Marketing On The Cheap

As I look back on my involvement in the dry cleaning business, I am somewhat taken back by the reluctance of many in our industry to make the effort to market their services. I remember when I started in this profession, I believed that if I just got good enough at providing my clients with the best service and quality that I could, my business would flourish. But to my chagrin, I struggled for many years while others prospered, and I believed many of those who were doing better financially didn’t give their customers the level of service my company was offering.

I spent untold hours, days and years trying to master my craft, thinking the whole time that if I just got good enough, I would become successful. But after several years of believing in this approach, all I had was a bunch of debt and not enough customers. And more importantly I wasn’t attracting the right clients to my company.

I knew something had to change. But how? Did I need to expand by opening new locations? Add pick up and delivery routes? Discount my services? Increase my advertising budget?

After some quick thought (and not careful analysis) I tried various coupon promotions suggested by different vendors and found that I attracted the coupon clipper customer who was looking strictly for a deal and would leave as soon the deal was no longer available. I tried Val-pak, local coupon magazines, ads in neighborhood publications and the dreaded coupon on the reverse side of the grocery store receipt. These reckless attempts at attracting customers cost way too much money and resulted in few or no positive results.

I looked at the pricing of our services and compared our prices to those of our competitors. I was always reluctant to increase our prices, fearing that I would cross that invisible line that would chase my customers to the competition. I opened drop stores thinking that more locations would increase brand awareness and increase our volumes. I soon realized that without an effective way to grow these additional locations, I was only compounding my issues.

Finally in a state of quasi-desperation, I began to dig deeper into the processes used by successful entrepreneurs to grow their operations. I realized that being good at what we did wasn’t enough. If no one knew about us, it really wouldn’t matter. I had to make the effort to become effective at marketing and sales.

I read books about marketing. I subscribed to various subscription services. I attempted to define my ideal client. And then I went to work trying to develop plans and strategies.

Step one in my marketing metamorphosis was to assess the information we had accumulated about my current customers. It only took about thirty seconds for me to realize that we had not been good about developing client profiles. In most cases our staff had gotten a name and phone number and that was just about it. So we went on a quest to update client information that would help us communicate with them better. At a minimum we began to get names of the client and spouse, current mailing addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. We also asked customers to share their birthdays and standing instructions they had for us so we could input these comments into our point-of-sale system.

At the same time we were updating our customer information, we began to implement a very primitive rewards system. We began to issue “Sand Dollar” tokens (an obvious tie-in with our company name) to clients when they would pick up their orders. We gave them one Sand Dollar for each ten dollars in sales that could be used on future orders. These coins were made like wooden nickels and were actually well received by our clients but they had one major flaw – they did not include an expiration date to incentivize the customer to return within a designated time. Because of this issue, some clients stockpiled hundreds of these tokens and redeemed them all at one time, and even though it’s been years since we used this promotion, we still take in the occasional token.

It was about this time we began to develop a monthly newsletter for our clients and prospects. In retrospect, my early attempts at this means of communication were boring. I included articles about things that were of interest to us, such as how to remove grass stains from clothes, and other dry cleaning related topics. After a while I figured out my customers really don’t care how to remove stains – that’s what they pay me to do. So we started to include personal stories, historical articles and other helpful information (not related to garment care.) At first, we printed a two-page newsletter, just to get the ball rolling, then later we expanded it to four pages. We began to include client profiles and feature good deeds our staff had done. In short, we personalized the newsletter and tried to make a connection with our clients.

We began to feature a weekly special with customers by attaching a flyer on outgoing orders. We discovered that even if our clients didn’t take advantage of the offer, these promotions created an awareness of services we offered. I was shocked to learn how many of our existing customers had no idea we cleaned comforters or draperies until we featured them in these promotions. I became a believer in the adage, “It’s easier to sell something to an existing client than to sell to someone who has never heard of you.” And that order going to the customer is a big opportunity to offer additional services – it’s almost like a big blank billboard!

As our customer list began to grow we began to commit to e-mail marketing, too. Our goal was to promote our products and services our clients, but at the same time we wanted to make sure our emails were opened. Not every email included an offer or promotion. Occasionally we would send out a motivational or inspirational message to customers. We tried to personalize our messages with stories about things going on in our lives and the lives of our staff members, but most of all, we wanted to establish a connection with the reader so they would actually open the email when they saw it in their inbox. Quite frankly, this was a talent we had to develop over time. When I look back at many of our early attempts at e-mailing, I would say most of them sucked. But we persevered, and today we have an extensive list that includes an open rate that averages over 25%, well over the industry standard for service businesses – and more importantly, these efforts are paying off with increased sales and client retention.
We have supplemented our marketing messages by using additional media. For example, we have begun using text messaging for various promotions. One word of caution, however, there are some legal requirements limiting who can receive text messages. But with this in mind, we have discovered texting can be a very effective method of communicating with our customers at a very reasonable cost. Depending upon the texting service used, the cost can be less than three cents per text.
As our business has matured, we have worked to improve our messaging to both our existing clients and potential customers. Our marketing has been evolving as our company has grown and our client base has grown. We use various methods to reach out, having learned there is no one “silver bullet” that works in all situations or with all customers. Some clients respond to discount offers, some react better by offering premiums and others are interested in convenience or quality. We have also discovered some clients like snail mail, be it in the form of a letter or postcard, while others like texting or e-mails.

Please note that none of the marketing tactics or messages we have used require large investments of cash. Most can be implemented with minimal outlays. For example, when we developed our newsletter, we printed them in grey scale, saving big bucks when compared to color. Instead of mailing them, we attached them to customer orders or if they were a delivery customer, we left them at the client’s door if they didn’t have an order to drop off. Emails and texts are very cost effective and even our rewards program saved money over time, as the tokens could be used several times over.

But even though marketing can be done on the cheap, it does require an investment in time and effort. Consistency is a key component of any effective marketing strategy that you implement. Get your clients used to hearing from you by developing a plan and doing your best to adhere to the schedules you develop. If you prepare a newsletter, try to send it on a monthly basis. We develop weekly e-mails and have found that to be a good frequency to maintain contact with clients.

In summary, the results of your marketing may not be immediate. If you are not getting the results you are hoping for don’t just quit marketing. Try to discover why your processes are not working and adjust them until your efforts begin to pay off. Test your messages to see if they will work, adjusting them when necessary. You don’t have to spend excessively on your advertising, it will take time and effort. Continue to provide the best service and quality you can for your clients but also take the time and effort to make sure your clients know everything you can do for them. If you make this a focus of your business you will eventually see the benefits.

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