When it comes to generating sales leads, you can make a habit of some best practices. You can exchange business cards at networking events, speak at professional meetings, and keep a 30-second elevator pitch handy at all times. You can use LinkedIn to answer questions, search for decision-makers in target companies, and join discussions in your customers' groups. You can listen and respond to people on Twitter and Facebook, and prospect from contacts sent through your main website, particularly those arriving through keyword-targeted Google AdWords. If you’re gentle about it, you can even ask your best customers for referrals -- always wishing you could clone them.

But how do you scale all this up -- reach more people in that sliver of time you have for prospecting? Whether you're launching a new product or service or doing spring cleaning, you have to assume that the contact list you lovingly tend is inevitably full of holes.

Naturally enough, there's an industry that focuses on sales-lead generation so you don't have to. Most of these services let you segment and sort millions of contacts, online, revealing the most vital details (name, email, phone) once you purchase the list or sign in with an annual subscription.

Using a mix of advanced online searching and old-fashioned elbow grease, sales-lead generators gather, cross-reference, clean, and deliver email, phone, and postal data, often matched with business intelligence, such as employee-growth rate, initial public offering history, office square footage, and salary information. Besides selecting targets by number of employees and industry, you often can aim within a radius of ZIP codes you designate.

Whether you want to shake out new contacts on your home turf, or cast a wider net, your dollars can buy you time to spend on the rest of your to-do list. Below, we survey four of these services, Jigsaw, InfoUSA, Hoover's and Sales Genie.

 
Jigsaw - Salesforce.com Inc.
Jigsaw
Pricing

Free credit: Earn as described here
Single contact: $5 each

Annual subscription: $1 per contact: $250 per year (with 250 contacts included); $500 per year (with 650 contacts included); $1,000 per year (with 1,500 contacts included) 

Best For: Do-it-yourselfers seeking a collaborative, potentially lower-cost solution.

The Numbers: 24 million U.S. individuals; 4 million U.S. companies. 100% have email and phone, 70% direct phone extensions.

Overview: Jigsaw is a collaborative database of contacts. You can buy contacts with money or with credits earned from sharing your contacts or correcting Jigsaw's list. Data quality depends on the quality of Jigsaw's collaborators.

When you open an account, you start with 10 free credits, enough for two contact records. You can earn five points for each contact you contribute, plus five points for each contact you significantly update (major title change, email or phone update, deletion). Moreover, you earn a one-point "royalty" when a contact you added or significantly updated is sold to someone else.

You can search using criteria that many services don't offer, such as name, email, address, department and website domain extension. You can also exclude records that were updated by Jigsaw users you name (say, if you know someone posted bad addresses). You can also search by traditional criteria: title, company, country, state, city, metro area, management level, industry, number of employees, revenue, Fortune rank (500, 1,000, none), and ownership type (public, private, or government).

Search results are shown in business-card format and are downloadable in several database-management file formats such as vCard, CSV, Oracle, Siebel, or Salesforce.com. Fields include name, title, company, address, phone, and email.

In contrast to other list services, Jigsaw is integrated with online search and social networking sites, making its data more easily verifiable. For example, the search results often show links to LinkedIn, Zoominfo, and Google. I was able to quickly earn points by marking entries as outdated, known on the site as "graveyarding" contacts whose LinkedIn profiles showed they had moved to new jobs. My own phone and address were two years out of date.

 
InfoUSA - Infogroup Inc.
InfoUSA
Pricing

Pricing is based on the number of records purchased and the contact information required, such as demographic details or business information, beyond contact name and mailing address. Minimum order is $99.

Note: One search for 1,000 software companies in Manhattan ranged from $0.27 per contact for the Mailing Package (name and postal address) to $0.38 per contact for the Complete Package (including phone and e-mail details).

Best For: Do-it-yourselfers seeking a fully-curated source, especially those targeting consumers.

The Numbers: 210 million U.S. individuals, 6.7 million with email addresses; 14 million U.S. businesses (100% phone verified)

Overview: InfoUSA divides its sales leads into postal/phone contacts and email contacts. For the latter, InfoUSA helps you create the email message and does the actual emailing (but charges extra for fancier HTML layouts) -- in other words, it won't send you the actual email list. (This probably helps keep others from abusing the list, to your benefit.)

Besides lists for U.S. businesses and U.S. consumers, the postal/phone contacts are subdivided in several ways: religious marketing, new businesses, new homeowners, new movers, international, bankruptcy, business specialty (entrepreneurs, websites, Fortune 1000, and others), consumer specialty (ethnicity, households with children, and mail-order purchasers), and more.

Selection criteria includes all the traditional factors mentioned above, plus (where available) some business-intelligence data, such as credit ratings and expenditures on a wide range of services, including accounting, advertising, office equipment, payroll, technology, telecommunications, and temporary labor.

Search results are downloadable in CSV or TXT format, or you can have them mailed on a CD or in printed lists, labels, or 3x5-inch cards.

 
Hoover's - Dun & Bradstreet Inc.
Hoover's
Pricing
Lead Builder tool: Prices vary depending on the number and type of contact information, such as direct mail, telephone, and email data. These can range from $0.24 per lead for direct-mail leads to $1.50 per lead for a direct decision-maker's email address and phone number.

Essentials subscription: $89 per month, or $899 per year, for access to all of Hoover's data.

Researcher subscription: $3,500 per year for up to five users, for targeted lists created with a sales rep's help.

Best For: Those seeking a fully-curated source, especially for business contacts. Plans are available for do-it-yourselfers or annual subscribers who prefer dedicated, consultative service.

The Numbers: 85 million U.S. individuals; 65 million U.S. companies.

Overview: With Hoover's, you can run your own searches, using its Lead Builder tool, or you can subscribe on a monthly or yearly basis and work one-on-one with a representative, to build your lists.

Selection criteria include all the traditional geography, industry and company data that InfoUSA and Jigsaw use, plus some unique information including: salary, a financial stability rating, ethnicity or minority-ownership status, home-based business, DUNS number, rate of employee growth, ranking (such as S&P 500 and Forbes Largest Private Companies), auditor company and initial public offering data.

Lead Builder searches are downloadable in CSV database-file format, after purchase.

 
Sales Genie - Infogroup Inc.
Jigsaw
Pricing
Local package: from $75 per month for 500 leads per month

Regional (two states) package: from $150 per month for 1,000 leads per month

National package: from $300 per month for 2,000 leads per month

Note: Each package is customized, based on email and phone-data requirements, geography (metro, regional, national), and other factors. The first 25 credits are free and three-day trials are available.

Best For: Those seeking a fully-curated source, working through sales representatives, especially for consumer contacts. 

The Numbers: 13 million U.S. businesses, 1.9 million email addresses; 115 million U.S. consumers, 6.8 million email addresses. Also: 4.1 million new U.S. businesses, 300,000/week new U.S. movers; 1.5 million Canadian businesses; 38,000 new Canadian businesses.

Overview: Sales Genie, from the same company that owns InfoUSA, offers 25 free leads when you create an account, but you must work through a sales representative to get pricing and purchase more than that.

Selection criteria include the "classic" data offered by the services mentioned above, plus selections such as home-based businesses (or not) and companies with or without websites or fax machines.

Your results show an impressive range of data categories: quick summary, management, company information, industry profile, business expenditures, competitors report, nearby businesses, address, credit score, maps and directions, historical data, public filings, 10-K filings, UCC filings, and company news.

Results can be exported by CSV, TSV, or XLS database file formats in a variety of data sets: summary, detailed, or custom. You can download selected, not selected, all, or random records. You can print in various formats, including several Avery business-label layouts.

 

Before You Begin
Ready to get started? First, two caveats: Know the laws and know your customers.

Know the laws: Since direct marketing is regulated, check with your attorney to ensure your messages and methods are above-board. With all commercial email sent to consumers or businesses, be sure you're abiding by the CAN-SPAM Act. For telemarketing, particularly to consumers, be sure you're abiding by the Telemarketing Sales Rule.

Know your customers: Sales-lead generators are powerful tools in that you can find millions of contacts with just a few keyboard taps and clicks. Some percentage of these contacts will always be out of date, at least partly because people move around so much these days and some data may just have typos. But the much bigger challenge is to correctly match your selection criteria to your ideal customer's profile. By sleuthing the job functions, industries, ZIP codes, and other characteristics of your best existing customers, you can more reliably dial up selection criteria that find those customers' twins. Get as specific as you can. Since these databases have millions of contacts, you still have a good chance of finding a sizable list of leads.