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When kids run lemonade stands, they talk to all of their customers. There is no staff, there is no back of the house to hide in, there’s simply one-on-one interaction.

Fifty years ago, you knew who your loyal customers were, because you were likely at the front of the house, greeting customers and simply asking them about their experience. However, competition was much less fierce at the time and your focus on marketing probably wouldn’t have been as huge as it is today.

These days, the most important marketing effort you’ll ever make is to get to know your customers. People no longer expect a personal conversation with the chef at their favorite restaurant; they often befriend the waiters much more frequently. Or when they shop in your store, is it you who they check out with, or one of your staff?

Time may be tight, but there are still ways to talk directly to your customers and create the same sense of community that business owners in the fifties so much about, but that we’ve almost forgotten.

1. Go out and find new customers

Alayne White, from Alayne White Spa has no trouble talking directly to potential new customers and is the perfect lemonade stand entrepreneur. In fact, she gives away gift certificates wherever she goes, whether it’s to her waitress at a restaurant, or to her salesperson at the Lexus dealership.

“It really isn’t that complicated,” says Alayne, “People buy from people they like, and every interaction you have during the day is an excuse and an opportunity to bring up your place of business. This is not only good business, it’s great business. It’s direct-hit marketing with your voice, representing your brand in a personal interaction.”

2. Introduce yourself to nearby businesses

This is a great tactic explained personally by Chris Lamb from Crimson Cup in Ohio:

“Greg [Ubert, Founder] visited each and every business, large and small, in a targeted area. The targeted area was much bigger than the few blocks around our store, but it was still within a few miles of the coffeehouse. When Greg would visit he would introduce himself to the owner or manager of the business and offer free drink cards for all the employees.

The camaraderie and support he received was energizing and led to some important community partnerships. The time Greg spent networking was extremely valuable and it helped raised the level of awareness for our store in the local community. The coupons were very effective in bringing in new customers and it was a great way for us to track the return on time and money invested in the project.  This coffee shop marketing idea has been a huge success and something we encourage other coffee shops to consider trying.”

3. Build a social media presence

Twitter and Facebook aren’t simple extensions of your website, they were built to facilitate conversation. Chefs like Matt Jennings (@matthewjennings) of La Laiterie & Farmstead and Derek Wagner (@nicksonbroadway) of Nicks on Broadway are beasts on the social media machine. They keep it business casual, never failing to mention a great dinner with friends, but always remembering to post photos/tweets about incoming meats and produce and whatever is new on the menu.

Both Matt and Derek respond to customers every once in a while and have no problem asking questions to their loyal customers when necessary. Considering a new menu item? Why not ask the people who will be coming in to eat it?

4. Try blogging

The biggest advantage you have over the big franchises and faceless chains is the ability to inject whatever personality you want.

Jesse Burke from Posie’s Cafe in Portland, OR learned this quickly when she blogged about Groupon in Retrospect and earned herself a solid spot on TechCrunch. Jesse also wrote a heartfelt blog about her mom on Mothers Day, and another about the emotional rollercoaster of owning a business (and taking criticism along with it).

Comments on her blog always support and offer personal doses of genuine gratitude for Jesse and her coffee shop. Readers and customers truly appreciate her brave transparency. Just like running a lemonade stand, you have a personality, so use it!

5. Share customers with your colleagues

It’s a crucial step in your marketing plan to make friends that can help you and can introduce you to new customers as well. If you were running a lemonade stand, you’d be telling all of your lemon dealers to come in and sample what you’ve created with their product. Find as many ways as you can to build mutually beneficial business relationships.

A great example of this method is from Sally Bowers, an “Integrated Energy Therapist” at Blue Butterfly of Hope. She rents a room at a beauty and health center along with hairstylists, massage therapists, nail designers and the like. In an effort to promote her services, she offered a free energy session to everyone who worked at the center. In return, she’s gained a 50% increase in new customer referrals from these folks alone. On top of that, the colleagues that she worked on have told other people in their professional circles, who have not only become clients, but sent even more clients her way.

Another example is from Shannon Grant, a photographer who partnered with a wedding planner, makeup artist, model, florist, cake shop and other boutique wedding shops to create a full-on “inspiration shoot”. The photos from this shoot ended up being featured on a few well-recognized wedding blogs, providing free promotion for all of the businesses involved.

Both of these methods brought in more Twitter followers and Facebook fans and have opened the gates to creating lasting relationships with new customers who appreciate their work.

So how are you running your business? Is it more like a lemonade stand, or more like a protected corporation?

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As part of Upserve’s family of more than 10,000 restaurants, The Chef is Restaurant Insider’s secret weapon in the kitchen. As a restaurant expert in all things marketing, menu building, management, training and more, restaurateurs trust The Chef and the award-winning Restaurant Insider to dish out the ingredients needed to make your business a sweet success.
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