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Keep em Coming Back For More

By Carla Goodman

Here are six sure-fire strategies you can use to keep your customers coming back for more:

1. Try punch cards. At the Brooklyn Coin Laundry in Brooklyn, Michigan, Jim Reiff's customers are given "Wash Cards" that contain 10 spaces on the front and a place for the customer's name and address on the back. Every time a customer uses the laundry facility, an attendant stamps his card. After 10 stamps, the customer receives a free wash and becomes eligible for a monthly drawing. The prize: five free washes.

The punch cards, Reiff believes, help generate repeat business. "People like to get something for nothing," says Reiff, who displays pictures of his monthly winners on a bulletin board at his laundry. "It doesn't cost me much to offer the program, just some free washes. And with so much competition in this business, I want to keep my customers coming here, rather than going to a competitor."

Punch cards are a natural promotion for a variety of retail and service businesses, including video-rental stores, car washes, shoe-repair stores, bagel shops and coffeehouses. "They're a good way to make your business different from your competitors'," Reiff adds. "For us, the cards are more effective than any other advertising we do."

2. Offer something special. If your business isn't set up to use a punch-card promotion, consider other customer freebies. If you sell office supplies, give away a new pen with a sizeable purchase. If you're in the cosmetics business, offer customers a free half-hour beauty consultation when they buy $50 worth of skin-care products. If you run a restaurant, give away a glass of wine or bottle of mineral water when diners place an order for a new menu item.

3. Stay in touch. Besides a newsletter, there are several ways to maintain contact with your customers. Send a written thank-you note expressing appreciation for their business. Remember them with a holiday or birthday card. Depending on your type of business, you might call key customers to see how they're doing. You don't need to sell anything; the next time they need your product or service, they'll remember you.

If you sell retail, why not invite past and present customers to a special pre-sale event? It's a great way to give them an exclusive, first-hand look at sale merchandise and, at the same time, say "thank you" for their patronage. That's what Noel Charonet, owner of Sierra Nordic, a ski-equipment store near Lake Tahoe, California, does at his annual Labor Day weekend cross-country-ski sale. Who gets first notice of his one-time discounted prices on new cross-country skis and equipment? The regular customers on his mailing list.

4. Nurture your referrals. Referrals are probably the most powerful way to develop a solid client base for your small business. "Referred customers require less selling time and are more loyal than other customers," says Jill Griffin, author of Customer Loyalty: How to Earn It, How to Keep It (Jossey-Bass, $23, 800-956-7739). "They come ready to buy because, in effect, they have already been sold."

The best way to generate referrals, Griffin says, is to give your customers "something to talk about" so they'll have reason to tell their friends and business associates about your business. That "something" could be a product guarantee, a service warranty, a liberal replacement policy, highly trained and knowledgeable employees, or honest and competent service with a smile.

5. Ask why they left. Before you go after new prospects to replace lost customers, find out why a customer stopped doing business with you. Contacting them might not win the person back, but you could gain important insights into how you can improve your customer service, billing procedures, or the way your receptionist answers the phone and takes messages.

6. Give top-notch customer service. Cliff Miller and Karen Carson operate Boulevard Coffee Roasting Co. in Carmichael, California, a $1 million-a-year-plus coffeehouse and roasting operation. Boulevard Coffee is well-known for its high brewing standards and ambient coffeehouse setting, with its cherrywood display counters and antique tables and chairs. Still, it's how employees relate to them that keeps the customers returning time and again.

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