Remodelers have lots of ways of generating leads. But they favor, and depend on, past clients -- the lead source that provides the most reliable prospects for work. Most remodeling companies we surveyed get the largest percentage of their leads the old-fashioned way: from previous customers. Other lead sources prove secondary by comparison.

For that reason, most companies -- 69% -- survive perfectly well with fewer than 100 leads a year, a figure so low it would quickly cripple window or siding contractors. A lot of the leads design/build remodelers get are for repeat work. Almost three-quarters of Reader Panel respondents report that half or more of their leads become jobs.

Past customer leads are also the ones that get a contractor's first attention. Thirty-four percent of respondents say the source of the lead is the most important piece of information on a lead sheet, followed by scope of work (28%) and budget (18%). Other important criteria for evaluating a lead include time frame for completion and the extent to which the person calling has researched the project.

Though there are plenty of systems, on paper or electronic, to manage the process of acquiring, qualifying, and selling leads, many remodelers say they find some level of personal involvement essential. In addition to lead sheet screening information, gut instinct -- which comes with a trip to the house and a conversation with the prospects -- is crucial to the qualification process.

How do you define a lead?

"A contact turns into a lead once we have had a chance to look at the project and discuss it thoroughly with the client in their home and we decide the project and client warrant our submission of a bid for the project."

Philip Goble, Toblin Enterprises, Woodbridge, Va.

How do you evaluate the information you collect?

"If the information on the lead sheet matches our criteria, the rest is more gut instinct based on the conversation. This is typically a 10- to 15-minute conversation, so you get a pretty good feel for the person and their project. We watch for some key phrases. If they repeat the words 'free estimate' a few times, if they refuse to talk budget, or if they say they're remodeling to sell the house, these are all red flags and it's not a priority lead."

Linda Holmes, Creative Carpentry Remodeling, Aurora, Ill.

"If the prospect is considering more than three other companies or won't begin work for more than six months, we know that they are window-shopping. If the lead was generated from a previous client, then we know that they are serious."

Terry Cannon, C.H.R. Services, Lansing, Mich.

"If the budget and time frame seem to be compatible with ours, we look mostly for a personal compatibility. In other words, can we stand these people? Can we imagine spending the next four to eight months living with them?"

Jim Ray, The Reijnen Company, Bainbridge, Wash.

"My office manager is the initial gatekeeper. She weeds out the obviously inappropriate leads. I get the lead sheet from the office manager with her notes and either return the call myself or give it to our second salesman for follow-up. We ask many of the same questions, but largely I want to talk with them to get a feel for what they're like as people. My mind-set used to be, How do I have to change to get this client? Now, it's, Is this client one that's going to be fun and profitable?"

Mark Scott, Mark IV Builders, Bethesda, Md.

"We almost never qualify over the phone. Our policy is to meet with the client and listen to their concerns. We then talk about our company and services. We can determine in this interview if they're serious or not, mostly by discussing the budget. If the homeowner is willing to share vital budget information, then we know they're serious about the project."

Lisa Beert, JL & Sons Construction, Port St. Lucie, Fla.

"We evaluate the information against a generic but flexible profile of who our client is. We focus on adding clients that we work for time and again, and we have to be careful not to get too set in our ways, because that client can come from anywhere, not just one set of financial demographics. When you're trying to build a client base, the word 'qualify' is dangerous. But it's vital if you have way more leads than you can get to. Qualification for us is matching clients to our processes, but it's not complete, in all cases, until after we've visited the home."

Jerry Harris, Case Handyman Service, Chesapeake, Va