How to keep clients in this tough climate

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Bad economic news tends to feed on itself. That's why many clients apparently are huddling in the corner these days, waiting until things are better to make key business moves. In fact, both agencies and clients seem to be laying off personnel, cutting or freezing budgets and, in general, hunkering down. In times like these, there are certain marketing efforts that should absolutely not be tabled.

* Talk to your clients

Even if marketing budgets are an issue, at a minimum, maintain a dialogue with your current customers. This is especially important if customers are seeing negative press about your brand, your company's financial health, or any other possibly perceived negative coverage. You cannot afford not to talk to your customers. Especially your best customers. Reassure and inform them. If you withdraw, you will only add credence to the negative publicity.

To this point, our client RCN has had a problem with customer service. We sent out a little booklet of proverbs, asking customers to bear with us and noting that technology improvements require time. The mailing was a big hit: RCN received requests for additional copies of the book and unsolicited mail from their customers.

It's often the smallest things that have the bigger impact. We've sat in many focus groups where customers have asked for recognition vs. rewards. A simple thank you for being loyal or receiving a perceived service enhancement, such as a special checkout line, often means more than a gift. Clients can also benefit if you do something viral. Do the unexpected for your customers and they will go and tell two friends. The 1 cent stamps Amazon is giving away generated tremendous buzz and goodwill from its customers.

* Ask your customers to talk to prospects for you

We recently advised a financial services company, based upon the current economic situation, that the best place for it to put its marketing dollars was in a customer-get-a-customer program. Granted it was making very small returns-but it was beating the S&P 500 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. And in a climate of uncertainty and fear, a message from a customer to a friend or acquaintance goes a lot further than prospecting through awareness advertising.

Once, we included a special review as part of a video mailing and asked prospects to give us the names of other potential prospects. But did we give the generous name-givers anything? Nope. And we still got a 25% response.

Utilize your database to get an understanding of who your best customers are, then galvanize your relationship with them. The 80/20 rule holds true against every business. But very few companies are communicating with their best customers in relevant ways. My husband spends about $300 a month on his cellular phone, yet he had to call his wireless carrier to take advantage of a special promotion they were running. When he asked the customer service rep if he was ever going to be told about it, the rep replied, "No, you have to ask." Regardless of the economy, no one can afford this kind of non-service service.

* Talk accountability

Particularly in tough times, depending on your product or service, consider direct response advertising. It's accountable. Direct has the methodology to measure effectiveness. What's more, you can test its effectiveness. Uncover what works and what doesn't, then shift your marketing dollars accordingly.

Just because it's direct response, doesn't mean that the advertising isn't carrying your brand message. In fact, as any good direct marketing agency knows, it's vital to build the brand as you build sales. We showed Saab how to trade merchandising credits for additional magazine ad space. The space was then converted into lead generation units, increasing leads without costing the client additional dollars.

* Last, but certainly not least, talk to your own employees

With employee layoffs making headlines daily, have in place an internal communications program to keep your employees' morale up. Even if your own company is stable, if your competitors aren't, it will have a negative impact on your staff. They have direct client contact and such anxieties will be quickly passed along. Keep your employees in the loop. Make them feel a part of any changes, even if they are not themselves directly affected.

Web cast through the company Intranet speeches from key executives.

Internal incentive programs can also motivate employees to help the company succeed in difficult times. Enlist their ideas for marketing initiatives.

Many years ago, during the S&L crisis (coupled with all the bank mergers), we lost a lot of business. Rather than let people go, we put everyone on a four-day workweek and reduced salaries to four days. But first, we ran the idea by some of our key employees. They liked it and morale remained high. A majority worked five days anyway to help us rebuild our business. After only a few months, the five-day workweek was reinstated.

Bottom line: Despite today's volatility, advertising is still the grease in marketing's wheels. Keeping in close touch with your customers is the best strategy for reinvigorating their budgets when the good times roll again.

Ms. Pavlika is president-executive creative director, Pavlika & Chinnici Direct, New York, the direct marketing arm of Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners.

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