From the June 2002 issue of Startups

Janet McNaughton considers thank-you notes to be more than a courtesy-they're a necessity. Founder of Lasting Impressions, a gift company in Kirkland, Washington, McNaughton says writing thank-you notes to clients and customers is just one of the ways she markets her company-she even counsels her clients on how to create good impressions with their contacts.

We know what you're thinking-the last time you set pen to paper in gratitude, you were thanking Aunt Eunice for the, er, interesting (though slightly garish) candlesticks she sent as your graduation gift. But if you want to succeed in your customer relationships, a little expression of gratitude can go a long way. It certainly did for McNaughton, 36. "I started my business just dedicating myself to the fundamentals," she says. "I believe the fundamentals are writing thank-you notes, investing in the people you want to do business with, and providing outstanding products and services at a fair price."

When she set up shop in 1996, McNaughton committed herself to writing about five thank-you notes per day, to clients, customers and anyone who had done something good for her company. "It was just a habit," she says.

A habit that paid off. McNaughton's note of gratitude left such a positive impression with one of her clients-a buyer for retailer Sam's Club-that the buyer recommended Lasting Impressions to another client. "Because of that key introduction, I was able to establish a fabulous partnership."

So we've got the thank-you part covered. How else can you make a good impression on clients and customers? McNaughton's system includes a database with all her contacts, whom she rates from A to D. A people refer business to her. B's are people she could train and convert to A people. C's are people she has just met and cannot yet qualify, and D's are people with whom she most likely won't be doing business. She routinely sends small gifts and thank-you notes to her A people-to thank them for their referrals and building her business. "If you're an A person, you get something from me every month," she says. "And these things don't cost me that much."

Be it a small Valentine gift that says "You're The Heart Of My Business" or a phone call that lets them know she appreciates their help, McNaughton has built a core group of contacts so enthusiastic about Lasting Impressions, they can hardly contain it. "These people are like walking, talking billboards for me," she says. "Everywhere they go, everyone they run into-they're like: 'Oh my goodness! Have you met Janet McNaughton? Have you used her services?'"

That kind of devotion is what McNaughton hopes to give to her clients as they build relationships with their constituencies. She helps them create a similar system on a monthly plan. Her key is plotting into their calendars when to send out thank-you notes, when to send Fourth-of-July-inspired red-white-and-blue cookies and when to make follow-up courtesy phone calls. "The fundamentals take a lot of self-discipline to [accomplish]. You really have to buckle yourself in and make those phone calls," says McNaughton, who is expecting a sales increase of about 50 percent for 2002. "And I found most recently, especially with the economy being how it is, people are incredibly receptive to the phone calls.I have been so encouraged."