Richard Borge

McBride & Son Enterprises isn’t participating in the downturn. So says CEO John ­Eilermann, whose Chesterfield, Mo.–based company now keeps open its sales offices for 107 communities an extra hour and asks its sales managers to conduct after-hours call-a-thons to pique possible customers’ interest in weekend sales events.

Buyers are scarce, and builders’ first line of customer contact—their sales offices and models—can’t afford to miss a beat. That’s also why The Pinehills in Plymouth, Mass., requires all 10 builders in its 3,000-acre community to keep their 22 models open seven days a week. “In tough times, we want to make the customer as comfortable as possible,” says Tony Green, managing director of Pinehills. You better be open, say builders, if motivated customers are spending money on expensive gas to drive to your sales office, especially on a holiday. So when Los Angeles–based Pardee Homes kept the offices for its 45 communities open during the Fourth of July weekend—despite grumbling from its employees—it offered $250 gas cards to anyone who purchased a home. Pardee netted 26 sales that weekend, says Gary Probert, Pardee’s vice president of sales. “That was one of our better sales weeks this year.”

“You never know when people have the inclination to shop,” says Sandra Kulli, owner of Malibu, Calif.–based Kulli Marketing. Yet, more than a few builders have curtailed their field selling efforts during the downturn and on certain days only see customers by appointment. Kulli witnessed this first hand when she and a young customer arrived simultaneously at a builder’s model complex at 11:45 a.m. on a weekday only to be told by the sales rep inside that they couldn’t enter until 1 p.m. Kulli asked the customer what he was looking for and took him to a subdivision at nearby Foothill Ranch, Calif., where he eventually purchased a house.

The downturn has produced its share of bizarre moments, though few have been weirder than when a top 10 builder hired temps to direct vehicle and pedestrian traffic to its sales office in Riverside, Calif. Unfortunately, observed JoAnne Williams, the builder’s sales office was closed. “That’s a lack of personnel ­coordination,” says ­Williams, who owns Irvine, Calif.–based ­JWilliamsStaffing, which provides sales help to builders. Williams also notes that some builders are leaving customers ­stranded when they substitute live contact with business cards on a sales office door for local resale reps “who may or may not know anything about [the builder’s] ­product,” a tactic she’s seen some builders resort to in Phoenix.

There are, of course, legitimate reasons for builders to scale back their field sales. “It’s an allocation of resources question,” explains Jeff Shore, president of Auburn, Calif.–based Shore Select, a sales training specialist. In mid-July, for example, Shore spoke with a client in Seattle whose sales office had only three visitors in the past month. But after checking in with other builders, Shore says he found that the tendency to reduce selling hours “is more widespread than I thought.”

Bill Probert, Gary Probert’s brother and a former John Laing Homes executive who is now a sales consultant, thinks builders need to be more proactive about asking customers when they prefer to shop “and adjust their hours accordingly.” Face-to-face interaction is indispensable now that “conventional modes of advertising aren’t working,” says Desiree Davis, vice president of sales and marketing for M/I Homes in Columbus, Ohio. M/I ­requires its sellers to prospect for leads, and they have been joining different local ­networks, such as the Columbus Young Professionals Group, and veterans’ organizations through which the builder offers discounts to soldiers returning from tours of duty overseas. The Pinehills snags new leads through various events such as art exhibits and jazz festivals. These events and its other accommodations seem to be effective as Pinehills’ sales this year “have been holding up,” Green says.

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