CRYSTAL WILLIAMSON never had quite enough time in the day to get to the stack of Internet leads on her desk. A sales agent at The Willows, a K. Hovnanian-Forecast Homes single-family community in Fontana, Calif., Williamson was busy dealing with a constant stream of prospective buyers coming through the sales center. She wasn't alone. It was a problem at K. Hovnanian sales offices in communities throughout the Ontario Group, which is made up of Forecast Homes in California and Great Western Homes in Arizona.

“[Internet leads] weren't being handled,” Williamson says. “If they got a phone call [from us], it was because it was a very slow day, which was rare. They were getting lost in the cracks.”

No one blamed her—or any of the other sales agents at communities in the Ontario Group, says group vice president Michael Dwight. When the group had been formed about three years earlier, the builders were added to K. Hovnanian's listing on,, and other Internet resources, such as a link from the Los Angeles Times that fed into K. Hovnanian's Web site. Combined, these Web sites were producing about 3,000 leads a month for K. Hovnanian—on top of the heavy in-person traffic in the sales centers. It was simply more than the staff in the sales offices could handle.

SERVICE WITH A SMILE: Information specialists such as Serena Imbrogno were put in place to help handle high sales volume at some K. Hovnanian communities. “When you're there managing a high-volume operation, getting 100 to 150 families in the sales office,” Dwight says, “will you deal with the live prospect sitting across the desk or someone who was hypothetical?”

Still, the executive team knew they needed to be leaving a more favorable impression in the minds of prospects shopping online. Follow-up communication with Internet leads had to be better. The team considered their own experience when they requested information on the Internet. They expected “instant gratification,” Dwight says. Why would these customers be any different?

YOU'VE GOT MAIL To take the burden off the sales offices, the executive team established a pilot project to handle Internet leads. Far more than those annoying automated responses that tell customers to call a sales center, the project created a centralized team of three Community Information Specialists—licensed real estate agents who could discuss pricing and terms—to handle all the Internet inquiries coming into the K. Hovnanian Web site for every community in the Ontario Group. The goal was to give prospects answers to their specific questions within 24 hours.

By responding in that time frame with a personalized message, the Community Information Specialists now give K. Hovnanian the chance to take advantage of such a small window of opportunity.

“When you [as a prospective buyer] go online and e-mail a home builder, you don't just e-mail one. You e-mail five or six, and you're excited about the first person who sends a response,” says Serena Imbrogno, one of the group's three Community Information Specialists. “A lot of times, they want to visit the sales center that weekend. If you don't get back to them quickly, they won't go visit.”

“We don't think we can sell a home over the Internet, but we think we can not sell a home over the Internet by not giving them the courtesy of a response,” Dwight says. “How many of these leads would it take to convert to sales to make it worth doing? Not many at all.”

The results have been impressive, to say the least. During the first 10 months of the pilot, the Community Information Specialists handled 19,121 inquiries. Those produced 1,912 second inquiries, and of those, 113 purchased homes.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.