Although the downturn in the economy seemed to affect larger manufacturers first, there's no question that even small custom shops are feeling it now. Just the other day I heard a very successful and savvy shop owner in New Jersey tell me his list of projects in the pipeline has shrunk and increasingly he's encountering sometimes outrageous pricing pressure.

"I had one job where a competitive bid came in 45 percent below ours," he said.

When shops start that kind of undercutting to secure work, they are undercutting the whole industry. The New Jersey shop owner knows his numbers and knows he can't match that low-ball price and make money, so he walks away. Or does he?

No business as usual

Working in a down economy means you can't do business as usual. If you are one of those shop owners who always bragged about all of your business being "word of mouth," now you are likely to find a lot of those mouths have gone silent. And where's your marketing program to take up the slack? What's that you say? You don't have one?!

Lots of shop owners say they are too busy in the shop to devote much time to sales and marketing, and they don't want to spend the money and training time to hire someone to do it for them. Well, if business is slow, now's the time. So, how do you get started?

That old word-of-mouth marketing you had before requires people talking to each other. Now is the time for you to start your own dialog. Revisit and contact all of those old clients you haven't heard from in a while. Maybe they've got new work or maybe they just need to be reminded you are still in business. Now is the time to try to make contact with new prospects. Introduce yourself, share your skills and capabilities, and ask boldly for the chance to bid on new work.

Need to network

Now also is the time to network. You need to know every possible job or opportunity in your area of operations. That takes talking to vendors, contractors, other shop owners and other trades. Have you checked the business permit filings in your area to see who's building or remodeling what? If the permit is already issued it may be too late to get that particular job, but it may be a great source of leads to see who is active. Getting involved in your local chamber of commerce, service clubs and trade associations all are good ways of networking.

Break down the barriers between you and other local shops. Maybe you can tackle a project together that would have been beyond either of your capabilities alone.

This kind of guerilla marketing won't necessarily get you jobs immediately, but it will go a long way in priming the pump to get work flowing again. People do business with people they like and who are top of mind. If you are friendly and in their face, your chances are lots better.

This issue's cover story is a case in point where strong marketing has delivered sales gains all out of proportion to the state of the economy. Also, make sure to check out Gero Sassenberg's column talking about how to take advantage of a slowdown to make changes for efficiency in your manufacturing.

While everyone else is slowing down, you have the opportunity to pass them by and be at the head of the pack when things pick up.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.