Big Companies Invest in Technology to Grab Online Consumers

Posted by — June 12, 2005

Part 1: Best practices in Internet lead conversionBy Glenn Roberts Jr., Inman News Real estate brokerage company Real Living has trained hundreds of its real estate agents in the art of handling online queries from consumers. To better understand and serve this pool of online consumers, the company has created a RealE agent designation that recognizes a proficiency in developing electronic requests into business opportunities.

Since launching the new online lead effort in August 2004, Real Living has trained about 500 RealE agents, said Kaira Sturdivant Rouda, chief marketing officer for Real Living. "We have been building our own in-house tools to create lead generation and customer care the way we wanted to, within our philosophy," she said. That philosophy, she said, places an emphasis on customer service. "We are taking an approach that's more about quality of leads and building an online relationship--(it's not) about dumping a bunch of leads onto an agent."

Online consumers know "whether they are being treated like a commodity or a person," she said.

Real Living also has taken an "agent-centric" approach to building and refining it's online lead system, Rouda said, and many of the RealE agents were already savvy in working with an online audience. Real Living gathered input from agents and managers in designing its lead-generation strategy, and also conducted consumer focus groups.

The company is not alone in refining its methods for prospecting Internet-based leads--many companies big and small are working to tap into this vein of tech-ready home sellers and buyers and to capture their attention and hopefully their business. Real estate consumers are already online, and brokers are aggressively working to convert their mouse clicks into house picks.

The initial group of Real Living's RealE agents are beta testers, and the program is still evolving and will be expanding to a larger group of agents. "We're going to open up to whoever is interested in it. We'd welcome everyone to be a part of it--there are many different types of consumers out there and there is an agent for each person."

The training for the RealE designation is broken into three parts, two of which are conducted online. The final installment of training is in a classroom setting.

Real Living has a goal to convert 18 percent of its online leads into actual real estate customers, and at this time the company said it converts an estimated 10 percent of the online leads it receives.

The company is testing out a variety hand-held technologies for accepting online leads. The company went live in April with a redesign of its Web site, which plays a vital role in online lead generation, Rouda also said.

Handheld devices and a lead-routing real estate professional are the backbone of a simple lead management system deployed at Century 21 Sussex & Reilly, a Chicago real estate brokerage. Glen Tomlinson, president and general manager of the Sussex & Reilly brokerage, said the office's real estate agents receive leads via BlackBerry devices, which are Internet-capable hand-held units that also function as cell phones.

"Every one of my agents is required to have a BlackBerry," Tomlinson said. The company's lead manager is a licensed real estate professional who is "essentially a dispatcher" and follows up with agents and online consumers to make sure they received the help they requested. "It's simplicity and common sense combined, and it works in managing a high-tech environment. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel to do this."

The company was founded in January 2000, and at that time its agents used Palm 7 handheld devices. In 2002, they switched over to BlackBerry devices. Online leads come from a variety of sources--Realtor.com, Century21.com and the brokerage's own Web site, which is powered by BirdView Technologies.

Listing agents typically receive all leads relating to their listings, Tomlinson said, and there is a rotating schedule for generic leads. "We train our agents to be converters not only of Internet leads but of all kinds of leads. Our conversion rate is pretty phenomenal--we're getting nearly a 16 percent conversion rate on these Internet leads." Ideally, consumers will supply telephone numbers when contacting the company electronically, he said. The goal is to call agents back as soon as possible, and typically agents will respond in less than 10 minutes.

"We need immediate response because it's proven that the consumer, if they're not contacted, they're going to move on to somebody else's Web site and we don't want that," Tomlinson said. It's important for agents to be persistent with online consumers, too, and to contact them every 72 hours or so or unless they tell the agent to back off a bit, he also said.

The average age of Sussex & Reilly agents is 32, compared to an industry average of about 54--"most of our agents have advanced degrees. They are coming with corporate experience or coming right out of college," he said.

The company has a motto of "high-tech and high-touch," he added. "Right now we're waiting for technology to go to the next big thing--and then we'll adapt to that. It's still going to be a people business."

Cendant Corp., which owns the nation's largest real estate brokerage company, made a big investment in online lead management with its purchase in November of LeadRouter, a lead management system that routes Internet-based leads to agents via automated phone calls. Cendant is parent to NRT, which owns some Coldwell Banker, Century 21 and ERA offices. The company also serves as a franchiser for these major real estate brands and others.

This month, the Cendant Real Estate Franchise Group announced that more than 15,000 sales associates from 460 offices are using the LeadRouter system, and NRT expects that nearly all of its 59,000 sales associates and 1,000 company-owned offices will adopt this technology within the next 45 days.

LeadRouter is essentially a broker tool, said Mark Panus, a Cendant spokesman. Brokers can customize the system for their offices. "It's up to the broker to determine the business rules, and there are as many different models as you can imagine," he said. The lead generation system could even be used to process and track recruitment-related calls.

"The beauty of LeadRouter is that it is adaptable to whatever systems you currently have in place. The whole thing is geared around the cell phone, which is ubiquitous in the real estate industry." Agents receiving leads can choose which phone numbers the system can reach them at, and they can also choose to accept the information as a text message on a hand-held device.

Offline leads can be entered into the LeadRouter system too, Panus said, and brokers can track leads and view detailed reports that follow the life of the leads. These reports can serve as a powerful guide for Internet advertising strategies, he added, as some brokers may not previously have had a system in place to determine how each and every consumer contact was managed.

While Panus said the system "does work" and "has value for agents," Cendant is not publicizing how the system has helped to improve its online lead conversion rate.

Prudential Douglas Elliman, a company with 60 offices that focus on New York City, Long Island and the Hamptons, is also working on an automated system to track response time to online leads and to gauge customer satisfaction in the company's response.

Chris Peters, the company's executive vice president and sales director, said every agent at his office has an individual Web site that helps to drum up online leads. "A lot of the leads that used to come from telephones -- a good 60 percent of those now come through the Internet directly to the agent," Peters said.

Consumers are doing a lot of research online before they contact an agent, he said. "(They) are doing a lot of the work themselves." At Peters' Manhattan real estate office, which has 85 agents, business has been so frantic that there hasn't been much time to track all of the online leads. "At least in my case there hasn't been all that much tracking because it's been so crazy. We really don't need to track them because we're doing so well business-wise."

Peters said he educates his agents that it is important to respond to online and telephone inquiries as soon as possible. Several of his office's top agents carry BlackBerry devices, he said -- "many of them just live on it. They're talking to you and answering e-mails (simultaneously). The technology today is incredible." Peters spoke as he was grocery shopping -- this multi-tasking in a communications-heavy world is something that today's agents seem to handle with ease, he said.

This article was originally published on www.inman.com

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