By SHERYL JEAN / The Dallas Morning News

Who says there’s no free lunch?

In today’s economy, companies are offering free lunches, workshops and training to help their small-business customers become more efficient and more competitive. Such outreach efforts also can be seen as soft marketing at a time when customers may not be so receptive to the hard sell.

Last month, Dallas-based OnMessage served pasta with a lesson on how to market to C-level executives. It’s part of a “Lunch + Learn” series launched last fall by the marketing and branding firm.

“It’s somewhat self-serving to show people we know what we’re talking about,” said OnMessage president Jim O’Gara, who spends up to $1,500 per lunch. “Really, our goal was … to start getting conversations going with companies we weren’t doing business with and to provide a forum for existing clients to learn more about best practices.”

Small businesses, which account for more than half of the U.S. private workforce, are struggling and closing in the recession.

“As times get tougher, people are doing more and more things that are customer-friendly,” said Dallas business consultant Greg Bustin.

One reason for that: It costs eight times more to add a customer than to keep an existing one, said David Strutton, a marketing professor at the University of North Texas.

Addison-based HumCap Inc., a human resources staffing and consulting firm, offers individual updates on complex issues such as COBRA health insurance rules for its small customers, said president Tad McIntosh.

Verizon Communications Inc. recently upgraded its online Small Business Center so that customers can network, get discounts and find information. They also can pay for voice and Web conferencing.

Sam’s Club is helping small businesses save money by offering cost comparisons until May 22. Entrepreneurs can sign up at samsclub.com/smallbusiness. So far, more than 14,000 businesses have saved more than $26 million.

Strutton expects some marketing strategies to remain after the economy rebounds.

OnMessage plans to keep its program, which is “already paying off,” O’Gara said.

Since attending OnMessage’s lunch on digital trends last fall, Danny DeAtley, marketing director for Frisco-based pharmaceutical distributor AmerisourceBergen Specialty Group, has included more podcasts and Webcasts.

“That was really valuable,” DeAtley said of the program. “We all want professional development in a free setting.”

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