One of the hardest things is to get your initial customers. The general advice is "Create a customer persona, choose a channel to target them, etc." However, I have only a small budget which is insufficient to attract enough people through Facebook Ads, Google AdWords, etc."
This is why I read blog posts on the topic of attracting customers without money and most of them say that one should do Content Marketing, Guest Blogging, Guest Speaking or start a Referral Program. These ideas are good but not applicable in my case as the business is going to be in the home cleaning industry. Obviously, not the best topic for Content Marketing. I am not famous enough to do Guest Speaking. Finally, a Referral Program without existing customers and traction doesn't sound reasonable.
What approaches would you use to attract customers if you don't have money for Paid Advertising and can't do Content Marketing?
You are in a tough position. The first fault was not budgeting for paid advertising. But since you're already in a bind, let's dig in.
What does it cost you in overhead to not have clients? Is this figure higher or lower than the cost of soliciting customers? Whom do you have that can knock on doors? What makes your business different? Are there any community boards around in various restaurants, shops, and other places where you can post a free advertisement. Can you produce some yard signs that you put out and take up each weekend when the city allows for street advertising? What are other cleaners doing that you're not doing?
Can you write a couple good articles about 1) how to select the right cleaner, 2) how to budget for cleaning, 3) how to break up large cleaning tasks into smaller affordable chunks, 4) what clients should know about cleaners to make the job go more quickly, avoid breakage, and to communicate expectations. These may be obvious to you, but have you seen any cleaning web sites that do any of these things? This makes you stand out.
As far as your doubts about referral business, it only takes one client to get started. What did you have as your plan to get your first client? Can it be repeated to get many? How easy are you making it for an existing client to refer business to you? It doesn't have to be about discounts and incentives. Ask for the business, don't just assume they'll do it out of the goodness of their heart. If they don't know you want them to make referrals, they won't. You have the option of providing them collateral they can hand to a friend, or simply asking them to give you the names/numbers of a friend or two whom they think would like your service. You could even call them together right there. How high-touch is your first service? Should it be higher? Are you getting the next appointment while you are there or are you waiting for them to reach out later? Have you read any books on door-to-door sales?
Unfortunately it sounds like you didn't start with a plan. It's a problem for many businesses. The idea sounds good, but taking the time to research what it's going to cost to drum up business and planning for how you're going to cover those costs, tells you whether you should start your business and if you can plan to succeed. Many times the answer is no, don't do it because it won't work. That's okay. You have infinite time to plan before you sink good money into something that won't go anywhere, just do the planning.
Once you're running, are you working in your business or on your business? You need to work on your business and not in it. There is always someone who can work in your business cheaper than your time. And only you can work ON your business. It's a bad habit many people have to put their time working in the business because it seems cheap or free, but actually the owner's time is the MOST valuable and needs to work ON the business and let others work in it. And when you're working for yourself, you can expect to often spend 50% of your time trying to sell instead of actually doing work. It's a tough nut to crack.
Are you determined to limit yourself to residential cleaning? It has way more hassles (dealing with personalities), is less reliable business, is for smaller dollars, and requires a much larger sales effort than commercial cleaning (office buildings). If you sell to one business cleaning client, it can be worth as much as selling to 50 residential clients, and you only had to knock on one door.
Guest speaking isn't about fame. Guest speaking is about VALUE. What do you have to say that people will find valuable. Can you teach a bunch of office managers/owners how to negotiate cleaning contracts to avoid mistakes and frustrations? Your local chamber of commerce would probably find it an interesting topic for their next monthly meeting of business owners.
You write succinctly and clearly. I think you're selling yourself short on what you're capable of doing. Obviously paid advertising is going to be necessary at some point. Until then, think about your strategy in terms of how well the time you spend door-to-door is being used, and how you can secure cleaning gigs that have longevity over those that are just trying you out.
Get some referral customers. Offer to do some free work in exchange for recommendations and introductions. Use word of mouth. Demonstrate that you do a great job. Identify what sets you apart from your competition. Get business cards, and leave them everywhere. They are cheap, and can be printed the same day at Staples. Give every customer a few cards a refer a friend discount. Get someone on the phones to engage appointments for you. You are looking to build a solid base. Also look at local referral sites like Thumbtack and Craigslist.
I forgot to mention look for local facebook groups that are marketing products and services.
What i do in this case is every person i meet is a prospective customer so my attitude towards you definitely will draw you to me. Be nice, every opportunity you get advertise your service or product. I might not be able to keep a close relationship but i will keep a good customer relationship to pull customers and their own entourage
There are several dozen methodology responses in your thread, all that focus on the HOW. How are you going to get people to notice your business, through what channel, what drives sales, etc etc.
But I would also point you to focusing on the WHY. Why does someone sign up for your service? What are they paying for? What is your messaging going to be like and when during the transaction life cycle will that message be the strongest?
I ask this, because I could very well be one of your clients as I love what I get from my (maid, cleaning lady, domestic custodian).
Mein Haus is sehr sauber. Sie hat einen Schlüssel zum Haus und reinigt, während ich nicht zu Hause bin!
( she cleans while I'm away. )
I come home to a clean home, gleaming with perfection and I'm no longer a slave to my domestic drudgery. Its the best $135 dollars I spend all week.
She takes care of the cat, handles the dry cleaning, does the laundry, organizes the mess on the bathroom counter. Its beyond belief this service that she provides me.
You are not selling home cleaning services.
You are selling freedom.
Try reading a book called 'The 4 hour work week'. He describes the providence that I use to characterize the benefit of your services.
Whatever method you choose, I would also keep your pitch in your back pocket and ready to go. Be able to show someone the other side of the rainbow. Then cultivate people who can carry that message with the same enthusiasm that you do.
There are a few leaps involved in the close of this sale. Not everyone who wants or think they need a maid is going to click on ad or respond to the video pre-roll. Your customers need to be singing the same song that I am right now, advocating your services and bragging about how their lives are so much better now that they have your service.
my house is very clean Edit
Mein Haus ist sehr sauber
Lowest cost and best new closes is the quintessential question for startup entrepreneurs. This is way over simplified and very low cost, which might be what you are looking for.
If B2C, then get friends and family to buy at or near your target price.
If B2B, then targeted contact database and great offer with compelling value in outbound email (with tracking capability is better).
Do a great job for first customers and you can start your referal integrated marketing and sales campaign. The earlier you get marketing and sales team and process working well, the faster you can grow.
Wish you much success,
Though there are already a lot of good advices on this thread, I just want to point out few things that might be uncovered and valuable for you.
The problem is you have LESS BUDGET but you need MORE IMPACT. By impact, it means to raise brand awareness to your targeted audience with minimum cost.
Since you're in the home cleaning industry, I thought these few tips might help you out:
That's it. As long as I can check again, those tips above require zero to minimum cost to execute. I hope you get an insight and wish you a very good luck on your business!
I am a part of a small niche product called https://www.ptemocktest.com , the product is growing strong now, and making the necessary transactions. Do you know how much i paid for the advertising or content writing. ZERO. See i totally understand what you have in mind, about your product and how to convert into into a real sales business. Now you also need to understand that you need to start somewhere, and who knows your customer can be next door, while you are just away from him because you are not able to approach him/her. So you need to make a start from somewhere or through multiple aspects, if its fails, no worries, at least you learnt something.
Now regarding attracting your customers, see customers are attracted directly to a product in two scenarios
If its a product that they have been looking for a long time or else you are offering it for a real reasonable price or nearly free.
With ptemocktest.com, we had a great product and once initial customers came it moved like fire among people.
Now i gather your product is related to home cleaning industry so here is how you can attract the customers:
 Go to their doors [door to door], local meetings, local gatherings, offer your services ask them to try, make it attractive with offers and if your product is in the sweet spot, you will have soon multiple customers to deal with.
 This might sound repetitive but you need to try this, engage in content management. Think of the reasons why you started out with this product, the reasons that will make the people buy your products/services, sum it up, write about it and share it on social handles. Who knows knows your next probable customer might be googling about the similar services.
Now i might be totally wrong, but this is my perspective about getting your initial customers.
If you plan on using social media as one of your marketing funnel, try to use some common hashtags that are related to your business. There are many people looking for products or services using hashtags on social media.
I also agree with George Lambert's opinion about getting referral customers. It would be better if the customer is a public figure who can influence the crowds.
Offer membership discounts and some lucky draw prize between let's say first 200 members