A PROSPECTIVE CUSTOMER WALKS INTO A NEW-HOME SALES center. A sales consultant is sitting at a desk, talking on the phone. He looks up from his call, covers the mouthpiece, and says, “Brochures are on the counter, and the models are to the left. If you have any questions, just let me know.”

John Schleimer and Bob Schultz see it every day, and it just drives them nuts.

In a presentation that Schleimer made at the International Builders' Show on selling in a soft market, he announced that 75 percent to 80 percent of new-home sales consultants “don't know what the hell they're doing.”

It starts the minute a customer comes in the door, says Schleimer, president of Market Perspectives, a nationally recognized, Roseville, Calif.–based new-housing consultant and researcher. There's no greeting, no attempt to qualify, and very little effort to demonstrate the benefits of the builder or the homes. Then there are no probing, direct or indirect closing questions, and precious little follow-up. “I leave a name and number every place I visit, and I get a follow-up call or correspondence only 5 percent or less of the time,” says Schleimer.

How has it come to this? New-home sales trainer Bob Schultz, of Boca Raton, Fla., says that real estate sales have been so strong the last few years, much of the salesforce has never experienced a competitive market. “They think they're selling, and they're not,” says Schultz, who adds that he is training on this issue on almost a daily basis. “They've been very highly paid unskilled labor. People all over the country who used to work at the Gap or bartending, making $30,000 to $40,000, are now making $150,000 [selling new houses], and they're confusing their salary with their skill level.”

To correct the problem, Schleimer says, builders need to focus on training their salesforce. “I see so many builders relegate training to the lowest level of importance in their overall company,” he says. “I think it's because they're so focused on buying land and lots, getting them entitled, and the process of building the homes that they're not really focused on how important the selling side of the equation is.”

Schleimer predicts that as the market cools, builders will see significant turnover in sales consultants and managers who, “for the last two or three years, have not had to sell,” he says. “I'm pretty critical in this area,” he admits. “I'm not a sales trainer. I'm an observer, and I'm not observing in many markets the type of salespeople they need. It's not good.”

MARKET RESEARCH That's why sales consultants for Cincinnati-based Epcon Communities are trained that the process is the same with every customer.

“Human nature is [that] we will slack off,” says Nanette Overly, senior vice president of sales and marketing. “You'll see a market where sales are just booming, but all they're doing is just writing contracts. It's not an indicator of a great salesperson; it's an indicator of a pent-up demand. Things slow down, and you recognize the person wasn't selling, he was clerking. Those are great deals to get, but it doesn't make a good salesperson.”

Epcon's sales consultants are trained in critical path selling, making sure that every customer is treated as a prospective buyer. Whether a person is visiting for the first time or the fifth, he's asked for the sale.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA.