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Depending on your perspective, the channel is either awash in sales leads or completely bereft of them.

The shade of gray that represents the truth between those equally true opposites is that leads are everywhere, but customers ready to buy are not.

Anyone who has traded a couple of cases of foamy globes or novelty pens for a pocketful of business cards at a trade show can tell you that. The problem is those leads range from mere curiosity to pretty good prospects. Take a wild guess as to which category far outweighs the others.

Discerning which are the good leads is time-consuming and, therefore, largely unproductive.

A good lead identifies not only a person, but also that customer’s need. If that need is painful, perhaps stunting a business’s potential growth, so much the better. Good leads also require a budget and a customer contact who has decision-making power.

For small integrators and VARs, sifting through mountains of unqualified leads to make a sale or two is efficient only in expediting a “going out of business” sale. And since the idea behind lead generation is to boost sales, rather than spending time exploring dead ends, unqualified leads have very limited value, if any.

Vendors developing new programs often find that lead generation is one of the first requests from potential partners. But there is a caveat: Partners don’t want to go looking for needles in haystacks; they want fully qualified, solid leads.

Vendors, who by and large get low marks on lead generation, should have a strong lead-generation component when recruiting VARs. It is a good way to prove to potential channel partners their technology is in demand.

In some cases, vendors that have been selling direct, and reach a point at which they realize they need partners to sustain sales growth, already have accumulated enough qualified leads to pass on.

But often vendor-generated leads are not as solid as partners need them to be. “We have found that most of the time, these leads are not as qualified as those we get on our own,” says Chris Redshaw, president of Future Vision Inc., a VAR and service provider in Raleigh, N.C.

The best leads, she adds, are those involving a customer who has identified a pain and is looking for a cure that only a technology purchase can address.

Sometimes customers may not realize they have an urgent technology need, and good VARs are experts at helping them identify such a need. These are the cases in which a truly consultative approach by the VAR can reap serious benefits.

Distributors also can play an important role in generating solid leads. By virtue of supplying VARs and integrators with the technology they sell, distributors collect mind-boggling volumes of information on buying patterns and product life cycles.

Keith Bradley, president of Ingram Micro Inc. North America, views lead generation as an important strategic play. The Santa Ana, Calif.-based distributor is starting to put more effort into data mining for information on buying patterns that it can translate into sales leads.

By tracking, processing and making sense of the purchasing data of VARs’ end-user customers, Bradley believes the distributor will be able to alert the VARs to solid potential sales opportunities.

Another distributor trying to get its arms around lead generation is networking specialist Westcon Group Inc., of Tarrytown, N.Y., which has teamed up with Cisco Systems Inc. for an SMB initiative that includes an online lead-generation tool.

Participating VARs log on to Westcon’s SMBx Web portal to check on available leads and stake their claim on those they want to pursue. Once a VAR picks a lead, other resellers are prevented from pursuing it. End users can log on to the system to request VAR bids.

The Westcon tool truly shows what can be accomplished by employing technology to sell technology.

Lead generation will never be perfected to the point that every lead is a good lead. After all, today’s customer decision to buy can easily turn into a decision tomorrow to postpone because of budget considerations.

But Westcon’s and Ingram Micro’s efforts could go a long way to refining the lead-generation process.

Smart VARs aren’t sitting and waiting for solid leads, and they have their own lead-generation efforts, but they will surely welcome any qualified opportunities sent their way.

Pedro Pereira is a contributing editor for The Channel Insider. He covered the channel from 1996 to 2001, took a break, and now he’s back.