Customers come and customers go, and some just stay around. The ones that stay around are ideal because they usually buy over and over, and tell people about you over and over. But how do you get these customers in the first place? Of course, this is the essence of sales and marketing, but let's look at a few easy, quick and inexpensive ways to fill your sales funnel with prospects that become customers for life, and ways to expand your existing customer base.

1. Slyly get their information. Ever go into a restaurant and see that giant fish bowl begging for your business card to "Win a free lunch!"? If the restaurant is smart, they'll take all the entrants, log them into a prospect database, and continue to market to them over and over. You can do this by raffling off a book at an event you're speaking at, or using a business card as a ticket for entry at a networking event. The real activity here is getting prospects that are interested in further conversation with you that'll lead to purchases. You can do this online as well as offline.

2. Offer them information. This is known as a "marketing hook." Offer something of value that your prospects will be interested in so that they contact you and request it. Information makes a great marketing hook. What report, top 10 list, checklist, white paper or other information can you offer to your prospects that's something they'll want to have? This is information of value and is viewed as a marketing hook. Those that request it then receive notification of special product offers, more information, appearances by the author, etc.--all in an effort to turn them into paying customers. I've seen food product companies offer recipes. Free samples work as long as you can really put value forth to the prospective audience. Free consultations used to work, but they're not as good a hook as they once were. Prospects recognize a free consultation as nothing more than a sales call.

3. Display and use a guest book/ It still amazes me that many retail businesses don't record who visits their business. Visitors to a place of business are more than a warm lead; they're people who have expressed interest in you and your business. Interested prospects are the ones more likely to turn into paying customers. Display a guest book for all visitors to sign in, requesting their contact information. Ask for permission to let them know about future sales, future special offers, product information or other "hooks." This gives you permission to market to them over and over, and eventually expands your customer base.

4. Actively pursue referrals. The biggest favor a customer can do for you (besides buy from you) is to refer another paying customer to you. Formal referral programs can expand a customer base rapidly if done right. First, you have to proactively ask for referrals. They very rarely show up by themselves. Second, ask for referrals at the peak of your customer's enthusiasm with you. This can be when they pay you a compliment, when they write you a check for your services, or when they send you a thank-you note or testimonial letter. Customer satisfaction surveys are another way to get your customers to talk to you when they're happiest. If they fill out the satisfaction survey and rate you high, they're enthused and more likely to share with you the names of others who would like the same level of enthusiasm. Third, you can't ask a customer to think about everyone in the world that they might know. Ask them to narrow their universe when asking for referrals. For example, ask, "Who do you know that you bowl with every week who might be interested in receiving the same benefits from us that you have?" Finally, recognize, reward and provide incentives for referrals. My wife was ecstatic the other day when she received two tickets to the movies from her dentist for referring one of our neighbors to him. Her immediate reaction was, "Who else can I refer to get more movie tickets?" Rewarded behavior gets repeated.

Integrating all of the above steps in other marketing efforts will yield results. Use direct mail and direct e-mail to announce a contest, to offer a hook or to ask for referrals. Use PR to announce the contest, the results of the contest and a profile of the winner. Editors and producers also love to see new and unique ways to get customers and recognize customers. They also like unique methods and techniques of communication. Never underestimate the value of connecting your PR to all your other marketing efforts. The key to expanding customer bases using these simple steps is to do them on a consistent, focused and repetitive basis, just like all other marketing. Expanding your customer base is a process, not an event.