15 years ago, after renting for all of my post-university life, my wife and I were looking to purchase our first home.

It was 2002, and the market had hit bottom. Prices were low, and properties were being snapped up very, very quickly. Real estate brokers were exceptionally busy, and business was good. Really, really good.

For first-time buyers like me and my wife, however, it was surprisingly difficult to get the kind of care and attention we needed to find the place of our dreams.

Broker after broker we contacted would show us one or two properties we didn’t like, and then disappear. Many more simply didn’t return my calls or emails.

Until I met one broker who did. Within a few hours of leaving a message, he called me back and asked me a few basic questions about our budget, the type of apartment we were looking for, and the area of the city that interested us.

He soon arranged several apartments to view, and we quickly found the one that we wanted. He earned our commission.

A few years later, my wife’s parents called him when they needed to sell their home. He found a buyer and picked up another commission.

Every year since helping us find our apartment, the broker sends me a greeting card with his name card attached.

Do you know who I’ll be calling if my wife and I decide to sell our place?

That’s right.

The broker who responded promptly and professionally, who took the time to understand our needs and research options, and finally helped us negotiate a price we could afford. And this broker has taken the time to follow-up with us consistently each year to make sure he’s at the top of our consideration list the next time we his help.

He’s a good guy and an exceptional salesman. Unfortunately, from my experience at least, he’s the exception to the rule. So many providers of professional services fail to respond promptly, or fail to follow-up after an initial expression of interest in the job.

A few years ago, a Harvard Business Review article cited a study of 2,241 U.S. companies that measured how long each took to respond to a web-generated test lead. Although 37% responded to their lead within an hour, and 16% responded within one to 24 hours, 24% took more than 24 hours – and 23% of the companies never responded at all. The average response time, among companies that responded within 30 days, was 42 hours.

It happened to me again just this week, in fact. I was looking to hire a freelance editor for two reports that my firm is planning to publish next month.

One freelancer said he was available…two weeks later, after he returns from vacation with his mother.

Another was tied up this month and next. When I thanked him and told him “maybe next time”, he came back with “wait a minute, maybe I have a little time this month, so just let me know how big your project is so I can see if I can fit yours into my schedule.”

An editing agency I reached out to replied with a long list of questions about the project…and a promise to respond with 24 hours. 24 hours passed, and they provided a long statement of work with a bunch of legalese, a price quote, and no indication of who at their agency was actually going to do the work.

So did anyone get the job?

The freelancer who responded within an hour with an emphatic “Yes! I’d love to! When do you need to start?”

Granted, there are a number of very legitimate reasons why professional services providers– like freelance editors, or real estate brokers – simply can’t respond within the timeframe that you expect them to. Maybe they just aren’t available to do the job at the time you need them to, and therefore have little incentive to reply quickly. Or maybe business is so darned good they just don’t need yours.

Whatever the reason, businesses lose money not only once, when they miss out on a project. Because they’ve failed to establish any kind of business relationship with a customer, they are very likely losing out on a lucrative stream of future revenues.

Speaking from my own experience, I’m pretty loyal to the service providers I work with. I like to work with people I’ve worked with before, people who have proved they can do the job well, who can turn jobs around quickly and at a high level of quality, and who take a professional, can-do attitude.

Does a speedy response to a sales lead matter?

Indeed it does. A separate study conducted in 2007 found that salespeople had a 100 times greater chance of making a successful contact with a lead within five minutes of an inquiry, as opposed to 30 minutes. That same lead was 21 times more likely to enter the sales process if contacted within 5 minutes.

In an “I want it yesterday” world, where customers can directly access thousands or tens of thousands of potential providers worldwide with just a few keystrokes, if professional services providers want to beat the competition and grow their business, they’ll need to figure out how to respond more quickly – much more quickly – to sales leads.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.