"More sales!" The number one request I get from readers is for information about increasing sales. But before you can make a sale, you need someone to sell to. How are you going to find potential customers?

Sure, if a prospective customer walks in your door or calls, it's relatively easy to make a sale. It's much harder to find those who haven't called but have the potential to become customers -- in other words, sales leads.

Lead generation is a necessary skill for every entrepreneur. I've been in business nearly 17 years, and though I don't describe myself as a "salesperson," I always need to generate new sources of business.

So where can you find good leads for your company?

Newspapers: One of the very best sources of information about your community, and thus potential customers, is your local newspaper. A real estate agent in Miami I know relies on the obituaries for leads: he solicits surviving family members of people who've died (without spouses) to see if they want to sell the deceased's home. Yes, I know it sounds ghoulish, but it works! You don't have to be so morbid; try checking other parts of the paper such as:

  • stories about new or expanding businesses
  • business pages for announcements of employee promotions
  • business sections for listings of companies, such as largest employers
  • new business advertisements or announcements
  • wedding announcements
  • help wanted ads
  • general advertisements and classified listings

Entrepreneurs' groups: My first years in business, my best source of new clients came from joining local business organizations. There are numerous kinds of local entrepreneur groups: Chambers of commerce, women's or ethnic group's business organizations, leads clubs, and more. Typically, these groups set aside time at every meeting for members to network, or even allow time to give direct sales pitches.

Most entrepreneurs' organizations print (or put online) members' directories, and you are allowed to use that list for leads. Some groups hold "table top" mini-trade shows. My rule about entrepreneurs' groups: join more than one and attend regularly!

Trade associations: These groups are similar to entrepreneurs' organizations, but they are formed around one particular industry. You'll find branches of many national trade associations in most larger cities. Don't look at others in your industry only as your competition -- they're a good source of information and advice, and often sources of referrals. Consider, also, joining associations in industries that you serve or sell to.

Trade shows: Regular readers of my column know I'm a big believer in going to trade shows -- both as an attendee and as an exhibitor. Trade shows reach a large number of targeted prospects in a short period of time, and attendees are looking for suppliers. Exhibiting at a trade show also gives you a way to follow up, since most show organizers produce lists of attendees for exhibitors soon after a show.

Phone books: Don't forget the good old-fashioned Yellow Pages. If you've identified particular types of businesses as potential customers, you can find a local list just by letting your fingers do the walking. Of course, unsolicited telephone calls aren't the most productive way to get new business!

Driving around: This is also called "canvassing" or "door-to-door" selling. While it's very time-consuming, in-person sales are more likely to generate sales than phone calls. My sister, a salesperson, calls on nearby businesses whenever she visits a customer; that way, she's always prospecting but not spending all her time on cold calls.

Public records: Many for-profit companies compile and sell lists of public records that might be used for sales leads. These include new business licenses or incorporations, building permits, wedding licenses and birth certificates.

List brokers: Private companies sell lists of both businesses and consumers, sorted virtually every conceivable way. You can buy targeted lists of leads by industry, magazines subscribed to, products purchased, schools attended, even lists of new mothers. I've never bought leads from a private broker, but my recommendation would be to make certain you've very clearly targeted your prospects, and that the list is new and continually updated.

Copyright Rhonda Abrams, 2003

Rhonda Abrams is the author of The Successful Business Plan: Secrets & Strategies and is a popular speaker for conventions, workshops and conferences. For her free business tips newsletter, register at www.RhondaOnline.com.