By Charles Wardell Builders are still learning how to deal with Internet leads. As recently as last year, for instance, many of the leads Boca Raton, Fla.-based Engle Homes was getting from online referral services like American Home Guides and were getting lost in the shuffle. "The leads came in, they got printed out, somebody faxed them to a sales office, then they got thrown away," recalls Christine Selby Snow, Engle's Internet marketing director.

So Engle hired eCalton, an Internet business developer in Vero Beach, Fla., to automate the process. The software the firm wrote takes e-mail leads from the referral services, as well as from Engle's Web site, and writes them to a database on Engle's Web server. The server sends an acknowledgement to the prospect, then automatically forwards the lead to the appropriate division marketing director and community sales rep, as well as to corporate marketing, and to a list server hosted by eCalton. The list server helps Engle target its online marketing. The company launched an Internet newsletter this month. It can be customized with information about a particular model, and the list server sends it to anyone who expressed interest in that model.

Of course making an actual sale still requires a human, and Selby Snow says that getting salespeople to take Internet leads seriously can still be a challenge. But the system lets her and the division managers track responses and bring laggards up to speed. She says that response rates have improved vastly.