Newsletters are great retention tools if designed and written well. With today's software it's easier than ever to create a well designed
newsletter.

Walk into any office supply or computer store you will find a number of low cost, easy to use computer programs that are specifically designed to produce newsletters. How low cost? If you don't mind stepping back a generation or so, some of the newsletter programs can be purchased for as little as $10.

Besides the dedicated newsletter programs, there are a number of general purpose packages that come with pre-designed templates. One of my favorites is Microsoft Publisher.

Don't Strive For Perfection Right Away
The newsletter templates can get you started. That's the objective for now. Just start! After you've produced your first newsletter and your confidence is raised, you might want to consider enhancing your newsletter, modifying the template design.

You'll Know Good Design When You See It
What constitutes a good newsletter design? Frankly, the best design for you is the one you like the most. That may be one of the templates, a slight modification to one of the templates, or a custom design.

To discover what you like, collect newsletters you receive in the mail. Most businesses subscribe to one or two newsletters. From time to time, almost all businesses receive sample copies from newsletter publishers. You probably receive newsletter at home as well. Look for designs that catch your eye. Look for designs that target the same type of audience you're targeting. When you find one that you like, try to determine what it is in particular that appeals to you. Incorporate it into your own design.

For Business Customers
I would prepare one type of newsletter if my customers were businesses and another type if they were consumers. Two business newsletters I especially like are the Arthur Andersen Retailing Issues Letter published by Texas A&M's Center for Retailing Studies (www.crstamu.org) and the PHC Profit Report published by Jim Olstensky. They target different audiences, follow different formats, and have different appearances. I think it's their commonalties that appeal to me. Both designs are clean. Neither is complicated. I'm not the only one that likes this approach. The PHC Profit Report has won a boatload of awards. For business customers simple, clean newsletters are often the best.

For Consumer Customers
For consumers, I prefer a more informal approach with a heavier use of graphics. Don't overdo it, though. Too many graphics can be the kiss of death, lending a disordered, schizophrenic appearance. The best way to identify superior consumer newsletters is by browsing newsletter design books at your local library or bookstore.

Whether you choose a simple design for a business newsletter or a more informal one for consumers, the odds are that a template in one of the computer programs will be close. At least, it will be close enough that you can attain the same look with a few simple modifications. More on newsletter design later.

Some of you may be tiring of the newsletter tips and wish I'd get over it and back to information you can use. Don't worry, the newsletter tips will run out in a few days and I'll sit down and crank out some new messages. I am going to stick to the customer retention theme for a while longer. There's a reason.

As you have probably read, it costs much more to get a new customer than to keep an existing one. Before you start putting a strong customer acquisition program in place, you should first develop a strong customer retention program.

But if you want a tip for customer acquisition, here's one: Ask for referrals.

Customers don't always think about referrals. Believe it or not, they don't know that you want them! So ask. Funny thing, you get a lot more referrals when you ask for them.

Don't ask just once.

Keep asking. Sometimes your customers are too busy to bother with it. Sometimes they can't think of anyone right away. The next time you do ask, they might think of someone and they might have the time.

Tell them what you want
Your customers don't always know what type of customer you're looking for. You've got to describe them. They don't always associate the people they know as possible referral candidates. You've got to help them make the associations.

Explain how to make the referral. Some customers will simply provide you with names and leave it to you to contact them. Others will want to contact the prospects themselves so that their friends can avoid pushy salespeople (like you) or because they legitimately want to discover whether there's a need and interest, saving you and the prospect time. If that's the case, you better tell them something about your company.

Matt Michel is president of the Service Roundtable (www.ServiceRoundtable.com), an organization dedicated to helping contractors prosper. Matt is also the publisher of Comanche Marketing, a free marketing e-zine. Subscriptions are available at www.ComancheMarketing.com. You can contact him directly at matt.michel@serviceroundtable.com. Or send your comments to Contracting Business at letters@contractingbusiness.com.