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No Money? You Can Still Market Your Small Business

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

No Money You Can Still Market Your Small Business

When starting a business, finding an idea is half the battle. After that exciting eureka moment where you think, “Hey, I could make a business out of this,” what do you think happens next?

When I was new in business I was wisely advised, “Boy, the first thing you got to do is avoid going broke while you’re getting rich and famous.”

Had I actually followed that advice, I might very well have saved myself from considerable financial strife.

Over the years I’ve observed how frequently entrepreneurs bankrupt themselves with expensive advertising and marketing schemes when low-cost methods would better serve their interests.

When you stop to really think about it, it’s easy to “buy customers” – given enough money (or credit), any idiot can build up a business, and many idiots have by using up millions of stockholders’ equity in the process.

Genius lies in getting customers and making sales without having to use up a huge amount of capital to do it and even better is using next to nothing at all. We’ll dedicate today’s discussion to that particular objective.


The phone rang persistently in the little shoe store where I was buying a pair of shoes. It was only after 6 rings when the clerk at the counter said, “Dammit – I’m busy” but begrudgingly answered the phone anyway. Can you imagine how he sounded to the caller? Or how he looked to the rest of the customers in the shop?

This attitude error must occur a million times a day in every imaginable type of business, as the incoming call “interrupts” the important work. If you can fix this you’ll be able to take a major step forward in attracting new customers as well as retaining those that you already have.

An inbound call can be many things: the tax collector, your mother-in-law announcing a surprise two-week visit, or the shop next door reporting that your roof is on fire.

These calls all have varying degrees of importance, but the call can be and often is from a prospective customer, present customer, or past customer. That is quite literally an opportunity calling! These calls must never be thought of as interruptions.

If the call is from a prospective customer, the job of the person handling the call must be clearly defined, understood, and enthusiastically pursued: to get the customer into the store or onto your website, get their name, address, and their phone number, or to set up an appointment. It is never just to dispense information.


Let me tell you one of the most instructive true marketing stories I have ever encountered:

The owner of a large auto-parts store was frustrated with his advertising, complaining about weekly spendings of tens of thousands of dollars in the newspaper, on radio, television, and all yielding few customers.

But then a conversation with his employees revealed their frustrations with the constant ringing of the phone – calls from people asking questions and constantly interrupting them.

Here’s how every call was handled, and you can imagine it with varying levels of courtesy and friendliness:

​“XYZ Auto Parts – how can we help you?”

The caller would then state their business. Usually, the inquiry sounded like this: “I saw (heard) your ad – how much is a whatever for a ‘68 Ford?”

Then the answer went like this: “Lemme look it up – hold on… still there? It’s sixty-two fifty.” Click.

​There was no problem at all with this guy’s advertising. And, to be fair, his people weren’t really at fault either.

He was still the problem. He was the one who had no idea what was going on inside his own business, and he was the one who had failed to educate his people about the importance of these calls.

​Here’s what we did to help:

  • We devised a new phone script designed to capture the caller’s name, address or email address, and number.
  • We taught the script to all the employees.
  • We instituted a reward pool of fifty cents per captured customer information, divided at day’s end by everyone working that day.
  • We added a “telephone upsell” to the script.

Immediately, with this strategy, the number of callers to conversions increased significantly. Overall, after follow-up mailings to all the callers, the store captured more than 50 percent of the callers as customers.

In addition, we added revenue and profit with the telephone upsell. You’re familiar with this if you’ve ever ordered by phone from a well-run catalog company.

After the operator has taken your order, she’ll usually do a “Columbo”: Oh, just one more thing. We have a special offer just for today’s callers – would you like to hear about it?

When I ordered from The Sharper Image quite some time ago, the operator walked me through six different specials.

This technique works in that application, and there’s no reason it can’t work in others.

The auto-parts store’s upsell script sounded like this:

“Oh, just one more thing – we have an extra special offer just for today’s callers – would you like to hear about it?”

​More than 70 percent said yes.

My appreciation for the phone goes back to age fifteen (yes – fifteen!) when I decided to make some money selling Amway products. My parents were distributors, and I have to say, as an aside, that the exposure to selling, to certain attitudes, and to ambitious people that I received thanks to their involvement was, and is, priceless.

Having no money for advertising, no car to get around in, and no friends, relatives, or neighbors to sell to – those were my parents’ customers – I was left with the telephone and the white pages.

With some help, I devised a little telephone survey beginning with questions about environmental and water-pollution concerns, then switching to a pitch for Amway’s biodegradable, ecologically wonderful, etc., laundry compound.

Even the fuzziness of the passing of time has not blurred the memory of how miserable it was to make these calls: hundreds and hundreds of no answers, hundreds of people too old, too young, unable to speak English, or unbelievably nasty, and hours without a positive response.

But I also clearly remember the “thrill of victory.” And, more importantly, I can look back and realize that with a lousy script, terrible technique, and no selectivity in prospects, I still made money and acquired customers.

I left that business more than thirty-three years ago, but I happen to know that some of those customers are still buying Amway products today, month after month after month, each having cumulatively spent tens of thousands of dollars.

Sadly, such “cold” telephone prospecting to consumers is now outlawed. However, you can use postcards, sales letters, ads, Web sites, and every other medium to motivate people to call you or call your “free recorded message”; then, with their permission, you can make follow-up calls to them.

And, just so you know, there are basically no restrictions on business-to-business telemarketing.

​For a printing company, I had a list compiled of small businesses and phone numbers from the area immediately surrounding the shop, created a simple phone script, and made a competition out of it for the five employees, none of whom were salespeople or telemarketers. They each “found the time” to make one call per hour – eight calls per day.

The one who got the most new customers during the week got $100.00. The shop made 40 calls a day, 200 calls a week for $100.00 – fifty cents each. The shop also gained an average of ten new customers each week. ANY business could copy this idea.

There is also one overwhelmingly superior way most businesses should use telemarketing if they use it only one way: using telemarketing with direct mail. Almost without exception, a telemarketing campaign linked to direct mail increases the initial direct-mail results by 500 to 1,000 percent.

Chug, Chug, Chug Advertising

One teleconference that I remember doing was with a Platinum Member Jerry Jones and Gold/VIP Member Derek Freund on “Direct Mail Secrets”. Both these guys mail hundreds of thousands – even millions – of direct-mail pieces each year for their clients, so they have a wealth of knowledge.

One of the things we talked about is the business owner’s discipline in finding and continuing to use the “bread-’n’-butter” methods of bringing in customers.

Those things that aren’t flashy, that don’t produce huge numbers, but just chug along month after month, earning their keep. There are those things in direct mail. There are such things in print advertising as well.

Most businesses can utilize small and, in some media, inexpensive ads that target specific prospects, and earn their keep continuously – but most businesses don’t.

One good example is the small ads in the New Yorker magazine. If you read the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, or a number of other “high-end demographic” magazines, you will see many ads like these, including many appearing every month, unchanged, year after year after year. Nothing fancy. Nothing really smart. Yet most of these are effective enough to keep running.

Chug, Chug, Chug Advertising

Admittedly, one small ad does not a business make.

But my friend Melvin Powers at Wilshire Books built a huge mail-order book business with ads this size running month after month, year after year, in hundreds of magazines. Each keeps chugging along, producing small numbers but producing sufficient numbers. Combined, they produce big numbers.

Gold/VIP Member Dr. Paul Searby fueled his very profitable dental assistant school exclusively with small classified ads only in weekly community newspapers in a circle around his office.

One of my private clients, who prefers I not use him or his ads as examples, has run the same two-inch display ad in some eight or nine magazines for more than ten years and makes a very comfortable living doing nothing else.

This is a rather dull and boring approach, so most don’t stick with the program. For example, one client had a two-inch ad he was running in four or five of his industry’s trade journals. Some months he was also in those same magazines with full-page ads; in other months he was not.

Over six months, the dinky ads produced a 5-to-1 return on investment (ROI). But he stopped running them.

You might ask: Why? For one thing, the ROI was healthy but the numbers were unexciting – forty or fifty leads, eight to ten sales. For another, he was bored with them.

This occurs with a lot of people. They are too impatient to put a lot of “little vending machines” in offbeat locations, each selling one bottle of goo a week—they want the one big “store” that’ll attract thousands. They lack the discipline to keep tiny ads running in many publications every month.

However, the longevity of businesses deriving little streams of profitable businesses from many different places is better and more certain than those businesses deriving big floods from few sources.

There’s a lot to be said for “grinding it out.”

Take Las Vegas, for example. Most people would be surprised to know the very small number of profit dollars produced per hour by each slot machine, by each table game.

Casinos really do “grind out” small dollars multiplied by lots of machines. In fact, the lingo for the down ‘n’ dirty, slot-only places is “grind joint”.

A worthy goal for any business, big and small, is the development and ownership of a small, “evergreen” ad that can just chug along, week or month after week or month, year after year. I envy those who own such incredibly valuable assets that are pretty much ignored by the competition.

How-to guides, for example, are valuable pieces of evergreen content that can give any website traffic for years – especially if the value offered is timeless.

The Internet has made the evergreen approach more viable in this way. In an increasing number of arenas, it is economically feasible to use these small ads to drive interested prospects to a website and to offer no other means of response – something I would have argued vehemently against more than a decade ago but now know works in quite a lot of situations.

​So, why not find as many places as you can to run a little ad, constantly? Do this even if one place makes only a $1.00 profit every month.

The Power of Cooperation

Cooperation can be carried too far, a camel being a horse built by a committee, and I am not a big fan of groups. But I do believe in strategic alliances.

Two non-competing but somehow related small businesses – such as a pet store owner and a veterinarian; an Airbnb host and a food delivery service; a tutor and a personal trainer; a subscription box and an online fashion boutique; a house washer and a car washer – can share their customer bases, their store traffic, and even their advertising to build each others’ businesses and stretch their advertising dollars.

In this same category of cooperation, there are joint ventures. In the world, there are basically just two groups: those with customers and those without customers. Each has a need, although someone in the first group must often be educated by someone in the second.

A person with a thriving business and a good group of responsive customers needs to be of greater and greater service to those customers, and he needs ways to make more money with his customers without doing more work.

The Power of Cooperation

He may or may not understand this, but he owns the most valuable asset in the world: customers. Then there’s you—the entrepreneur with a product service or business that would be of interest and value to his customers. In direct marketing terms, he could be a “host” and you could be a beneficial “parasite.”

Simple example: A dry cleaner has 500 good, repeat customers. But he’s nearly at capacity and couldn’t do much more dry-cleaning work without adding equipment space and personnel.

How can he make more money? Well, those 500 customers have carpets in their homes, and two or three times a year, they need a good, reliable carpet cleaner. Mr. Dry Cleaner isn’t prone to get into a second business. But you, Mr. Carpet Cleaner, can pay him for an introduction and endorsement to his customers. That’s host/parasite marketing.

Last Remarks

The bottom line is that you should not, by any means, fall into the trap of splurging your money for big, flashy advertising tactics.

Start with the basics – these are the tactics often overlooked by most entrepreneurs. And though they are relatively inexpensive they are not easy. Good marketing habits take time and discipline to develop, so have patience, stick it out, and watch how much your hard work can pay off for your small business.

If you’d like to learn more about building and marketing your small business, I strongly suggest that you check out our NO B.S. Newsletter. Just by subscribing, you’ll gain access to timeless business principles, several free gifts, and even some Behind The Scenes walkthroughs where my team and I show you the inner workings of our most successful campaigns.

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