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Cultivate Stronger Customer Bonds

4 ways to market effectively in a downturn and maximize customer feedback.

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Have you noticed your inboxes are filling up faster lately with promotions from businesses desperate to get your attention? If you're like me and getting bombarded with multiple promotions, then your first inclination is to just tune them out, click delete and move on to the of the day.

When the is down, businesses tend to get desperate, and the knee-jerk reaction is to increase the frequency and volume of their customer communications. It seems like a simple solution just to e-mail customers more often, but, that's the opposite of what you should do.

Consumers are stressed about the state of the economy. Don't make it worse by throwing everything you've got at them. It won't be effective. Instead of overdoing your communications and turning off your customers for good, create stronger bonds with them. Here are four creative ways to do that.

1. Take their pulse.In this changing economy, it's more important than ever to get ongoing feedback from your customers. Using inexpensive online surveys, you can quickly learn what your customers are thinking at any given moment. Ask how you can help them. This is powerful information you can use to make real-time adjustments to your business based on your customers' current needs.

The closer you are to your customers and the better you are at asking for their feedback and answering their questions, the more likely it is they'll turn to you when they need a service you offer. No matter what the economy looks like, customers would rather buy from a business with which they have a good relationship. Keep checking their pulse; adapt as needed, and you're more likely to keep their business.

2. Have a dialogue with your customers.Don't just feed information to your customers and talk at them; invite them to engage in a conversation with you through your e-mail newsletters. Do this by writing content that inspires your audience to talk back in a Q&A or a "stump the experts" section. Ask readers to submit their questions or concerns, and then publish answers and opinions. When you feature a conversation with customers, you demonstrate to your readers that you share their concerns and that you're also dealing with the pressures of the economy. Providing timely, interesting and entertaining content shows off your expertise, while listening and responding show that you care.

3. Co-host an event with another local business.Whether you're a business with a Main Street shop, a professional service with an at-home office or an entrepreneur with a web presence, teaming up with a related business is a great way to cross-promote to likely customers.

Think about other businesses related to yours that could benefit from exposure to your customers and vice versa. Consider co-hosting a special event where you demonstrate your expertise to customers face-to-face. It's fun, it's free, and it's a great investment in customer-relationship building. Examples:

  • A cooking store hosts a wine shop expert for an in-store wine tasting and educational event, such as "How to choose a gourmet wine on a frugal budget."
  • A financial planner attends an event at a bookstore to answer consumers' questions about the economy, savings, college tuition and retirement planning.
  • A garden center teams up with a landscape architect for a tour pointing out the best plants and shrubs for different environments. The landscape architect will be speaking to both "green thumbs" who may tackle the project themselves, and novices who might hire the architect.

Use your e-mail marketing tool to publicize these live events and leverage both your list and your co-host's list. Always have an e-mail signup book readily available to collect new addresses from future customers.

4. Do good and drive business to your business.Consumers are becoming more aware of social issues and their impact on the world around them. Tap into your customers' desire to give back to the community. Team up with a local charity that will use your business as a drop-off location over the holidays, or make a donation in your customers' name in a charity holiday gift drive as an incentive for them to do business with you.

Use e-mail marketing to inform customers about your involvement with the charity and invite them to join you in your support by offering their time, money, or ideas. You'll be doing something great for the community while increasing awareness for your business.

In difficult economic times, your business survival depends on strong customer relationships. It's not how often you communicate with customers--it's the richness and quality of those communications that's important. Your goal is to establish the strongest relationships with your customers no matter what the economy looks like at the time. If you build and nurture those relationships, they will come.

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