A pipeline's not very useful unless it's constantly got product flowing through it, and the raw material of the customer pipeline is the sales lead. In today's environment, small and mid-sized businesses benefit from the existence of a wide array of lead generation and sales tools, many of them fueled by new technology. As has long been the case, however, referrals-internal and external-still play a primary role in the customer pipeline at most businesses.

"The use of internal versus external lead generation is based upon the type of business you run and your strengths at either attracting new clients or building relationships with them," says Michael R. Drew, president of PendulumInAction.com, a marketing and trend forecasting system. "My experience is that most companies, based upon their company culture, are only great at one of the two lead generation tools."

Upwelling and cross-selling are two other traditional tools that remain highly relevant and effective when used correctly, even amid the plethora of high-tech tools flooding the marketplace. While many transaction-based businesses use upwelling and cross-selling as a matrix to determine the success of their sales and marketing campaigns, their true value is dependent on the level of intimacy a business establishes and sustains with its customers, Drew maintains. "What most fail to understand is that improper use of upwelling will compromise the intimacy or relationship built with many customers who would be likely to buy other products or services in the future," he says. "Relationships take time to build and must be nurtured and fostered. "

New media present an enormous array of tools, many of which are free to SMBs, but the effectiveness of these tools varies dramatically by tool and by market, says Tim Judd, president and CEO of local Listing, a provider of search-driven lead generation solutions for local businesses. "What works for an attorney may not work for a cupcake shop," he says. And as Vend Gupta, founder of InfoFree.com, a subscriber-based lead and lost generation website, points out, "SMBs can now have access to tools that were once only available to large companies with hefty financial resources."

Judd argues the single most important tool in today's web-driven marketplace may be search engine visibility. "Part of the problem is that there is so much potential with search engine visibility that it can be hard for an SMB to know what to focus on," he acknowledges. Among the issues companies have to juggle are information accuracy in multiple directories, content and authority, search engine optimization, user-generated reviews, and social media. Gupta points to automated lead scoring as a technology that is now within reach of virtually all SMBs. "It involves recognizing and analyzing all that you know about your leads and prospects, then determining how likely they are to be interested in and purchase your products," he says.

In fact, the availability of affordable lead generation and sales tools has become something of an embarrassment of riches for SMBs, demanding that they make careful choices between quality and quantity. "There are only so many hours in a day, so the most important consideration is quality," Gupta says. "Quality and quantity are not necessarily always at cross-purposes, but it is difficult to achieve both high quality and quantity. You should constantly test and analyze your leads to determine what works best for you."

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