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Twelve months ago, most leaders in our industry were absolutely giddy at the idea that model homes, salespeople, and customers seemed to be an optional part of doing business. “We may never open up our model homes for walk-in traffic again,” one sales manager told me. “It isn’t worth the hassle.”

While I was concerned about the extreme nature of the changes being pursued, it felt like at the very least builders were progressing in their views around sales and marketing. My hope was that when the market softened, builders would realize that a hybrid structure is infinitely better than a digital-only one, and approaches would moderate but remain progressive. Wow, was I wrong.

Instead of moderating, builders seem to be quickly reverting. The most common question I am asked is when I think walk-in traffic will return to pre-pandemic levels (spoiler alert: It won’t!). Walk-in traffic stopped being the No. 1 driver of sales results in 2009. The desire by those who never fully understood the digital disruption happening around them to “get back to normal” is now on full display.

Beware of dinosaurs in our industry trying to pull us back into a prehistoric approach to sales and marketing. Weekend directional signs, balloons, carnival events, and enter-to-win contests won’t help us exceed sales goals. Let’s review what we absolutely have learned to do better, and what we should continue to move toward even in a tough market.

Appointments Over Traffic

The obsession with customer traffic to both model homes and websites remains unhealthy. As sales slowed this spring, the immediate response was to increase ad spending to any level necessary to bring in more traffic. “The word budget doesn’t exist for us anymore,” one marketer told me. “They told me I have a blank check.”

This worked to calm the nerves and sell some houses, but it didn’t make the storm clouds disappear. Builders spent serious money and drove serious amounts of website traffic—but, unsurprisingly, sales levels remained below sales goals.

As I’m writing this in November, website traffic remains at historic highs (right around the same level as spring 2021), and yet lead and appointment levels are now 20% to 40% below 2019, depending on the region. Sales are a function of leads and appointments rather than traffic. There are more than enough people interested in a new home to create traffic. We need to keep innovating ways to inspire and motivate them to take the next step forward, but marketing teams are being asked to focus so much on traffic generation that the necessary content and messaging adjustments aren't being prioritized.

Content Over Advertising

Advertising is important to grab the consumer’s attention, but content creates certainty in the consumer’s mind that they want what you are selling. Outstanding content with mediocre advertising over the long term will outperform mediocre content and world-class advertising. I’m not suggesting that you need your own reality streaming series on Netflix, but you do need interactive floor plans, photo galleries, testimonials, videos, and detailed product specifications. One helpful way to think about content is that you need two very different buckets—one filled with product details and the other filled with stories. Customers will interact with both buckets throughout their journey and will feel something is missing if your builder only focuses on one and not the other.

How that content is displayed and organized so that it can be easily consumed is also critical. Using a builder’s website on your phone too often feels like we’re still loading it up on a brick phone or BlackBerry in 2006. Content that is too small to view clearly, features that expand off the screen, and interactive content that unintentionally locks the ability to scroll past it is unacceptable today. Conversion from traffic to lead on mobile remains roughly half of what it is on desktop, and that isn’t because “serious” buyers decide to pull out their laptops because they want to, it's often because they have to.

On-Demand Service Over Business Hours

During the Great Recession, the role of the online sales specialist exploded because builders realized that availability of on-demand service and speed of response to requests was paramount to outselling their competition. Today is no different, but the competitive landscape has expanded to all parts of the business. It isn’t just online sales, but also traditional sales, design center, production, and warranty teams that are being held to a higher standard.

Allowing customers to self-serve using technology is always a great concept, but requiring them to do so is a horrible one. Perhaps counterintuitively, the mountains of information and content we provide them so they can self-service often prompts even more questions and requests for help from an expert. That is how you convert them from traffic to an appointment—if you have someone who can respond to those requests quickly and professionally. Your goal should be to build a journey where customers don’t need their hand held each step of the way, but whenever they do raise their hand for help, an incredible team member quickly appears.

Intellectual Honesty Over Distractions

I saved the best for last. When things get harder, it is easy to assume that focus on the most important things will increase in order to get the needed results, but often I witness that distractions actually increase and focus is diffused. Why does this happen? It seems that aspects of fantasy creep in so that a harsher reality doesn’t need to be faced head-on. Instead of tough conversations around pricing, selection, and availability, it is easier to wonder if perhaps you could instead find a whole new group of consumers who aren’t price conscious. Maybe an event where you raffle off two tickets to the big game will cause crowds to form and contracts to be written?

Maybe changing the color of your starburst on the sign will stir customers to action? No, that’s too subtle—a whole new company logo would do the trick, though. All of this sounds rather ridiculous when you read it in black and white, but board rooms around the country (or Zoom calls) are filled with these kinds of conversations.

Don’t waste time. Look at the data—we have no lack of data these days—and then combine it with what you know to be true from your time in this business. Demand intellectual honesty from yourself and those around you. It will keep your budget, energy, and time focused on what can truly impact results. The next period of time will be a challenge for many, especially those who haven’t experienced this part of the housing cycle before. Continual adjustment will be necessary, but don’t let the market shift wipe away all of the progress we’ve made toward meeting the customer where they are, and where they want to be.