CHICAGO — Here’s the pitch: “I have the perfect product for you. You’re going to love it. You’re going to use it every day. You’re going to be sitting at work all day wishing you could be at home with this ideal product.“You’re lucky to have me here to offer this fantastically simple device. I don’t make this deal for just anyone, but it must be fate that brought us together. You, the buyer; me, the seller.“OK, OK. Before I go all Zen on you, let me show you this product. It’s the Hula Hoop!”“Um, sir,” the potential buyer says nervously. “I’m sure it’s a wonderful product. And since it wasn’t made in China, I don’t think I have to worry about lead paint being in it. So, it’s got that going for it. But I think I’m going to have to pass.”The seller responds: “I know, I know, you think you can’t afford such a product. But I’ve got this one on sale just for you. It’s only a couple of bucks. You probably have that in your pocket right now, so we’re hardly breaking the bank. It’s barely breaking your pocket — that was a joke I like to tell...but only to my favorite customers! What’s it going to take to get you into this Hula Hoop?”“Sir, I’m in a wheelchair.”A totally farcical conversation? I’ve had this conversation — albeit, not as extreme — with dozens of advertising folk during the past couple of years. They want to sell you marketing materials, ad placements in papers, booklets and stores. Small businesses like coin laundries and drycleaners usually don’t have much of a budget for marketing, but sadly much of that money is spent on strategies that won’t do anyone any good, except for the person who sold you the ad or marketing materials.My favorite sentence to hear from one of these guys is: “This method works for small businesses, big businesses, in all sorts of demographics.”If they say that and you don’t hang up on them immediately, then you deserve to get ripped off. The Hula Hoop is not good for someone in a wheel chair. A plane ticket is a poor gift for someone with vertigo. Top loaders aren’t efficient or profitable, except that ours get 14 turns a day.Everyone’s neighborhood is different, everyone’s store and industry is different. What works at the World’s Largest Laundromat in Berwyn, Ill., might not work at all in a store just five miles from here.FOCUS ON YOUR CUSTOMERThis is all building up to the most basic principle when dealing with your own marketing: know your customer, or someone else will.You have to take the time to examine who is in your store and for how long, what they spend their money on, how far they are coming from to get to your store, and what products they use and buy. This is all extremely fundamental management information.We operate in a densely populated suburb of Chicago. There are apartment buildings, duplexes and single-family homes all around our business district. We know that our customers found us because of the proximity to their homes. Many walk here, but most drive. We know that when we get customers from farther away, it is from word of mouth, mostly. The Hispanic community is very well connected to each other, and they talk about the businesses they patronize.We know all sorts of things about our customers. How? We asked them. And that has to be a first step in your marketing process. Create a survey so you find out all the things that I mentioned above. Ask them what they like about your store and why they come back. Ask them about your employees and prices. Ask them whatever you want.Then drive around your neighborhood. Be sure to know the demographics, and thus some of the traditions and unique aspects of the culture.Know, know, know.But remember, knowing is half the battle. The other half is acting on it.Our customers didn’t find us in the Yellow Pages, they didn’t see us on a billboard or in a TV ad. So, therefore, we don’t advertise in any of those ways. You want to know the definition of the word “stunned,” just tell a Yellow Pages ad rep that being listed does nothing for you. You’d think his/her entire world just came crashing down before their very eyes. But in your neighborhood, your customers may tell you that they saw your ad here or there. Well, then you better take that as a hint and continue to increase your advertising there.A LITTLE EXPERIMENTINGLike I said, our area is run by word of mouth and has a lot of multi-unit residences. So, we decided to go the mailing route. We produced an in-house postcard-sized mailer and shipped it to the outlying areas of what we would consider our customer base.Do people throw out junk mail? Sure they do, but they look at it first. And really, how much detail is necessary for someone to get the message about something as basic as a coin laundry? They glance, they learn, they throw away.But even if they forget, the 15 other people living in their building got the same mailer. And we’ve already identified word of mouth as crucial.So, 12 throw it out without even glancing at it enough to catch your logo. But two others glance and the 15th person reads it front to back. A week later, when neighbors are talking about needing a good place to do their laundry, the word gets passed to all those who threw out the mailer. I call it “carpet booming”: boom your business by covering an entire area with a simple message, then hope the message sticks with a couple of people.These in-house postcards were created with a desktop publishing program. A company printed and mailed them, but we retained all control over the message, form and placement instead of paying a company to create something that you yourself are the most equipped to create.Next, the press release. Does that phrase intimidate you? Are you nervous just seeing it, knowing that people go to school and get degrees in order to write a proper press release and grab media attention?My wife is an absolute ace when it comes to public relations. That’s what her bachelor’s degree is in, and she works for one of the biggest companies on the planet doing just that. The basic press release is fundamental to her work.Now, if you want to get big media outlets to come in a big way, you better have a pro do things for you. She helped us when we reopened after our fire, and in the past year we’ve been on TV and in the newspapers on every continent except Antarctica. My mother-in-law joked over dinner once, “So, the Laundromat has gone citywide, statewide, national and now international! There’s only one world left to conquer: Oprah.”We’ve been very fortunate when it comes to media attention, mostly for our solar panels (which I highly recommend). The attention is great, but did coverage in The New York Times increase our drop-off business for the second quarter? Of course not. Why? First off, people from New York don’t do their laundry here. Second, we know that newspaper is not read by our clientele.So, back to the press release. If you’re changing prices, if you add new machines, if you are raffling something off or if Santa is visiting for the holidays, you don’t need The New York Times. You need to reach your small, understaffed local newspaper. And for that, you don’t need a world-class press release. In most cases, the best way to approach them is to find the name of the news editor and call that person directly. Then, if they ask for something in writing, do just that. Keep it simple.A nice article in a locally read paper may bring your business to the attention of someone who didn’t know it was there, but most likely it is going to showcase a feature of your business that draws someone currently patronizing a competitor.Each of these ideas involves you reaching out of your building. You don’t have to. Look at the space you have, the space for which you already pay for in rent or mortgage. Are you missing an opportunity somewhere to turn your own building into advertising — internally to keep customers and externally to add passers-by?We have a lot of window space along a busy street, so we have a kid who does window painting for us, advertising whatever we want.Where do people always go in your store? They go to coin changers and washers. With little paper signs, couldn’t you be advertising your features and services on top of those washers or on the wall over those changers? This can be as serious as alerting people to a safety issue, or as fun as letting people know that they can watch all Chicago Bear games on your HDTVs.COMMON SENSEAgain, each store, each need is different. But the bottom line is that you need to know your customers in order to find the right marketing tool to keep them and add to their ranks. Ask yourself, “Who are our customers, and where can I find more like them?”This is simple stuff, and don’t convince yourself that a third party can do this better than you. I mean, you did manage to open and operate a business on your own. This shouldn’t be as difficult.What I’ve written about in this column is a big part of our operation. If you want any specific advice in this area, please send me an e-mail and I’ll do what I can to lead you in the right direction. Marketing is not something this industry does well, but it is something we do extremely well here, so trust me when I say it’s easier than you think, because common sense is the biggest element. And common sense is something any small-business owner possesses, otherwise they would be out of business already — and if you’re out of business, what are you doing reading the “Customer Corner” column?Send your comments and customer stories to [email protected].