By Emily Suess

If you are a small business owner and you manage any leads online or offline, you know it’s important to use a number of lead-generation tools—from data gathering and email marketing to search advertising—to make sure you are responding in a timely manner to potential customers.

You might be surprised, however, to learn that some small business owners don’t respond to new leads at all. Sometimes owners are overwhelmed and don’t make time. In other cases, owners don’t have the right tools in place to collect lead information, and they simply miss their chance. Whatever the reason—letting leads slip through the cracks is a bad idea!

Tip #1: Always Respond to New Leads

Because other business owners are likely to miss lead opportunities, you can improve your chances of picking up new customers simply by making it a habit to reach out to each and every sales lead.

Writing notes on loose slips of paper and on the back of business cards is better than nothing, but to ensure you reach every possible lead, you need to establish a system. For online leads, you can invest in software and web forms that collect data directly from your visitors.

For conferences and other face-to-face interactions, create a system for collecting the loose data, assign someone the responsibility of entering the information in a spreadsheet or database, and designate a final representative to reach out to each contact and make notes about the conversation.

Tip #2: Be a First Responder

When customers are looking for a solution, they’re usually in a hurry for the fix. That means that if your business responds first, your chances of sealing the deal are going to increase. Don’t put off contact with a potential customer because you think it will make your business look too pushy.

You can be enthusiastic and quick to help without being overbearing. Your first order of business is to be a good listener. Ask the new lead questions about her problems and needs before you ever dive into a sales pitch about your product or service. If you don’t have the right solution for her needs, be honest and offer a referral if you can. Never sell something to someone that doesn’t need it.

Tip #3: Understand That Not Every Lead Will Be Ready to Buy From You

Some leads need to be nurtured first. That means that you won’t be able to make a quick sale from every potential name, phone number, or email that you collect. In fact, for expensive or elaborate products or services, consumers need plenty of time to research their decision before agreeing to purchase.

Be patient with contacts, offering to give them the space they need. If it’s clear they are not ready to buy, find out what you can do to help them in the meantime and check back with them periodically. A friendly email or postcard or phone call is sometimes all it takes to let them know you’re available to answer their questions during any part of the process.