Dennis Schaefer, owner of Creative Wood Products, a deck and sunroom company in Fenton, Mich., wants to make sure his customers never forget him. Since he has the name of every customer that his company has done business with, he can contact them for promotions and special events. He also sends them his company's quarterly newsletter, by mail or e-mail.

Newsletters are a popular way to keep a company visible. The newsletter sent out by Jancewicz & Son in Bellows Falls, Vt., goes to about 2,000 past customers and the point, says sales and marketing director John Dunbar, is “not to drum up new business but to keep our name out there and let them know we're here and growing.” The company will generate new business by asking customers on a satisfaction survey whether or not they're planning future home improvements. “So if we just finished a roof, and they're interested in windows at some point, we'll contact them,” Dunbar says.

Personal Touch Years ago, Metropolitan Windows in Pittsburgh used to send out a monthly newsletter to past customers. That became “prohibitive,” owner John Schmotzer says. Today Schmotzer is taking a different tack. At some point in the year, past customers will get a call from someone in the company's office with the purpose of finding out if they still like their windows, to remind them of the company's referral program, and to ask for new business.

He combines that with a direct mail piece, right after Christmas, offering “home improvement products at substantial savings” to past customers during January and February. Aside from fiberglass windows, the company offers entry doors, storm doors, and decorative door surrounds, plus siding, soffit, fascia, gutters, and downspouts.

Well-known sales and marketing expert Rick Grosso points out that home improvement contractors should “automatically” get permission from customers to call, since previous customers make up the most potent possible lead base. But even better, he says, is getting the customer's e-mail address. Getting customers to “opt-in” —that is, obtaining permission for you to e-mail them — sets the stage for building your e-mail newsletter subscriber list. (And don't forget, say experts, to include an unsubscribe option with that, especially since it's now required by law.)

And while newsletters — electronic or paper — are great, Grosso says, “in addition, do monthly or quarterly e-mail promotions. Sponsor contests and trips, so it's not always just about trying to sell them something.”

You' ve Got Mail For Schaefer, marketing efforts directed to past customers produce 65% of his leads and 70% of his sales. His past customer reach goes well beyond mailing or e-mailing the newsletter. Three times a year past customers are invited to special events at the company's store, a deck and deck accessories showroom. There's a Mardi Gras party in February to introduce new backyard products, a “Clean and Seal” seminar in April, and a Deck the Halls event, in December. The “Clean and Seal” seminar, where the company demonstrates power washing and offers advice about deck stains, consistently draws between 200 and 400 people and produces lots of leads, many of which become sales. Schaefer says he's found that the best turnouts result when his company e-mails its 2,800-person e-mail list the day before the event.

Everyone who's ever done business with the company may not show up, but the point of his efforts, Schaefer says, “is to keep Creative Wood on the tip of their tongues as a company they used, trusted, and enjoyed working with.”

Grosso says that there is “no comparison” between lead costs generated by investment in media, or shows and events versus those that develop out of past customer contact, whether it be referral, repeat, or self-generated by a salesperson. “The best lead is non-competitive,” Grosso says. “Because you already have the trust.”