Any prospects that you contact can be considered either qualified or not qualified. Depending on where the information was gained or how you received their contact information, an individual or company could have gone through a level of identification that would make them a good match for your product or services (called product from here on out). This would make them a qualified lead, a type of company or individual that could use your business in direct order rather than in some nebulous future time-frame. An unqualified lead are those companies that may not have a time-frame to purchase your product, may have no interest in your product or service at this time, or perhaps simply have never even heard of you before.
What, exactly, is the difference and how do we get them?
In theory, an "incoming referral" should always be qualified. Someone that has been sent to you by a current customer because your loyal customer felt that the referral could use your product is an excellent prospect — someone that obviously has a need, certainly is interested, and has proactively contacted you. A little less qualified, but certainly still falling within the 'qualified' realm is a referral given to you to contact. These are people that a current user felt could be contacted because they would likely have use for what you have to offer.
Unqualified leads are, all too often, "not qualified" leads. Cold calling is a technique that requires significant effort and knowledge. An untrained cold caller, one who has never done it before, is obviously not as experienced as one who has being doing it longer. The response rates for straight cold calling vary drastically, but even organizations who have specialized in cold calling for decades, such as the Direct Marketing Association, do not exceed an average success rate on cold calls of more than about 8.25% to simply generate leads! This means that almost 92 out of 100 calls made to unqualified leads are "not qualified". Generally, your sales force will become frustrated with numbers such as this — they're trained in your product and have just spent about 5 hours (*) trying to talk to people not interested. Their time is better spent talking to qualified referrals.
The biggest question has always been "where can I get these qualified referrals"? Most people intrinsically realize, even without statistical numbers to back their belief, that companies succeed upon word of mouth and referrals. This is especially true in the small to medium size businesses that do not have millions of dollars to spend on advertising and generating a 'buzz'. As I have said before, the best place to find referrals has been, and most likely always will be, your existing customers. By keeping them happy and ensuring that you hold a high level of service, they will gladly refer other companies to you for your product. For those companies that do not generate enough business through their own processes or clients, generating qualified referrals can be done by using "lead generating" or "referral generating" companies. Through the use of these organizations, your sales team is provided with a list (daily or weekly, usually) of companies or individuals (depending on your product) that have been contacted and shown interest in finding out more. These are not as strong as true referrals from existing customers as you will, generally, still need to 'make a sale', yet the success rate of prospects that have already gone through a first round of qualification should be significantly greater than 1 every 5 hours! I say should be as it does depend on the company that you are receiving business through. Personally, I suggest New Direction Marketing (**)!
(*) Assumption: Approximately 18 calls per hour to allow for both interested parties, hold time, and notes.
(**) Disclaimer: New Direction Marketing is my company :)