I remember a championship hockey game I lost as a kid. The Philadelphia Little Flyers walked into the rink single file, marching perfectly like soldiers in a parade. They strutted past my team with confidence, wearing identical black uniforms, with their numbers neatly sewn on their sleeves. I remember thinking, “If they're not the best, they certainly look like it.”

My team was eliminated right then, before the game even started.

Although my story is a little off topic, I offer this: As the competition to capture already anemic traffic levels mounts, customers' first impressions of you may count you out before they ever meet your sales force. If you recognize that your storefront far precedes your sales office door, you'll be able to win over customers whose first impressions work as a process-of-elimination filter.

Those who manage new-home sales or entire home building operations are intimately familiar with the time and money dedicated to increasing traffic volume. Depending on marketing resources, builders invest upward of a thousand dollars to drive a single unit of traffic to their sales teams. Consider the outcome if a customer is disenchanted with your entrance and decides not to stop. What if she walks, unnoticed, through your completed inventory or a home under construction and is unimpressed? If she meets your construction manager before sales hours, will the result be positive?

All of these possibilities represent a marketing window into your operation. Flawless execution at each of these fronts will help pass the litmus test of a discriminating buyer.

Recently, while visiting one of our communities, I observed a couple approach our construction manager. I was pleasantly surprised when the construction manager immediately established commonality with the couple, began some basic needs analysis, and introduced the prospects to his sales partner. Arming your construction team with basic sales training and reinforcing the value of a professional appearance will increase the customer's comfort level should they meet. At the very least, a trained construction manager can register a prospect or present business cards if the sales team is unavailable.

Photo: Getty Images

The approach to your community's entrance, both at day and at night, is often your first chance to show how much you care. It's also a magnet for empty bottles, cans, and other unsightly debris. Beyond the entrance, overgrown weeds, overflowing trash bins, and disorganized job sites are perceived as symptoms of a struggling operation, leaving a prospect apprehensive. Ensuring that your homes are immaculate, organized, and accessible keeps you in the hunt for your customers' business.

Finally, a completed inventory home represents your finished product. Unfortunately, these units often become an immediate, economical vehicle for finding spare parts to complete closings or homes under construction. Incomplete showcase homes, however, can push your customer to the exit concerned about your ability to follow through. Alternatively, clean, move-in-ready inventory can feel like home to a willing and able buyer.

Putting your best foot forward at every level of your operation may seem elementary. But unkempt and disorganized conditions still exist today, in varying degrees, among home builders. In an environment where sales aren't easily won, capturing every unit of traffic is monumentally important. With aesthetic quality a primary driver of customer satisfaction, how your communities look might be the deciding factor in winning or losing a prospect.

Jeremy Koster is a director for Lennar Carolinas and may be reached at jkoster@bellsouth.net.