Capture and Convert

Online leads to consumers are easy to come by, but is your office handling them in the most effective way?

March 1, 2009

Companies with strategies for responding to Web site leads reap big rewards.

Consumers can be an impatient lot. They want your attention and they want it now. Even if they don’t plan to actually start looking at homes, they expect a near-immediate response to their online inquiries.

That can be tough for a sales force hungry for sales now. You don’t want associates spending an inordinate amount of time responding to anonymous e-mails from consumers who aren’t ready to buy. But you also don’t want to squander a prime opportunity to build loyalty and cultivate new clients.

The solution: Create a brokeragewide protocol for responding promptly and professionally to leads that come in through your Web site. Without a system, all the money you spend to draw consumers to your Web site will swirl down the drain.

Here’s advice from brokers who are having success with systems that turn those leads into clients.

The First Response

Any good online lead response strategy starts with the person or team that processes online leads. While staffing models vary greatly from company to company, the core priorities tend to be the same: Respond quickly, assign promising leads to associates, and build loyalty among customers who are still in the information-gathering phase.

Many national franchise companies use sophisticated software-based systems for propelling online leads directly to associates using precalculated criteria. At some smaller companies, a staff person will personally sift through the online leads and assign them to associates. Between those two extremes is a range of models:

At John L. Scott Real Estate in Bellevue, Wash., eBusiness Director Barry Matheny heads a staff of five licensed sales associates who review companywide leads, gather more information from the consumer, and alert a sales associate who is approved to receive online leads. "We contact at least 99 percent of the leads and uncover the clients’ needs," says Matheny. "We’ll ask more questions to determine whether they’re ready to talk to someone or if they’re looking for information about property but not yet ready to make that commitment to be assigned to a sales associate. With about 30 percent of the leads, we’ve nailed it down enough that clients have told us they’re ready to talk to a sales associate."

Just one licensed associate handles all online leads for the 75-person brokerage Liz Moore & Associates in Newport News, Va., says company president Liz Moore, CRB, GRI. The so-called "concierge" is responsible for providing an immediate e-mail response and forwarding leads to sales associates.

At the 450-associate Guarantee Real Estate in Fresno, Calif., the marketing department oversees an automated system for capturing online leads. "We have a tracking system that routes inquiries to sales associates," says president and CEO J. Scott Leonard, CRB. The software generates reports that include the time the inquiry came in and how quickly the company responded. Leonard estimates the total cost of his online-lead processing efforts at less than $25,000 per year.

Who Gets the Lead

With online inquiries, the biggest question many brokerages face is: Who gets the lead? If a consumer sends an e-mail that asks specifically about a property listed by a sales associate at the company, there’s no dispute that the listing associate gets the lead. But the answer is less straightforward with leads that aren’t related to an associate’s listing.

At the 200-associate Village Real Estate Services in Nashville, a broker reviews general requests to determine if they fit a particular sales associate’s skills. "We want to find a match to serve that client best," says Mark Deutschmann, CRS®, GRI, the company’s broker-owner. "If consumers are interested in a downtown condo, we have sales associates who focus on that market." When leads aren’t specific enough to be matched to any sales associate’s expertise, the broker passes it onto the sales associate who’s handling floor duty.

At other companies, online leads go only to sales associates who are approved to receive them. Special training is often required. "About two years ago, we created a rapid response team," says Guarantee’s Leonard. "About 10 percent of our sales associates have been trained and are qualified to be on the team. They’re trained in how to effectively use e-mail and Internet communications to respond, and they must have with them at all times a PDA or a smart phone so that they have connectivity."

The process is similar at John L. Scott. "We have criteria that identify the best sales associates to fit this team," explains Matheny. "They need to have a smart phone, a certain level of transactions, and the ability to respond seven days a week."

Because online consumers will go elsewhere if their inquiries are ignored, most brokerages determine a tight time frame in which the associates must respond. "During regular work hours, we get to clients within five minutes. If it’s after hours, it’s 5 to 15 minutes. Within 30 minutes, we have the lead in the hands of a sales associate, and the sales associate is required to make contact again within 30 minutes to an hour."

Guarantee’s associates must respond within 20 minutes. "They’re held accountable," says Leonard. "If a response isn’t generated in 20 minutes, we have the right to move that lead. But most of our associates do respond within that time frame."

Many, but not all, brokers charge a referral fee, due at closing, for the general leads they pass onto sales associates. "We do a 30 percent referral fee taken off the top of the transaction, and then sales associates receive their split," says Deutschmann.

Leonard, however, takes a different tack. "We don’t charge our sales associates referral or transaction fees to be a part of the team," he says. "We felt it was important that our sales associates know we’re in this together."

Incubation Strategies

Even when online consumers aren’t ready to buy or sell, they’re still highly valuable prospects, Leonard says. "Sales associates start to develop a relationship with consumers by providing specific information in response to their request. We also encourage consumers to become part of our instant notification program by registering and receiving automatic e-mail notification when a property similar to their criteria comes on the market. We have hundreds of people on that system. It’s a constant contact system, and consumers can opt out at any time."

Liz Moore & Associates sends a standard e-mail in response to all online inquiries, with the understanding that many consumers who use the Web are in the information-gathering stage and wish to remain anonymous. The message thanks consumers for using the brokerage site, acknowledges that they may not be ready to divulge personal information, and states that the company will fully respect their online privacy. Finally, the message informs consumers that they will receive a complimentary copy of a monthly newsletter, which they can opt out of at any time.

Consumers who’ve contacted John L. Scott but aren’t yet ready to take action—and haven’t been put in touch with a specific sales associate—go into the company’s drip marketing campaign and are personally contacted at least once a month by Matheny’s staff. "If clients aren’t ready to go, we want to stay connected as long as they allow us to," explains Matheny. "They can opt out any time they want."

What’s the Payoff?

Despite their extensive efforts to convert promising online leads and build loyalty with prospects, some brokers say it’s hard to quantify their results. In some cases, off-the-shelf software doesn’t offer all the tracking tools they need, and customized software is simply too expensive.

Matheny, however, has his numbers down to a decimal point, thanks in part to his company’s substantial investment in staffing his department and its technology, in addition to the firm’s work customizing the lead-management software it uses, LeadTrax from Williamsville, N.Y.-based LanTrax Inc.

"From referrals that go to sales associates, 16.2 percent result in a closed sale," he says. "That’s gone up in the last three years from 9 percent to 14 percent to 16 percent. I’d like to see that number improve down the road to one in four or one in five closed sales."

Even with the best technology, a broker’s success rate with online leads depends largely on commitment and knowledge of the sales force. "If you’ve got professional sales associates on the team who are interested in working with Internet clients and understanding how they think, you have a better opportunity to increase those numbers," he says.

freelance writer

G.M. Filisko is a Chicago area freelance and former editor for REALTOR® Magazine.