Remain Competitive Without Losing Sleep

by Myriam Bouchard

You’ve owned a business for many years now. You know your market and your competitors. Yet, despite your best efforts, your bottom line is shrinking and you can’t help but worry. Sound familiar?

How can you remain competitive during difficult economic times? I have yet to understand why the first thing small business owners cut in their budget is marketing expenses. “I need to increase sales, so I am going to cut on my marketing,” they rationalize. Does this make any sense? Of course not, but it seems to be the only line item, in the long list of operating costs due each month over which some feel they have some control. Unfortunately, this isn’t the best long-term strategy to keep your business growing or even afloat.

If you absolutely need to cut part of your marketing budget, make sure you have an alternative strategy. What can you do to replace your marketing exposure? You will have to create a marketing calendar and dedicate a certain amount of time each day or each week to accomplish certain tasks. You don’t have the time? Start your day earlier or end it later. If you can’t invest money, you then need to make your investment in time.

Think About Your Existing Customers

Which is more expensive: maintaining an existing customer or finding a new one? Studies have shown that, on a per customer basis, the cost for acquiring a customer may be five to ten times that of customer retention. Here are some tips:

§ Do follow-ups: Contact your customers, either by phone, email or mail and do a quick customer satisfaction survey. Was the work done to their satisfaction? Did the product perform as per their expectations? You are sending the message that you are dedicated to providing the best service or product to your customers and care enough to improve it.

§ Do you have a customer retention program? There are many ways to encourage your current customers to continue doing business with you, such as a customer rewards program many retailers now use.

§ Customer referral program: Word-of-mouth promotion is a great way to get new clients, and encouraging your existing clients to do so is vital. Upon converting a referral into a paying customer, what do you do to thank your unpaid sales force? You can send a thank you note, accompanied with a gift certificate or a discount coupon for their next purchase to your store, for example. Think of ways that would be meaningful to your current clients given your trade, and make sure you let your clients know of your program so they are encouraged to make referrals.

  • Do you contact your customers for promotions? By sending periodic email newsletters or post cards announcing special campaigns, you are reminding them of your existence. Sending a postcard with a dedicated discount or promotion for occasions, such as your clients’ birthdays or anniversaries, is also a quick and effective way to show your clients that you care about them. Make them feel special.
  • Don’t let your marketing be the sacrificial lamb or your business will suffer. You can brainstorm ideas with your business advisor and create a strategy that makes sense given your budget and time constraints, your trade, and your customers. Whatever you do, do something!

    (Myriam Bouchard is a certified business adviser for the Mid-Hudson Small Business Development Center. The SBDC offers no-cost, one-to-one business counseling to new and existing businesses. For more information, call 339-0025, email sbdc@sunyulster.edu or go to mid-hudson.nyssbdc.org.)

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