When home sales slowed last year, Cathie Gill and other agents in her 30-person real estate brokerage started to change their thinking about marketing. Since media advertising, their traditional technique, was bringing fewer responses, they looked for new ways to find buyers.
Gill decided not to let the economy put her out of work. She is among the ranks of small-business owners who are promoting their services in ways that didn't seem necessary before and aggressively pursuing contacts in other industries to stay in business through tough times.
To attract the growing numbers of choosier buyers who wander neighborhoods looking at what is for sale, Gill started sprucing up the lawn signs to attract passers-by. To persuade wary home buyers to use her Washington realty firm, Cathy Gill Inc., she has given new definition to the phrase customer service.
Through alliances with building contractors, architects, bankers, settlement officers and moving companies, Gill says she can do a lot of legwork for buyers and make them feel like they're getting their money's worth.
"It used to be a very swift market," she said. "You didn't really have to try very hard to make a sale. Now you have to set yourself apart by offering better service."
For example, Gill has an informal agreement with Rob Hetem, an architect with his own Georgetown firm, by which they refer business to one another. Since many home buyers in Washington look for run-down houses to renovate or enlarge, Hetem approached Gill with an idea. He offered to give free consultations to such clients in the hope that both he and Gill would get business out of it.
Hetem also has cultivated a good relationship with his banker, who also deals with customers for home-improvement loans. The two refer business back and forth.
These alliances help improve Hetem's image in the eyes of present and potential clients. "I just want them to feel special about the relationship that I have with them," he said.
Real estate, though the hardest hit, isn't the only industry facing such problems. Others in retail and the service trades are finding that to keep customers coming back -- and making recommendations -- a business owner has to stand out by offering better service.
Melinda Bremmer, president of Bremmer & Goris Communications in Alexandria, said that by following up jobs with a phone call she found she could make a good impression and at the same time get a sense for what services the marketplace wants.
"Usually when we're real busy, we don't think about marketing very much," she said. "... We now constantly market ourselves."
These days, marketing means spending more time making sure customers are happy and making cold calls to potential customers.
Adrienne Zoble, author of "The Do-Able Marketing Plan," a workbook for small companies with exercises that help the business evaluate its market, said in a tighter economy, companies have to focus more on "one-on-one" contacts.
"Most businesses are guilty of doing business and never calling to find out if the job went well," she said. Most companies balk at such a task because they have too many clients to call every one.
But such calls pay off, Zoble said, even if they only reach 5 percent of customers.
Beyond making a good impression, the business owner can glean important information about how the service was used, who else in the company might need it or other services the customer might need.
Christine Sapienza, a Decorating Den franchisee in Burke, said stepping up her marketing efforts has meant emphasizing the extra service her firm offers as much as the actual decorating product.
Like Gill, she said she tries to get more referrals through informal alliances with bankers who deal in home improvement loans. Other decorators in her company have joined local networking groups such as the Network of Entrepreneurial Women and the Virginia Association of Female Executives to meet more potential clients.
They're not the only ones. The Greater Washington Board of Trade and the National Association of Women Business Owners have both seen increased attendance at their regular networking meetings.
Rose Hendrickson, of A Signstore Inc. in Rockville, paid to join a networking club that matches groups of about 40 businesses in different industries, including real estate.
The arrangement promotes business among the group and through recommendations to area newcomers.
Hendrickson said she sends thank-you notes to her big clients, a technique she picked up at a recent marketing seminar.
"You never know if the little guy you didn't say thank-you to will be a big guy next month and you didn't make a good impression on him," she said.