WHEN CALIFORNIA-BASED MBK Homes first designed its Very Important Buyer (VIB) online customer management system, it used the visual element of the yellow brick road from “The Wizard of Oz” to help walk customers through the home-buying process. Unfortunately, the road didn't quite turn out the way MBK had imagined.

“It looked like there were these big holes,” says Paul Simon, vice president of information technology for MBK Real Estate. “We didn't want to create an image of falling into holes.”

Today, the VIB customer management systems serves as an end-to-end communication tool from the point a buyer becomes serious about buying an MBK home until he or she sells it.

“It really is the kick-off to our customer experience and the moments of contact,” says Jeanne Stott, MBK's director of sales and marketing.

VIB CLUB: MBK's online customer management system began as a way to manage prospects. In use now for two years, the system began as a way to manage prospect lists and eliminate camp-outs at high-interest MBK communities. Before the system was set up, it was impossible to establish a credible priority list because leads were coming from the neighborhood sales managers and lenders, and from the company's toll-free number.

“Sometimes in Southern California, the lists are getting up to 600 people,” Stott says. “We wanted to develop a method that we could post on the Web site.”

Prospect Lists At Light Speed Prospects who are interested in getting more information can sign up for MBK's Insider Club, which will give them updates on new communities preparing to open and special events. But the only way to buy a home from MBK is to register as a Very Important Buyer. Customers who don't have computers at home can register at a kiosk in a sales office. When people join the VIB Club, the system generates a message to the neighborhood sales manager who then makes contact and welcomes them.

“We wanted this to be the starting point when we start the relationship with a customer,” Stott says. “The information is put into the database and the sales people have a method to call customers, do mass e-mails, do U.S. mail, and invite customers out for various events to meet the builder team and the lender before we start building. It really was about communication.”

It also was about selling more homes.

Kent Nelson was called in to help jump-start sales in MBK's Altoliva neighborhood in the master planned community of Tesoro del Valle in Santa Clarita Valley. He had never sold homes there and didn't know the area. What he did have going for him was a newly installed VIB system.

“The first thing you have to ask is who are the customers?” Stott says. “We're not selling at the rate we need to. Who are the customers who need to buy a home today out of everyone who's been through the office? Who do I focus on? I don't have time to waste. The old ‘interest card in a file box' is too cumbersome.”

YOU'RE COVERED: MBK's “Very Important Buyer” program serves as an end-to-end communication tool, assisting buyers from when they sign up all the way through the purchase and sale of the home. With the database he could quickly identify everyone who had expressed an interest for a marketing campaign that included mass e-mail, a post card, and sales calls. Plus, the prospect list was quickly expanded to include buyers who were interested in another nearby MBK community that had sold out.

“This gave us a ready-built list to start calling from,” Nelson says. “Within less than two weeks, we were able to bring people in and sell those homes. It probably would have taken twice as long to do to the same thing [without VIB].”

Separating Browsers, Buyers VIB registration requires giving MBK a Social Security number; that tends to separate serious prospects from people who just want a brochure. At that point, the customer is assigned a priority number and begins receiving detailed information about upcoming phases.

“The bellwether piece of information is the Social Security number,” Simon says. “Until then, all the information we had wasn't too critical or private. Up to then, we had kind of a happy-go-lucky life. Suddenly, we became a more serious group of people. But we realized we could never grow up until we did that.”

Having the Social Security number, though, opened the door for a secure extranet where lenders, customers, and sales agents could all meet on the site and share valuable information and streamline the home-buying process, says Simon. The personal information the customers provide is enough of an initial application to create loan documents and prequalify them for a home loan.

“It turns the home buyer into partners with [information technology],” he says. “It's a nice sandbox for everyone to play in.”

To give buyers a visual image of their progress through that process, MBK created a game board that quickly shows customers their status.

“Some things will change color, change their look, things grow,” Simon says.

Keeping The Conversation Going The use of the system doesn't stop with the purchase of the house.

The sales team uses the database to invite customers to the site for several events in the construction process, including framing, drywall, and pre-flooring tours. Sixty days before the estimated close of escrow, customers are invited to a “Count-down to Closing” moving event with several key players—the site superintendent, the neighborhood lender, the escrow officer, the flooring company designers, and sometimes the title company.

“The purpose is to communicate to customers what happens next,” Stott says. “That's our whole purpose of the VIB program. … It's not enough in today's world to just have a home building company focused on sales closings and profits. It's beneficial to the company's reputation. The market could turn at any time. When customers feel more in control, we want them to remember MBK was good to them.”

Every 30 days while the customer is in escrow, he or she receives an e-mail from the sales team. It saves time for the sales associates, gives the customers more timely information, and ensures consistency in the experience.

“The sales people only have so much time out there,” Stott says. “We put together tools to make it easy to communicate.”

Once the home buyer moves in, his or her information is handed off to the customer service component of the program on the Web site. For up to 10 years—or until they sell the house, whichever comes first—homeowners can log in and access any of the information entered during the purchase process, including paint color, flooring selections, and even appliance serial numbers.

“If they have lived in the home for a year and they are going to do some painting and want to match colors, they can go right back to the Web site and enter their password to get that information,” Simon says. “They can submit their warranty requests there as well. We want to maintain that relationship with the customers for the life of the product. That way, we can contact them in the future if we have another development.”