Marketing your business in an economic downturn can be a challenge. It is hard to get individual entrepreneurs like powerwash contractors to openly talk about their sales, but it isn't rocket science to come to the conclusion that business is likely slower than last year. Many different large service businesses are reporting sales drops of 10% to 20%, and several manufacturers are reporting sales off 30% from last year. So what does this all mean to you?

If you are ahead in sales over last year, just ignore this article. If you, like most, are fighting to stay even or are down from last year, by all means read on.

There are a few uPSIdes to a down economy. First of all, you can hire better people for less money. Another benefit to a slow economy is that weak competitors and low-ballers tend to disappear quickly. I have spoken to powerwash Contractors who have successfully charged their customers MORE this year than in the past for this exact reason.

One thing for sure - you can't stop marketing your company. You might have to find some less expensive ways to market, but you still have to try to keep growing. Don't be afraid to start your new company now, either. Successful companies started during the beginning of the Depression, including Allstate Insurance and Curtiss-Wright. TicketMaster was launched in 1980, during the worst economy since the Depression.

The reality of slow times is that your customers don't call you like they used to. If they can put off spending for a couple of months that is what they likely will do. Your job is to get them to realize how important their cleaning needs really are, and to give them an excuse to do what you want - call you.

There are free ways to market your services - most notably Craigslist. The internet is full of free advice on growing a service business during tough times.

There are low-cost things you can do (such as volunteering time for charity events wearing your company shirt). That was the idea behind the Clean Across America campaigns of a few years ago.

Pass out flyers (expect a .5% - 1% return). That means you will get one call for every 100 flyers you pass out.

Look for local advertising that fits your tight budget (like ads on the menus in coffee shops). Offer a guarantee on your work. Publish an email newsletter for your customers featuring maintenance tips and stories. Advertise in subdivision newsletters for residential customers. There are lots of low-cost ways to get the word out.

Don't forget the Service Directory in your area newspaper!

Always market to your existing customers. They already know you and your excellent work. Communicate regularly with them, and they will reward you with more work. I mailed postcards to my customers two times each year during my slow months, and always got work - when I needed it most!

Look at what other successful guys are doing. How are the carpet cleaners and the lawn guys marketing in your area? If they are doing something that works, copy it shamelessly.

Sun Brite Supply of Maryland is essentially a retailer, so we looked at what other retailers were doing. Just like the furniture companies, we are currently offering equipment with no payments until next year. Same idea, different products. This works for us!

The word "FREE" really gets a customer's attention! If you are a residential powerwash contractor, for example, you might consider giving free driveway cleaning with every deck job. The cost of cleaning that driveway is minimal except for your time.

Years ago we gave away rubber garage parking curbs with every package of at least two services (i.e. deck and house wash). The parking curbs were made from recycled tires. They went over really well and only set us back about $20 each. The customer had nothing to compare them to, so we called them "a $50 value".

Consider combining your marketing with other businesses, such as a gas station or a dry cleaner. If someone gets $25 in free gas when they hire you for a $500 job, they know they are getting something of value. Hint: You can often negotiate with the gas station to buy that coupon for less than the face value in exchange for promoting them. Even in commercial work, a perk for the decision-maker may help you land a job.

Talk to other contractors. If they offer different services in your same city, they may share what they are doing to market themselves. You can also talk to contractors in your same field but in other cities, as they will often share their successful tactics.

Do you have no-cost or low-cost marketing ideas to share? Send them to us and we will publish them in our next newsletter.