Some small business owners are so focused on attracting new customers they forget to take care of the ones they already have. And neglected customers will certainly be ripe for the picking by the competition. Bob Green, president of The Verdi Group, an advertising agency in Rochester, N.Y., offers some easy and inexpensive ways to make sure your regulars keep coming back--and get some more along the way:

  1. Trade-ins for a good cause. Ask customers to bring in food, clothing or school supplies for the needy, and in return give them a discount off any of your products. People love to support a good cause as well as get a good deal. Cooks' World in Brighton, N.Y., asked customers to bring in old pots and pans to donate to soup kitchens, and in return offered a 20 percent discount for a new item. "The response was overwhelming and we got many new customers as well as the current ones," reports owner Chris Wiedemer.

    Shoe stores all over the country participate in Soles4Souls campaigns where customers exchange their old shoes for a discount on a new pair. The exchanged shoes are then given to charities that clothe the poor all over the world. Mark Allard, who owns New Balance stores in Raleigh and Durham, N.C., believes "If you just run a lot of sales all the time it can affect the integrity of your brand. A campaign such as Soles4Souls helps a good cause as well as provides discounts for my customers."
     
  2. Loyalty cards. A study by research firm Colloquy, found the average American household belongs to 14 different loyalty programs. It seems like just about every coffee shop and hair salon you enter offers something for free once you accumulate a certain number of purchases. Jerry Lewis, owner of Sports Clips barber shops has seen a high percentage of customers use their "get five haircuts and the sixth is free" card and believes his business has increased at least 20 percent because of this.

    There's another way to capitalize on this trend--paid membership for discounts. Well-known names such as Barnes and Noble, Starbucks and f.y.e. charge customers an upfront annual fee of about $25, and the cardholder then gets a 10 percent discount or more on products every time they shop. Another benefit is every time the card is swiped the business can track what items customers are buying and build a member profile. Executive vice president of marketing and merchandising at f.y.e. Fred Fox says, "We can then send members customized offers via direct mail, e-mail or phone based on their favorite products."
     
  3. Keep in Touch. Green believes it's very important to consistently keep in touch with your regulars to ensure your business stays on their "radar screen." One of the best ways is to send out an e-newsletter at least once a month. Here you can announce new products, offer money-saving tips, advertise upcoming sales or talk up recent accomplishments. Jim Timberlake, owner of Donnelly Euro Footwear in Mount Dora, Fla., reports he has "a 90 percent success rate getting people's e-mail address by telling them about the company's green practices and promising special offers." Customers respond to his invitation-only sales events and birthday coupons and Timberlake knows it encourages them to return to his store, as opposed to wandering over to the competition.
     
  4. Follow up. The best sales people keep track of the customers who buy from them, and then frequently follow up. Jim Greene, sales manager of Closet Maid, reports his dealers always call the customer after three days to make sure they are satisfied with the work and ask for referrals. "30 days [after installation], we call the customer to find out if they need any accessories for their closets, and a year later, we call the customer about future work and again ask for referrals."
     
  5. Get their opinion. Make the effort to invest customers in your business. At least once a year, send out a survey with your newsletter or have clients fill one out on site. Ask their opinion about the quality of your product or service and how they can be improved. And make sure you actually implement some of the suggestions; don't just conduct a survey for surveys' sake. When customers feel vested, valued and heard, they are bound to keep coming back.

    To take it a step further, Green also recommends forming an advisory board. These hand-selected panels should consist of your big spenders, and can be asked their advice on future products or current marketing campaigns. Treat them to a dinner or breakfast meeting and you are sure to get good attendance as well as future loyalty.
     
  6. Good ol' coupons. A simple coupon in the local paper, a direct mail piece or a discount offered on your website can help keep your current customers coming back as well as entice new ones. A study by the Manufacturer's Coupon Control Center found that 75 percent of customers who believe themselves loyal to a particular brand would consider switching to a competitor if they received a coupon for it.
     
  7. Rewards for referrals. If a current customer recommends your product or service to someone else who ends up buying, give them a reward. That way you not only get a new customer, but you virtually assure another sale when the regular customer returns to use that reward. And most importantly, don't forget to send a thank you note.
     
  8. Conduct on-site classes. Whether it's cooking lessons, car repair workshops or gardening tips, offer classes at your place of business. While customers are there they can peruse goods and purchase everything they will need in order to duplicate what they've learned at home.

    Do these classes right and you'll also reap positive word of mouth. Owner Anne Clowe of The Topiary Florist in Pittsford, N.Y., offers flower arranging classes at her shop, and finds that "many of the attendees refer me to spouses and friends for future business."
     
  9. Target local companies. Whatever your business, if you offer a service that busy, full-time workers could use, extend special discounts to the local human resource departments. Employees will appreciate being able to run some of their weekend errands on their lunch hour.
     
  10. Offer a freebie. "Every so often, we give our clients something extra: a free taste--something exciting they would never have thought of by themselves--and something they neither asked for nor paid for," Green says. "It pays off, not only does it make our clients happy, they look forward to working with us. And more often than not, the 'free' idea we present inspires a project that does bring in some revenue for us, if not immediately, often in the future."

Hopefully you already know that the very best way to keep your regulars happy is to offer impeccable customer service. Do you greet everyone with a smile and make the effort to remember names? Does a human being answer your phone or do callers have to go through a maze of automated responses to reach someone? If there is a problem with the merchandise, so you cheerfully offer a replacement? Remember how you like to be treated when you shop--many times it's the little things that will keep customers coming back.