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Converting Online Leads into Sales
by Rich Binsacca

Contrary to popular hype, a web site for your home building business won't guarantee more sales. It can, however, improve the effectiveness of your sales efforts and help you and your sales force do a better job of attracting, qualifying and most important, converting leads into home sales.
That's because the technology allows web-savvy builders to cost-effectively tell their story, solicit feedback and show their products to a wider range of potential homebuyers and then use that information to tailor sales pitches to particular prospects.   "You can get leads from just about anywhere," says Cathy Baum, executive vice president at Stanley Martin Companies, a Washington, D.C.area homebuilder, and a pioneer in online sales efforts, " but to convert those leads, you either follow-up or not."

 Fast Follow-up

It should be no surprise that the basic truisms of good salesmanship, such as prompt follow-up, extend to online sales efforts.  The technology, however, enhances the effectiveness of those skills provided they are already part of your sales vernacular.

That's because the Internet, and specifically e-mail, has shortened response time to minutes instead of days.  With that, e-mail also allows for a more thoughtful response to an inquiry or lead, providing sales associates with an opportunity to tailor their response to the specific needs or intentions of a home buying prospect [see sidebar, "The E-mail Letter,"]

Case in point:  Even with a boost in leads since joining American Builders Network in 1998, Las Vegas custom builder Bob Thomas of Crosswhite Construction hasn't changed his basic approach to following up with prospective buyers.  He still sends a personal letter within a day or less of receiving a lead, albeit now, by e-mail instead of the post office.  "Responding quickly sends a message [to prospects] that you're interested and want their business," he says. "If you wait, it makes a bad impression."

Using e-mail with prospects also opens a valuable dialogue, with Thomas able to respond quickly and comprehensively to specific buyer requests regarding available lots, the firm's design capabilities, building costs and upcoming visits.  The result is not only a progressive track toward securing a sales contract, but, perhaps more important, earning a buyer's trust in the process. 

To date, Thomas is in touch (mostly via e-mail) with up to 60 potential homebuyers in various stages of commitment, which translates to more than two years of custom home projects for Crosswhite Construction should they all decide to build.  His next two projects, in fact, are a direct result of leads generated through his American Builders Network interactive ad.

Beyond E-mail

While arguably the most effective communications tool in your sales shed, e-mail is just the tip of the Internet iceberg.  In fact, e-mail is useless without an attractive, compelling and convenient way to attract inquiries and leads in the first place, either through Internet search and referral services, a proprietary web site, or a combination of those options.

Opinions differ, but Baum's twelve-year Internet initiative with Stanley Martin Companies, the last nine including a company web site and participation in several referral directories such as American Builders Network, have given her insight into what attracts prospective buyers.  "We try to give them as much information as possible on our web site," she says, though in the simplest and most convenient way available.  "It may not be flashy, but our web site gets people to come back and contact us."

 Providing a comprehensive marketing package to web site visitors allows them to navigate your company information at their own pace and to their own interests, whether it be viewing renderings and floor plans, considering available lots, or mapping out a tour of your current projects.

Fact is, studies show that prospective homebuyers use the Internet extensively to narrow their choices of potential home sites and communities.  Once averaging up to 20 or more model home visits before purchasing, today's web-surfing buyers may actually drive around to only six or so, having "prequalified" those via builders' web sites. 


The E-mail Letter

For those who do it every day, sending e-mail has become a preferred method of both professional and personal communication.  But some folks are intimidated by e-mail, perhaps simply because they are more comfortable talking than writing (i.e., most sales people?), or maybe even just poor or slow typists.

A solution to both problems is the template letter.  Among others who use e-mail to communicate with prospective home buyers, Las Vegas custom builder Bob Thomas employs a prewritten follow-up letter that he can easily personalize and quickly alter to address specific buyer questions, then paste into an e-mail window.

Creating such a template accomplishes several goals:  First, it gives your company a consistent voice with prospective home buyers, relieving individual sales people from having to remember what information, and in what tone, they need to include in an initial e-mail follow-up.  With that, it allows a salesperson to respond even faster to an inquiry or sales lead, respecting his or her time to focus on sales, not letter-writing.  Finally, a template follow-up letter provides a comfort zone for lesser-skilled writers and typists.

For these reasons, consider creating a prewritten or template letter, or perhaps a series of letters that address different types of leads or inquiries, from folks who are "just looking" to serious home buying prospects.

Getting More Leads

Certainly, an attractive and informative web site will compel interested buyers to contact you, often via an e-mail link or through an online feedback form or survey, thus prompting the start of the sales process. 

That said, not all buyers should be expected to use e-mail to express their interest.  Some prefer to make a phone call, or perhaps an in-person visit.  To that end, an effective web site requires easy-to-find (and perhaps toll-free) phone and fax numbers, as well as the company's mailing address for your office or models. 

A more interactive, and potentially more valuable, device is to post an online feedback or survey form, as well.  Though it should be kept simple, a survey can be used to gather more detailed information about a prospective buyer's intentions, needs, and circumstances (read: a more qualified lead).  With that information in hand, follow-up efforts can be even more targeted and effective.

Understand the Technology

Regardless of the extent of your Internet strategy, whether it be a full-blown web site or simply participating in a search and referral service, the real key to successfully using the technology is understanding it. 

Both Baum and Thomas, for instance, had personal experience with the Internet before deciding it needed to be part of their respective sales efforts.  "I've been on the 'net since 1990," says Baum.  "There was no question [the company] had to get on it when I arrived here twelve years ago."

Understanding the technology can be as simple as surfing the web sites of other builders, suppliers and lumber dealers.  You may even want to dip your toe into e-commerce by participating in an online auction, such as e-bay, or purchasing a CD or book from Amazon.com, among other suppliers.

Any level of online participation, in fact, will help you gain a better understanding of the technology and provide insight into how it fits with your existing sales efforts.

Rich Binsacca is a freelance writer living in Boise, Idaho. He writes technology articles for  BUILDER, iHousing and ProSales magazines. He co-wrote "About Your House with Bob Yapp," a companion book to the syndicated PBS television series. He is a regular contributor to several national real estate, business, and architecture publications.

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