“If you look before COVID-19, tours and marketing were a little bit different,” said Tim Sullivan, senior managing principal for Meyers Research, in September during his opening remarks at PropTech, a virtual summit on technology in home building hosted by BUILDER. “Now it’s virtual, and you’ve heard how fast we have to be, how effective we have to be.”
Across two of PropTech’s sessions, representatives from three major home builders—PulteGroup, Lennar Corp., and CBH Homes—outlined how their companies have used tech platforms and innovative processes to overcome the hurdles imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond simple restoration of sales function, the three companies have shared the ways they use technology to ensure customer comfort, safety, and ongoing engagement in the home-buying process.
PulteGroup: “Let Them Shop The Way They Want To”
For some time, PulteGroup has appealed to consumers by reaching them where they are, to “let them shop the way they want to,” Diahann Young, director of innovation, content, and digital marketing at PulteGroup, said to open the session “From Tours to Social: Forward-Thinking Sales and Marketing Strategies.” Before, this meant providing options for buyers to shop for homes at their convenience—on mobile devices, for instance. Now, digital home sales have become a necessity, Young says, rather than a customer preference.
“2020 has been a year that’s caught a lot of us off guard,” Young says. “So in this year, what we’ve been focused on is how consumers want to shop, and how they live now in this new normal that we’re in.”
Since the start of the pandemic, PulteGroup, ranked No. 3 on the Builder 100 list, has expanded its virtual reality platform to cover 80% of its floor plans—a convenience that Young believes is set to remain as a standard practice for the company. Live virtual tours, which Pulte had “toyed with” prior to March and April, have also been greatly expanded and are widely used. “This continues to be important even as we’ve seen relaxations in stay-at-home guidance,” Young says.
For potential buyers who may want to avoid the crowds of a traditional open house event, Pulte’s Facebook Live and pre-taped Facebook Premier events have served as successful “one-to-many” modes for customer engagement. “On average, our Facebook Live events will see 200 people attend them,” Young says. At one highly anticipated Pulte community, seven people signed up for homes over the course of a one-hour Facebook Live event.
To serve customers who would rather “self-serve,” Pulte has moved beyond the traditional digital brochure by offering personalized versions, which cater specifically to a consumer’s previous interest in particular floor plans or features. Other new digital sales features include live video site selection, in which a salesperson guides the buyer through lot selection, and “silent sellers,” or information pop-ups available within virtual tours. (Self-guided tours are currently in the process of being tested across Pulte’s divisions, according to Young.)
CBH Homes: “Survive, Adapt, Advance, Thrive”
As the No. 1 builder in Idaho’s red-hot housing market, and ranked No. 38 the latest Builder 100 list, privately held CBH Homes is set to close on approximately 2,000 homes this year—every one of them built on spec. “I think it’s important that you know that, so that you understand why we do the things do,” Ronda Conger, vice president of CBH Homes, said to the PropTech audience during her section of “From Tours to Social.”
When COVID-19 hit, CBH Homes came together as a company to form a motto for the challenges ahead: “We Will Survive, We Will Adapt, We Will Advance, We Will Thrive.” To this end, the company has executed on two “game changers” in its sales process, Tour Now and Buy Online, both of which were in development before COVID, but accelerated by its onset.
Tour Now, a self-guided tour platform, saw a 213% increase in showings across 110 Tour Now-enabled home locations after mid-March. In response, CBH purchased an additional 100 locks for the system, nearly doubling the number of homes available for self-guided tours.
CBH buyers are able to access a Tour Now home on their own at any time via smartphone app, given a security check and 99-cent fee in exchange for an access code for the lock. According to Conger, the company saw this move as removing a “barrier to entry” to prospective buyers, all while keeping them safe.
“We realized that buyers wanted access to our homes now more than ever, hopefully to keep them safe so they could still go out and tour while all of this was going on,” Conger says.
Buy Online is a straightforward listing service that allows buyers to purchase a home online from anywhere. Users can reserve a home online with a $100 deposit, which goes toward the purchase of the home, and then make an appointment with CBH’s sales specialists within 24 hours to take care of paperwork. “It’s about meeting buyers where they are, and they’re on their sofas, they’re in their office,” Conger says. “That’s where you need to meet them and give them the opportunity to buy a home online.”
Following a period of simple curiosity from potential buyers, the Buy Online service saw a 162% increase in clicks from March to April 2020. As of now, it makes up 10% of the builder’s sales per month. According to Conger, the service works both as a purchase platform and a sales tool, where the limited reservation period provides buyers with a sense of urgency.
“With COVID, 'accelerate' is the word. Anything that you were going to do in five years, you’re going to do now,” Conger says. “You need to accelerate your programs, everything you’re doing, and hopefully the whole end is that it accelerates your results.”
Lennar: “Not Just Urgent, But Existential”
During the keynote speech at PropTech, “The Impact of Technology on Home Building,” Lennar executive chairman Stuart Miller examined the ways in which the home building industry must adapt to change.
“In the technology world, just six months ago, I was thinking, ‘Things are changing really quickly, and it’s really difficult to keep up with that rate of change,’” Miller says. “And then, all of a sudden, COVID was upon us. And the rate of change immediately accelerated. We have migrated from a moment where it was urgent that we become participatory in this changing world of technology … [to one where] technology-enabled change, technology-focused change, and new technologies incorporated in our business became not just urgent, but in fact existential.”
Miller marks the process of generating digital leads via website engagement and social media as a success, but notes that Lennar—No. 2 on the Builder 100 list—experienced initial issues with processing its lead volume holistically, both in terms of the volume of rejections and the lack of bandwidth available for successful leads.
The builder’s solution has been to “differentiate” these leads—to sort or score them by their likelihood of leading to a sale—using technology platforms like Salesforce. However, as only 10% of the builder’s yearly contracts can be traced back to digital leads, Miller says room still exists for innovation in digital lead engagement. ”Engaging our customers is very much a function of renovating and innovating the internal technologies that we operate,” he says.
Lennar has also implemented a process to address the “frictional” approach to the paperwork that comes between signing a contract and closing on a new home. “Our financial services group has been working together with companies that we have made investments in to engage APIs and AIs to be able to take that form-filling process and make it more seamless,” Miller says. “Together, we’re making their process more joyful … as they go from the contract to the closing.”
Finally, after the close is complete and the customer is moved in, Lennar remains engaged throughout the warranty period via various tech platforms, including Modsy, TechSee, Sheltr, Flo by Moen, and Hippo. Buyers can use these tools to monitor their homes, communicate issues to the builder, and receive direct responses and assistance in a helpful, satisfying fashion.
“All of the elements that define how we interact with our customer after closing are defining whether or not we earn the loyalty of our customer,” Miller says, “and, ultimately, their affections as we go forward.”