To start a business, you don't need financing, a website or business plan. All you need is a customer.

But even when it comes to the all-important task of acquiring those first customers, a new business is usually looking to save as much time and money as possible.

Buying a customer list can be expensive, so most small businesses look to build their own. The best way to do it? Get smart about networking, according to Sheryl Johnson, founder of Pittsburgh-based BD-PRo Marketing Solutions. Here are some of her tips for expanding a contact database.

Have a networking strategy. Know your networking goals, and join groups where you'll be most likely to connect with the people you most want to meet both online and at in-person events.

Make networking part of your everyday life. Keep your elevator pitch at the ready so that the people you meet know what you do and who you can help. You never know who you'll bump into or who they might know.

Ask for referrals. After each sale, make it part of your routine to ask for a referral. Other good sources of referrals include employees and email newsletters that can be passed along. 

Follow up. Create a sound strategy to stay in touch with people and keep on top of what their needs are. Having a contact management system can help you stay on track.

Need help getting organized? Here's a small trove of free template forms that can help you track your efforts to find new customers without having to reinvent the wheel. You can download them at no cost and adapt them to your own needs. Happy prospecting!

  • Sales Prospect File: Best for salespeople receiving incoming calls and during advertising campaigns.
  • Prospecting Sheet: For helping initiate and maintain productive contacts with prospects, including recording customer goals and objections.
  • Sales Call Log: For keeping records of telephone conversations with customers and prospects.
  • Client/Prospect Contact Form: For recording calls and contacts made to a particular prospect and tracking follow-ups.

What tools do you use to find customers? Let us know in the comments section.