Business slow? Here's how to pick up the pace

It's time to take out your former client list and put the referral wheels in motion--a small business owner has much to do in a shrinking economy.

Times are getting tough. Dot-coms are dying faster than worms at a crow convention, the economy's eroding like a Mississippi sand bank during a flood. And it's all coming home to squat on your doorstep.

Independent small businesses -- indies, I call them -- who make their livelihood through work from several companies, are faced with shrinking profits as their clients cut back by bringing the work in-house, or heaven forbid, actually going belly-up. I'm in the same boat as other indies; my client list has shrunk somewhat, and I'm anticipating losing more in the coming months.

Must SMEs constantly upgrade themselves just to keep up?YES

Whether you're a computer consultant, accountant, building subcontractor, or, like me, a freelancer, your check is often one of the first to get slashed when clients and customers retrench. In times like these, you should look to expand your small business horizons. Maybe you're out of practice, with the boom times you've experienced the last couple of years. So I've come up with four marketing tactics to help jog your memory, and give some pointers that work for me.

Go back to the past

Maybe you dumped them because they were too small, or because they didn't pay top dollar. Whatever the reason, you can't be picky when accepting work from former clients when times turn ugly.

Your best move is to look up customers you haven't worked for in months -- you've done jobs for these people already, so they know you and know the quality of your work. Delve into your accounting software, and generate a report showing all customers you invoiced during the last year. If necessary, dig further into the past.

Make exploratory calls to determine if the company contact you worked with is still with the firm. It's awkward when you make a pitch call to be told "she doesn't work here anymore."

Next, update these former clients on what you've been doing since you last worked together, and to let them know about the new areas into which you've ventured. I like to start this process with e-mail, a non-intrusive tactic that also lets me expound at some length without taking up too much of the potential client's time. Don't forget to ask what's new on their end, then close with a promise to telephone the next day.

Be sure to follow up on that call. It's not really a cold call, though if you haven't worked for this client in a long time, it's close. I put the chore on my personal information manager's (PIM) to-do list so I'm motivated to complete the task.

If hitting up old clients doesn't generate enough new business, don't toss aside your PIM. You'll need it for my next idea: convincing current customers to refer you to other businesses.

Reach out for referrals

Your current clients -- or maybe you're thinking of them as your remaining clients -- may be your best references and a gold mine of new work...if you know how to ask for a referral.

Although asking clients to refer other businesses to you is an excellent way to break new customer ground, you must do it delicately, or risk alienating the very people you now rely on. Unless your most important clients have recently limited the amount of work they're sending your way, don't put your relationship in jeopardy by asking them to refer you to others. Maybe that's too cautious for your situation -- in dire circumstances, you've got to do anything you can to stay in business -- but I hesitate to give my crucial clients the impression that I'm shortchanging them in order to build up my customer list. The most I've done is ask important clients to send small jobs my way.

Clients to whom you're billing small amounts are your best source, I think. They know that the work they're giving you is just a fraction of your overall business, so there's none of that "will he have time for us?" nervousness bigger customers may have. In any case, requests for referrals should be prefaced with an honest explanation that a) business is soft and you need to pick up more clients, and b) your existing clients will, of course, always have priority. Stress this loyalty-to-seniority attitude and everything should work out fine.

Once you've exhausted your former client list and put the referral wheels in motion, it's time to turn on the marketing charm. But rather than use the same old techniques, this is the time, when you have the time, to try some new marketing methods.

Explore new marketing methods

You've probably been too busy working to worry about new ways to get work. But with business slowing down, you now have the time to explore unused or under-utilized marketing methods.

Among the approaches you might now take:

Online job sites.
Sites that salary slaves use to find new employers, like Guru.com or FreeAgent.com, let independents post their availability or look for projects placed by businesses. The whole process is a lot like an e-dating service. It's best used to look for long-distance work, where it doesn't matter how far you live from the new client.

Direct e-mail.
To reach a large number of local businesses that may need your services, try direct mail -- or its more economical cousin, direct e-mail. (For some hands-on direct e-mail marketing tips, check out my column from last November, "Making sense of e-mail marketing".)

Marketing-oriented Web sites.
There are scores of places that can help you to build a Web site with some marketing muscle. Many, such as Bigstep.com or ZDNet's own SiteBuilder, are free and take only time, not cash, to implement. Steer toward those site-building services that walk you through not only the creation chore, but also help you promote and publicize your marketing site. Bigstep, for instance, provides tools for submitting your site to the most popular Internet search engines. Another resource: ZDNet's Software Library, which offers a collection of downloadable promotional assistants.

Still not striking oil? Then it's time to get personal, and get back into marketing mode. That's my last piece of advice.

'Nice to meet you' networking

On one hand, you don't want to seem desperate in your search for more work. On the other, you don't want potential clients to think you're blasé about the economy, and have more work than you can handle. One way to strike a balance between the two is to keep your networking low-key and laid-back, maintaining a tone of "nice to meet you," not "you need me."

There are lots of such networking opportunities, many of which you may not have had time to exploit while you were working your fingers to the bone. One of my close friends, also an indie, recently started attending Rotary meetings in her hometown. That's one avenue I've never explored, but I intend to. To find a service organization -- everything from Rotary to Lions to Kiwanis -- do a search at a directory such as Yahoo or head to your local Yellow Pages.

Other networking opportunities include your local Chamber of Commerce and professional organizations that pertain to your field. If you're hesitant to join at least check out the appropriate organizations' Web sites. A search at a Web directory or engine using the phrasing "professional organization [name of industry/occupation]" should bring up plenty of results.

Are times getting tough? You bet. But by getting back into the routine of marketing yourself, you can keep your independence and keep those checks coming in.