Potential home buyers who visit Peachtree Communities’ Web site are greeted by a balloon that reads, “Questions? Click here to chat with us.” Once they click, the two concierges who staff the Atlanta-based builder’s online chat function have 12 seconds to respond.

Any more than that, and they risk losing the sale.

In fact, research commissioned by the builder in 2013 revealed that a concierge who responds within 12 seconds to a request for an online chat is six times more likely to engage the customer than if she waits for one minute. And she is three times more likely to have a conversation with a potential buyer if it starts within 12 seconds of contact than if the customer has to leave a message and the concierge responds later.

So Peachtree’s concierges—long-time saleswomen for the builder—are speeding up their response times via smart phones during weekday business hours while they’re on duty and on weekends, when they’re on call.

“It’s the quick and the dead,” says John Rymer, president of Rymer Strategies, whose Tampa, Fla., sales and marketing firm conducted the consumer research that led Peachtree to change its chat. “Either you get to them quickly or you’re not ever going to get a response from them.”

The result: Before Peachtree sped up responses to online requests for Internet chats, phone calls and emails in fall 2013, 12 percent of the customers who bought its homes said their first contact with the builder was with an online concierge. Six weeks afterward, 30 percent of sales originated online.

Plus, Peachtree’s chief operating officer, Tom Justice, credits the speedy service, along with a few other changes to the builder’s online outreach over about six months, for at least 125 of the builder’s 725 projected sales in 2013.

Justice predicts up to 75 percent of buyers will start their builder relationships online within the next year or so—by choice. “Especially with first-time buyers and first-time move-ups,” he says, “the psychographics have changed so dramatically with the way consumers want to operate.”

Ratcheting up response times, which once ranged from “immediately to 30 minutes,” according to Justice, was the first of four changes Peachtree made to its online chat service as a result of Rymer’s research.

Now More Potential Buyers Show Up for Appointments
As they hurried to connect with potential customers, the concierges also slowed the pace of the resulting conversations after realizing that the sooner they asked to schedule an in-person appointment with a sales rep, the less likely the answer would be “yes.”

Customers told Rymer they felt pressured to make appointments and preferred to hear more answers from the concierges before committing to a visit. Many would agree to appointments without any intention of showing up for them.

To convince the concierges, whose compensation was based, in part, on how many appointments they scheduled, to chat longer with each customer, the builder added a bonus for each appointment that was kept.

The result, says Rymer, who points to a drop in no-shows by about one-third: “We’re getting the same number of appointments, but we’re getting more of the appointments to show up.”

The third change requires the concierges to visit each Peachtree community every two weeks to learn about the homes their online customers ask about. That practice has reduced how often the concierges ask a customer to wait for them to find answers during an online or phone chat.

Finally, Peachtree upgraded its online chat function so a concierge knows if a customer is contacting the builder via a personal computer or a mobile phone or tablet. That’s important to know, says Rymer, because home shoppers using mobile devices often are in their cars when they make contact, and either need immediate directions to a Peachtree sales office or are sitting outside of a home after hours and want quick answers about a specific model. An on-call concierge will double her efforts to respond immediately to a mobile user—even if she is off-duty.

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