changed. Now, its the companies who are using their mouse wisely, who are roaring the loudest.