Small businesses come in all shapes and sizes. So when it comes to promoting a small business, it’s no surprise there are plenty of options. From 10% off discounts, to cash back offers, to free giveaways, the options seem endless.

But when you run a service-based business, finding promotions ideas that don’t cut too deeply into your profits can be hard. Unlike retailers, you don’t have a large stock of inventory to work with, and you probably don’t benefit from the higher margins some retail stores have.

For example, did you know even the “best” remodeling contractors average under a 4% net profit on each job? And no one knows better than you that clients still try to negotiate on the cost of materials or labor. That’s a fine line to walk, one which many construction-related businesses struggle to.

So if you, like many other service-based businesses, just can’t afford to offer steep discounts on your services, how else can you promote your service business to attract customers? There are other options.

Here are some creative promotions ideas that won’t break the bank for service-based small businesses.

1. Start with business listings.

Before you get too in the weeds developing your marketing, start with your online business listings. Online listings sites (even the ones backed by search engines like Google) are probably the most inexpensive way to get found online.

Your business information is alive and well online, whether you put it there or not. Here’s the thing about online listings sites. They share information with each other, and they even crowdsource information from consumers and data aggregators. So business owners have to stay on top of their listings to ensure they’re correct. Otherwise, errors tend to pop up that could be costing you customers.

It’s possible to manage your online listings manually. But if you want to save time and ensure you don’t overlook any errors or mistakes on the top 60+ sites, you can invest in software like Thryv. Thryv loads the same information across the most important sites and locks it down for good. So it won’t change unless you absolutely want it to.

2. Ramp up a referral program.

The best thing about referral programs? They don’t cost you hundreds of dollars in advertising. They rely on good ol’, tried and true, word-of-mouth marketing. And while they cost you the small incentive you offer clients in exchange for referrals, they’re well worth the minimal effort on your part to win new customers.

Unsure what to offer in exchange for referrals?

Popular referral program incentives for service-based businesses:

  • A free month of service (for landscapers, pest control providers, and any businesses whose clients subscribe to your services on a monthly or yearly basis)
  • An on-the-house consultation (for wedding service providers, event planners, business consultants, and anyone who provides one-time, large ticket services)
  • A percentage off (__% off) of their next service (for salons and spas, pet service providers, and anyone who sees clients on a recurring basis)

If you’re unsure how to track referrals, include information about your referral program on your business cards. Give your regular clients a few to share, and make referring you easier than ever.

3. Reward loyalty.

Not much can explain the shame I felt when I was forced to “cheat” on my hair stylist and see someone new. My previous stylist had moved, and the drive became too much to handle.

Why did I feel bad for seeing someone new? It’s because consumers like me want to be loyal. We want to develop relationships with local businesses we frequent, because when we do, it’s easy to trust they’ll do a good job.

Even then, for various reasons, sometimes it’s easier to try a different business or go somewhere else. It’s your job as the business owner to make switching or leaving feel as uncomfortable and unnecessary as possible.

If you notice client churn is happening, meaning customers who were once regulars aren’t coming back, a customer loyalty program can help. Customer loyalty programs help you solidify relationships with your regular customers. They reward customer loyalty with special offers and even freebies.

Some customer loyalty program ideas:

  • Use a punch card (or stamps) to track how often a client comes in for a service. On the 10th service, they get a free upgrade!
  • If your business sees clients on a regular basis like monthly, or weekly, reward clients who stay with you for an entire year with a free service.

Remember, the reward for your customer loyalty program doesn’t have to be a discount on the service you provide. You simply have to find a creative way to throw in something special when it’s time to pony up. Consider adding a small freebie service on top of what clients typically see you for, or give them a sample-sized or trial size product you can throw in on the house.

4. Attend trade shows.

Wedding vendors love their trade shows. Contractors love their trade shows. What about your services business?

Trade shows are an excellent way to generate new leads and drum up new business without using discounts and promotions that hurt your top line.

When you visit trade shows:

  • Bring lots, and lots, and lots of business cards. Seriously, don’t skimp on the business cards.
  • Collect names and email addresses so you can follow up with leads.
  • Don’t forget to follow up as quickly as you can with a welcome email like this one!