Think about how you and your family decide where to buy goods and services. For example, what process did you go through the last time you chose a house painter, gardener, lawyer, or dentist? Also recall the last few times you went out to eat or attended a movie. We'll wager that in many, if not most, of these instances, the recommendation of a trusted friend or acquaintance, not an ad, helped inform your decision.
We'll also bet that another source of the information you used to make at least some of these purchasing decisions came from media people you trust. For example, you might have picked a movie or restaurant in part because it got high marks from a critic you respect, or called a contractor whose name appeared on a respected local consumer group's "approved" list.
It should help reinforce this point if you make a mental list of five local small businesses you respect and regularly do business with, and then ask yourself how often you recommend each, or at least tell someone that you patronize them? If your answer is "regularly," it's obvious that these businesses are doing so many things right that you, and probably many other satisfied customers, promote them for free.
Here are some suggestions for asking your customers to help you gain new ones.
Let customers help their friends. Send a letter or email to all your customers, not only asking them for support, but also to recommend you to friends. And of course include discount coupons.
Ask for prospects. Personally ask your truly enthusiastic customers if they will supply a list of their friends and give you permission to write or email them using the customer's name.
Be generous. Especially when times are tough, customers appreciate and talk about a good deal. For example, if your garage provides a free oil change or car wash as part of every service appointment, your customers will tell others.
Be appreciative. Acknowledge your customers' recommendations and referrals. A personal thank-you is best, but if that's not practical, a note or email will suffice. Consider adopting a system to reward customers for recommending others. Depending on your field, this could be a thank-you gift, a discount on future services, or even cash.
More on advertising and marketing. Nolo publishes an inspirational little book called Marketing Without Advertising, by Michael Phillips and Salli Rasberry, that has an expanded discussion of advertising and its alternatives. Also check out the Guerrilla Marketing series written by Jay Levinson and others, especially Guerrilla Marketing (Mariner Books), Start-Up Guide to Guerrilla Marketing (Entrepreneur Press), and Guerrilla Marketing on the Internet (Entrepreneur Press).