What’s the single biggest factor in your business success? Sure, you have to have the right skills and resources. Great employees go a long way. Having the right products and services is crucial. But the number one factor is customers. If you don’t have people who are willing to buy what you offer, you don’t have a business. The more people who are willing to buy, the more your business can grow.

That’s why attracting and retaining customers is critical. It’s also why it’s beneficial to develop a lead generation strategy that provides access to prospective customers. Sure, you can focus solely on people who just happen to fall into your lap. But if you want to enjoy consistent success in any economic climate, you need to develop and follow a strategy to find and target those leads.

Capture every opportunity

If your business is going to be intentional about pursuing leads, consider lead generation as part of every activity — and that includes answering the phone. Every time you or your employees handle a phone call from a prospective customer, that customer becomes a lead, but only if you have a process in place to capture his or her information. Train employees to gather that information as part of handling every call.

The same is true when you meet people socially or at business functions such as Chamber of Commerce meetings. Make it a habit to request the other person’s business card or contact information, and add that information to your lead generation program.

Handling phone calls and meeting people are normal activities for businesses, but they’re just one way to gather leads. In this article, we’ll explore a wide variety of strategies for generating more leads, and then talk about making the best use of the leads you generate.

Referrals

Satisfied customers are one of the best sources for new leads. When they’re happy with your service, they’re often willing to recommend you to friends or colleagues, but may not do it without prompting. That’s why it makes good sense to contact them a week or two after a sale or other interaction, thank them for their business, and ask if they know anyone who might benefit from your services. You can even include several business cards or personalized items and encourage the customers to pass them along. Even if they choose not to provide names, your letter is a reminder of how much you value their business.

If their referrals produce additional business, be sure to thank them. Some businesses will send a thank-you item such as a gift card to a local restaurant to customers whose referrals generate business. (If the restaurant is a customer of yours, that’s a mutually beneficial approach.)

Partners

Sharing leads with other businesses that don’t compete directly with you is another mutually beneficial approach. For example, an insurance agent and a mortgage broker don’t compete directly, but everyone who has a mortgage needs homeowners insurance. When customers trust you, they’ll trust your recommendations.

You can even create similar relationships with competitors whose products or target markets are different from yours. When you get a call from someone who isn’t quite right for your business, but ideal for your competitor, you can pass it along — with the understanding that she’ll do the same.

Networking

Some business owners are intimidated by the concept of networking, but it’s a remarkably simple and practical way to grow your business. The term reflects the fact that each of us knows a large number of people, who we can consider to be our network. When we connect with other people, we also gain access to their networks.

Each time you meet someone, look for ways to get to know their networks. Ask about business events they attend or groups in which they participate. Do the same for them. Groups such as the local Chamber of Commerce are excellent places for networking. The members who show up at events and make a point of meeting and talking with people they don’t know are the ones who generate leads.

You can even network online. LinkedIn, the business- and career-oriented social media platform, is expressly designed for online networking. Each connection you make online gives you opportunities to connect with that person’s connections. You can even ask your connections to introduce you to people.

Exposure

The more well-known you become, the more opportunities you gain to generate leads. Positioning yourself as an expert in a particular area can create opportunities to speak at Chamber meetings and other functions. Audiences will see you as particularly knowledgeable and be more likely to turn to you for what you offer. Always be sure to collect business cards or to ask for a list of attendees.

You can also gain exposure by publishing articles and blog posts that demonstrate your expertise in specific areas. Local business publications and newspapers are often in need of educational (non-promotional) content on a variety of topics. Published articles increase your visibility and establish you as an expert in your field. Focus on solving common problems or overturning common misconceptions, and you’ll be seen as helpful and approachable.

Marketing

Your marketing activities can do more than promote your business. You can create them in ways that will draw new leads. From email marketing campaigns, to advertising, to publicity, your efforts can be used to catch the attention of potential clients.

For example, you can purchase a mailing list of people in your area who meet certain demographic characteristics that make them likely customers (such as homeowners with a particular household income level), and then send an introductory letter with a response device such as a postcard. You can also offer some kind of promotional reward. An insurance agent might offer a gift card for gasoline if they let the agent provide a quote for their automotive coverage, or a gift card for a local home improvement store in return for a homeowners’ insurance quote.

Participating in events such as business fairs and community fundraisers also presents an opportunity to acquire leads. One of the most common tactics is to offer a prize drawing. People provide their business cards or fill out a slip of paper with their contact information. After choosing the prize winner, you contact all the entrants to have conversations about your services.

Once you have leads

Acquiring leads is only one part of the process. What you do with those leads is every bit as important. First, you need to manage them properly. They should be entered into your contact database or other system, incorporating as much information as possible to support your sales efforts (three months from now, you might not remember some important point a prospective customer shared, but your database can remember it for you).

Be sure to follow up promptly. Far too many businesses fail to follow up at all, and those who do often wait so long that the prospect doesn’t remember the initial conversation. In addition, don’t be afraid to follow up more than once. It often takes several attempts to make a sale. End your follow-up calls by asking the prospect for permission to call back in a couple weeks or a month — and then do it.

Leads are like food: great when they’re fresh, but far less appealing after a long time. Part of your lead generation program should include discarding old leads. If a year of multiple contacts has not produced business, and you’re not sensing any enthusiasm from the prospect, it’s probably time to remove his or her name from your system.