In the old days, internet-based leads that came into Bowen Family Homes' Web site would go to Internet director Kelly Kenton Fink, who would parcel them out to the on-site sales agents. Busy with flesh-and-blood prospects standing in front of them, the sales agents often set these leads to the side until they had a free moment to respond. Or not.

“We funneled leads to the sales centers,” Fink says, “and the salespeople sent them back to me.”

Blair Kuhnen, president of Lux Solutions, a Fort Worth, Texas–based Internet marketing firm that specializes in residential construction, isn't surprised.

“On-site sales agents suck at managing Internet leads,” he says.

Something had to change. Just under 80 percent of today's home buyers start their research online, reports the National Association of Realtors. They may spend almost three months cruising around Web sites, according to a Harris Interactive survey of new-construction homeowners. They're figuring out which builders fit their needs and which ones are off their radar before they ever hit the “Contact Us” button to ask a question or sign up for a newsletter. Once they do make contact, they expect a response the same day. If they don't get it, a builder isn't likely to get a second chance.

“People go to the Internet to eliminate you,” Fink says.

HIGHER STANDARDS The standard of service needs to be on the same level as a live sales center, says Internet marketing expert Leighton Collis, founder and president of Boston-based Liquid Advertising, which works with builders and developers on their Web marketing, Internet-lead management, and customer service. In a sales center, a prospective customer asks a question and expects the sales agent to answer within 10 to 15 seconds because a person is standing in front of her. An Internet-based customer expects a response to an e-mail within 24 hours at the latest. Leads that are funneled to a sales center often result in a much slower response, if any at all. That ignores the pace the Internet customer expects for response and puts the lead at risk.

To address the issue, Bowen Family Homes started an Internet sales division in 2004 with one person responsible for responding to all Web-based requests for information on its Atlanta communities, as well as all Atlanta-related calls that came into its toll-free number, 1-800-MY BOWEN. The goal of the division was to set up appointments for the prospects with an on-site sales agent.

During the first year, the Internet sales counselor, Mary Donald, accounted for 7 percent of the Atlanta division's sales, Fink says. By the end of 2005, that number was up to 23 percent. In 2006, a second full-time Internet counselor, Derese Williams, was added. In March 2006, the Atlanta division credited the pair with driving 65 percent of the month's sales, with most of that related to a priority reservation list for its Ashmore community, a new, high-end product line for Bowen Family Homes with starting prices in the low $400,000s. Fifty-one of 85 available homes sold in nine days.

At year's end, the two online counselors had played a direct role in 32 percent of Bowen's Atlanta division's 1,003 sales. The builder recently hired a person to handle Internet leads for its Florida division as well, and if the results are what Fink expects, she plans to ask for the same position for its Texas operations.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Atlanta, GA, Charlotte, NC, Dallas, TX.