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Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Customers

If your customers don't give your marketing a warm welcome, its impact is lost. Here are 4 tips to help you avoid that fate.

I speak with dozens of entrepreneurs a week and am regularly struck by the passion with which they talk about both their businesses and their customers. Uniformly, entrepreneurs want to understand how their marketing impacts their customers, and their first rule is to do no harm. Nearly every small business owner I meet wants to avoid unwelcome marketing borne of their own lack of experience. Below are four tips on how to protect your customer relationships, increase your customer base, create a feedback loop and avoid over-communication. Following these suggestions will help ensure that your marketing will be welcome, thereby forging a stronger relationship with your customers.

1. It's all about the customer. The underlying message for businesses of all sizes, especially in the current economic climate is simple: Hang on to your customers. The most important actions businesses can take right now is to stay in contact with customers, assure them that your business is here to stay, listen to their needs and treat them like they are valued. Try to focus your communication on informational content that adds value to them--not just promotional content. Make every customer touch point count.

2. Grow your list . Keeping a customer is less expensive than attracting a new customer. Customers want valuable information from you; you just have to make sure they know it's available. Capturing their e-mail addresses and getting their permission is essential. Begin by making every connection count--in person, on the phone and online. When prospects visit your website, enter your place of business or call, be sure to get their contact information so you can expand your relationship. Offer them useful and meaningful information about promotions, special events, new products or offerings related to those products and services they already enjoy. Be sure to let them know what they can expect from you in terms of frequency and content and stick to your promises. Remember to ask for permission before you add them to any distribution list.

3. Create a feedback loop. We're all in this rocky economic environment together. So, now is the time to engage in a personal conversation, ask customers how they are faring and listen to the answers. In this climate, going above and beyond expectations can mean offering customers more than they expect, letting them know that you appreciate their business and thanking them for their patronage. Surveys are a good way to assess how particular programs or products are being received. But old-fashioned one-to-one communication can also be a powerful way to measure the strength of your activities. Simply asking a customer in your store how things are going or placing a phone call to key customers can give you insight and reinforce your commitment to their satisfaction.

Take what you hear to heart. Passionate customers can be your best source of new customers. Integrate feedback into everything that you do, so your business gets smarter, stronger and more valuable to customers. Seeing that their feedback adds to your success will give customers a sense of ownership and pride, increasing the likelihood they will become an evangelist for your business.

4. Balance the need to communicate. Businesses must balance the need to communicate with the risk of overdoing it. Too much communication can be as damaging as too little. Be deliberate and judicious in your communications. For instance, in e-mail marketing, over-communication can lead to high "unsubscribe" rates, which can diminish the value of your list over time. A communications calendar can help manage the frequency of communications, and metrics such as e-mail open rates can help measure the effectiveness of programs.

Despite the gloomy forecast, there's great hope and opportunity for savvy, determined small businesses in the months ahead. Entrepreneurs' natural instincts make them particularly likely to succeed in this environment, so keep your eye on the prize and keep marketing. Sixteen of the 30 corporations that make up the Dow Jones' industrial average were started during recessions. The next one could be yours.

Gail Goodman is the author of Engagement Marketing: How Small Business Wins In a Socially Connected World (Wiley, 2012) and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Constant Contact Inc., a provider of email marketing, event marketing, social media marketing, local deal and online survey tools and services for small businesses, associations and nonprofits.

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