Times are tough. I hear from business people all over the country that as a result of this economy, they've got fewer clients, smaller orders, and no new customers. Something must be done!

When business slows down, don't just take it lying down. Take action. Remember Rhonda's Rule: "Try working instead of whining."

It's time to step up your marketing efforts. Yes, I know thatí s easier said than done, especially when money is tight. But what's the alternative? Cutting expenses will only get you so far. And you can't just sit there, waiting until the economy improves. By that time, you may not have a business left to save.

What can you do to step up your marketing efforts that will be effective, yet won't cost a lot of money? I've come up with a list:

  1. Call former customers. Of course, you should already have an ongoing marketing program that keeps you in front of past customers. But, truthfully, most of us don't. Start now. An inexpensive way to begin is just by picking up the phone or extending an invitation to get together (even for coffee, if lunch is too expensive). But don't stop there. Find a way to communicate with those past customers on a regular basis. Can you create a monthly or quarterly newsletter or email letter?
  2. Make a list of your best referral sources and start calling them. Once again, you should be in front of these key sources of business continually. Start now with just a call or a note. Keep a list of these referral sources prominently on your desk, so they're always on your mind.
  3. Broaden your horizon. With a shrinking economy, you may find that business in your own geographic area can no longer sustain you no matter how hard you work. So expand your reach by widening your geographic service area and increase your pool of potential customers.
  4. Participate in industry or entrepreneur organizations. When I first started in business, I was very active in a number of networking groups, and they were a good source of clients to launch my company. Industry-specific groups are a particularly good source of referrals. Don't just go once; get involved, serve on a committee, plan a program.
  5. Make cold calls. Yes, I know you havení t done that since your first year in business. But tough times call for tough responses. Pick up that phone; knock on that door.
  6. Differentiate yourself. In a strong economy, companies that are "generalists," providing a broad range of services, compete effectively. But in a weaker economy, customers become more cautious with their spending; wanting to reduce risk, they often look for specialists. In your marketing efforts, emphasize the services or products in which you've developed a particular expertise and have experience.
  7. Advertise in niche publications. Once you focus in on your specialty -- your niche -- look for ways to reach that market niche. Often, there are publications -- newsletters, monthly magazines, Web sites, etc. -- serving that market. Advertise in those repeatedly. The good news is this kind of advertising is typically less expensive than other advertising options.
  8. Get publicity. Is there any way to drum up free publicity for your business? Are there any stories related to your line of work that you can pitch to a newspaper or television reporter? Don't overlook niche publications. If you run a dog grooming business, a local newsletter for animal lovers is far more likely to be interested in your new non-toxic dog grooming methods than a general purpose newspaper.
  9. Start a loyalty program. Airlines do it; grocery stores do it; coffee houses do it. It's critical that you find a way to retain -- and reward -- the customers you already have. So consider instituting a customer loyalty program. You don't have to have a complicated computer database, a simple punch card may do the trick.
  10. Advertise. When times are tough, businesses cut back on their advertising budgets. After a while, customers forget you exist. Remember, out of sight is out of mind, and pretty soon you're out of business. Stay in front of your customers -- past, current, and future.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2002

Rhonda Abrams writes the nation's most widely-read small business column and is the author of The Successful Business Plan, Wear Clean Underwear, and The Successful Business Organizer. To receive Rhonda's free business tips newsletter, visit www.RhondaOnline.com.