Illustrations by C.J. Burton

Two years ago, when today’s fading seller’s market was white-hot, leadership at EYA Marketing realized its sales associates were inconsistent when responding to new-home prospects who contacted the company via email, phone, and website contact forms.

Overwhelmed with foot traffic through model homes, salespeople returned emails and phone calls when they could get to them—sometimes within 10 minutes, sometimes 10 hours, sometimes the next day, sometimes not at all.

“It wasn’t a priority,” says Astrid De Lima, a former EYA Marketing sales assistant who was promoted when leadership created a new position to take control of those leads. As a new-home adviser, De Lima is tasked with responding—immediately—to every phone call and online inquiry the company receives, 24/7. She has thrived in the role, though after nearly two years of never being able to eat dinner without being interrupted by a phone call, she now turns the phone calls—but not online inquiries—over to sales associates on Saturdays and Sundays.

“My company takes my position seriously,” De Lima says of the realty division of EYA, which sells new homes in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. “This is money on the table. If somebody’s not following up, that is money lost.”

De Lima is among a small but rapidly growing pool of professionals filling the position of online sales counselor, which didn’t exist in home building a decade ago. As millennials and tech-savvy boomers take over the marketplace—with the digital natives of Gen Z close behind—the number of buyers taking their new-home searches online is growing exponentially, and the industry has been slow to keep up. Until recently, only the largest public home builders had dedicated resources to follow up on leads generated from online searches, and industry experts say that most of those efforts have been paltry at best.

Though crucial, dedicated online sales counselors remain something of a unicorn, says John Palumbo, CEO of Jacksonville, Fla.-based The Sales DNA Institute, who lectures around the world about the science of sales. “Only the big boys have begun to understand their importance.”

A Cooling Market
Late last year, online real estate database company Zillow released the results of a study of more than 500 people who reached out to new-home builders through the site. After 72 hours, more than half, 52%, had been unable to connect with a builder. Zillow also found that nearly half, 45%, still hadn’t heard from and were unable to connect with the builders they’d contacted after two to four weeks.

The results surprised no one in the industry.

“I’m trying not to use words like ‘lazy,’” says Scott Thorson, COO of Denver-based Oakwood Homes, “but salespeople have traditionally been pretty good when buyers come into the office. They’re hot, they’re excited, and the salespeople go after that. They’re not as good at looking back over long-term leads or prospects until things get a little tighter and they need to work it.”

In a hot market, builders and their salespeople don’t have to care about the customer experience, says Denver-based Bokka Group co-founder Jimmy Diffee, a customer service expert who provides workshops and experience-management services for home builders. “Hot markets really equal lazy salespeople,” he says.

Riding on nearly seven years of uninterrupted growth, home builders have had no reason to chase leads, and they’re certainly not alone. In late 2018, Indianapolis marketing firm Valve + Meter submitted lead forms, appointment requests, quote estimates, and other service-inquiry forms to 466 home services companies across the U.S. and found that 95% didn’t respond within five minutes, 71% didn’t respond within an hour, and 55% didn’t respond within a day. Only 37% of the companies called back despite having phone numbers and permission to do so.

“You might as well throw a pile of cash in the middle of the table and set it on fire,” says Valve + Meter CEO Marcia Barnes, noting that time is money in home sales. Companies are six times more likely to close a lead if a query is answered within five minutes, Barnes says, and they might as well not even bother if they can’t respond within six hours. For all companies, including home builders, she adds, not following up on leads and following up too late is “an incredible threat.”

Palumbo agrees, and questions the value of interactive websites if builders aren’t equipped to keep up with inquiries. “At the expense of sounding harsh, if I didn’t have the capability to respond quickly, I wouldn’t even offer ‘for more info’ or ‘just ask us’ features. I would just encourage them to come to the model home,” Palumbo says. “If you respond two days later, they’ll be irritated it took you so long. Or they’ll be confused.”

Twenty years ago, before the world digitized, it was fine to return calls or respond to requests for information within a day or so, says Kerry Mulcrone, founder of Minneapolis-based new-home sales and training company Kerry & Co. Those days are long gone, she adds.

“We live in a quicker, faster, better world,” Mulcrone says. “If you don’t get it to them, someone else will. I call it the ‘new speed of life.’ It controls us. Instantaneous responses show who we are and how we do that well. They keep us in the game.”

Illustrations by C.J. Burton

Uncertain Future
The Navy SEALs have a saying: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in combat.” Jason Forrest, CEO of sales and leadership training company FPG, thinks about that often as all signs point to the new-home market beginning to melt—and possibly liquefy. (Late last year, the NAHB’s confidence index took its biggest plummet since 2014, falling eight points in November and another four in December.)

“Winter always comes,” Forrest says, “and right now, we’re going to get clobbered when the valve shuts off and salespeople don’t know how to convince someone to do something."

Sales managers base success on number of sales and amount of money made rather than lead-to-sale conversion rates (learn how CRM software is changing that process here), says International New Home Sales Specialists founder Bob Schultz, meaning salespeople are “grossly overpaid for underperformance.” Because they’ve been confusing sizable paychecks for equally sizable skill sets, many are too comfortable if not downright too cocky to survive the coming market, he says. “Ask salespeople today if there’s anything they want to get better at, and they’ll say, ‘Nothing, I’m doing great. I made six figures this year,’” Schultz says.

“Things are going to be a bit tougher, that’s just how it is,” Oakwood’s Thorson predicts. Though Oakwood consistently brings home industry sales awards, the company isn’t taking any chances. It has expanded its online sales teams in all divisions, making counselors available for extended hours of live chat sessions, tracking the teams’ progress, and compensating them based on success. “It has made a difference,” Thorson says, “but we’re not where we need to be.”

Martha Clifford, who has become the face of Bethlehem, Pa.–based Tuskes Homes after six years of having her photo appear on the company’s website in “Ask Martha” popups and being the one to personally answer nearly every call and online inquiry the builder has received, says traffic came to a halt at the end of 2018. The director of marketing and online sales is no slacker—70% to 80% of Tuskes’ annual sales are from appointments she books—and the slowdown has only motivated her to dig deeper.

“You have to be able to work independently and sort through databases of people to find leads that are already there and re-engage them,” she says. “A lot of that, honestly, is just doing the same grind every day, doing the same things over and over. I’m never just, like, off.” She takes calls and answers emails 24/7, sometimes from the sidelines of her kids’ soccer games, and spends anywhere from one day to five years nurturing leads. When people reach out to the firm through the website and social media, they almost always begin their inquiries, “Hi, Martha.”

Clifford strives to respond within three to five minutes of receiving an inquiry—a much-heralded industry goal. She’s aware that digital databases like Zillow and New Home Source now offer concierge services for home builders that will make that first connection with potential buyers immediately after they submit an inquiry, and she finds the idea deplorable. “I don’t want a concierge taking that first step,” she says. “I want to be that person.”

Virtual Salespeople
Online sales counselors like De Lima and Clifford are paid commissions based on the appointments they book, and they’re not about to let a single lead slip through the cracks. Tulsa, Okla.–based Do You Convert president Mike Lyon, who helps home building companies develop and implement online sales and marketing programs, coaches his clients to use seven to nine touch points, including email, phone, video email, and texting, over the first 30 days after a lead comes in. Only about 3% of the builders he works with do anything more than send two emails and make a phone call, so right off the bat he helps them double that response.

When prospects respond back (in the best-case scenario), Lyon teaches his clients to build rapport and have great conversations. “They’re not glorified secretaries just setting up appointments,” he says. “They’re virtual salespeople. When they do it right, by the time they hand off the lead, they should be almost halfway through the sales process. That makes buyers more likely to go to contract, most times on that first visit.”

The role of the online counselor is to capture the lead, satisfy consumers’ need for immediate information, and answer questions, Palumbo says. “They have one sole objective: Create curiosity and get them to the development, to the model home. Set the appointment.”

Dallas-based builder Dunhill & Nathan Carlisle’s two online sales managers have personalities that vice president of marketing Chris Hartley describes as “coffee-worthy” (a term borrowed from sales trainer Jeff Shore) because they pull people in with good conversation and positive energy, and he says that’s making all the difference as his firm strives to stand out in the competitive Dallas-Fort Worth market. “In Dallas, where there are so many home builders, if people don’t think you care, they’ll move on to the next one,” Hartley says. “First impressions are everything.”

Since Dunhill (now part of Trendmaker Homes) implemented its online sales program with two dedicated counselors, the builder has been converting nearly half of those appointments to sales, and doing it significantly faster than it used to, Hartley says. By the time potential buyers arrive at the model, the salesperson has been briefed on their needs, lifestyle, and financial situation. “You’re jumping from, like, stage one to stage seven,” Hartley says. “It makes you look truly professional as a company, and shows that you care.”

Support from the Top
De Lima believes she’s been successful at EYA Marketing because she has the right personality, skills, and training to be an online sales counselor, but backing from company leadership has also been crucial. When she started, she says, most of EYA’s six sales managers were unhappy about relinquishing control of any leads—even ones they didn’t see as priorities. “They were standoffish,” she says. “It takes time; it takes patience. They started seeing better results, and things have gotten better.”

Clifford, who often shares best practices with other online counselors and advises other home builders who are interested in starting programs, is adamant that the program only works if leadership and the entire sales staff buy in. By nurturing leads with attentiveness and care, Clifford sets high standards for customers that she expects the sales staff to maintain after she passes along the lead.

At Kentucky-based Fischer Homes, the online sales program implemented two and half years ago has expanded from three counselors to six sales managers. The on-site sales team appreciates being able to focus on selling to highly qualified prospects, says sales director Elizabeth Breitenstein. Since the online team does such a good job of making sure prospects are a good fit with the models they visit, online leads are converting to sales at about double the rate of walk-ins, she adds.

“It’s fun to see the teamwork,” Breitenstein says. “They haven’t always met face to face, but I feel like both sides know each other really well and are excited when someone chooses to build with us.”