At a time when builders need to make the most of every prospective buyer who walks through the door, a study of 50 new-home communities in Denver found that only about half the sales agents asked if they could follow up, 36 percent actually did it, and only 14 percent sent anything relevant to what the buyers said was important to them.
Even more shocking was this statistic: On 16 percent of the visits, no one even spoke to the shoppers, even though they stood in the sales center or model and clearly demonstrated interest-and even when they were the only visitor in the sales center. In 74 percent of the visits, the shopper was the only person in the sales center; in another 20 percent, there was one other shopper there.
The study was released as a white paper in March by Greentree Village, Colo.-based marketing firm Red Tree Marketing Resultants and its technology partners, Qqenesis. The group conducted on-site visits in October 2007 to study how new-home sales agents communicate with their prospects during follow-up.
"We were going to evaluate the quality of communication," says Brendan Miller, a principal at Red Tree. "We thought we could help companies extend their marketing campaigns with follow-up."
So they posed as "A" prospects-ready, willing, and able to buy-and visited the new-home communities of 31 different builders and developers, including more than a dozen of the BUILDER 100 top 20. They went during the week and on the weekend. They dressed like the upwardly mobile business professionals that they are. They filled out registration cards.
Then they waited for the agents to respond. And waited. And waited.
"We started to look at the data and could see we weren't getting any," says Miller, who also has a background of working in marketing for a national builder. "We were blown away. Builders are spending millions and millions of dollars on marketing and their customers are being ignored."
Follow-up with relevant information-details about the house, the community, or the builder that interested or concerned the prospect-was the area that needed the most attention, Miller says.
"The salespeople are asking for the information and talk to you about it but don't take the next step and use it to their advantage," Miller says. "I shopped home builders three to six months ago, and the e-mails I get are completely and totally void of any information I gave that salesperson. It's just a blast e-mail; people want relevant information."
Lest builders outside of Denver think the results don't apply to them, Dallas-based sales training consultant Bob Hafer says the lack of follow-up is a nationwide issue in home building.
"We take for granted that people will return. The process the buyer goes through is a process of elimination. They're really not in process of buying. They're in the process of elimination. .... If the sales agent doesn't participate at that moment, by default they get eliminated."
Mike Lyon, sales director for Edmond, Okla.-based custom builder 4 Corners Custom Homes, posted the white paper on his real estate blog, www.doyouconvert.com, on Wednesday of this week. He says the results aren't surprising because he regularly hears the same thing from prospective buyers. In three out of his last seven appointments, the customer told him that he was the only new-home sales agent that followed up to requests for specific information, such as floor plans, site maps, or standard home features. And he's thrilled.
"That's good for me because I don't have to worry about the competition," he says.
One piece of information from the white paper that did surprise Hafer was the percentage of follow-up e-mail that the marketers reported as getting caught in spam filters, Hafer says. Lacking a personalized message tailored to the recipient, Red Tree estimated that 75 percent of the e-mails sent to them were caught in their spam filters.
They recommended following up by phone and personalized thank-you notes, as well as e-mail, and asking customers to clear the builders' e-mail address for delivery with their Internet provider. If the customer doesn't respond via e-mail early in the process, builders should abandon it for long-term communication.
Hafer says follow-up should start with a 10- to 15-second phone call immediately after a prospect leaves the office to thank them for coming in and to promise to be in touch within 24 hours to answer any questions they might have.
"When I ask most people, 'When do you follow up?' they say 'Three or four days, a week,'" Hafer says. "That's too late. Out of sight, out of mind. If people come into a sales center, they're serious. When they leave, they're negotiating with each other about whether it was close to what they wanted. ... If you don't follow up immediately, something else could attract their attention."
If a sales agent isn't sure what to say in a personalized follow-up phone call or e-mail, Miller recommends having the builder's marketing director prepare templates that sales agents can easily adapt to individual buyers' specific interests and questions.
"This is where your time needs to be spent," Miller says.