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Online Customer Service: It’s Not Just Your Phone That’s Smart

customer serviceThis article by Carol M. Flammer, MIRM first appeared on the NSMC Sales and Marketing Channel.

In today’s fast paced world of smart phones, portable laptops and technology that seems to move at the speed of light, how is the average sales agent or builder supposed to keep up?

Mitch Levinson, MIRM, managing partner with mRELEVANCE says, “With the new advances in communication technology and smart phones, being ‘connected’ is now on a whole new level. Information gathering is no longer scheduled for when we are behind our computers; we can access information ‘right now’ from our phones.” The changes in technology present new options for customer service, and successful agents will embrace them wholeheartedly.

Building Connections

From the earliest interactions with potential buyers – with the initial presentation of information –new technology requires changes in the way builders present information to potential home buyers. Levinson says, ‘”Smart phones with browsers are growing in popularity and ownership, so your website will be seen on a small phone-sized screen. Flash and other technologies that may not work on these phones should be taken into consideration when evaluating your current website or building a new one.”

Levinson also encourages builders to utilize text messaging with appropriate websites in honor of one of today’s preferred means of communication. And while a builder’s mobile website needs to be graphically appealing, Levinson it’s even more important to drill down into data and information that buyers seek now.

“Connectivity is key. Make sure Internet shoppers can find your website from anywhere and everywhere including blogs, other websites, Facebook, Twitter, text messages and email. Bring prospective buyers into your website through special pages built to track where your visitors are coming from.”

Quick and Conversational

Serving today’s buyer well goes far beyond making the initial connection in a way they can easily access. It is all about response time. Consumers are impatient and want it now. Whether it is a response to the email we just sent or the lunch we just ordered, we seem to have a fast-food mentality that everything should be available in five minutes or less.

This applies to home sales too. From the moment a potential home buyer contacts you, whether through your website or your Facebook page, your response time is crucial. Your initial response to their inquiry lets them know you are interested in them. How fast is fast enough? Experts say four minutes!

Not only does your response need to be timely, but it also needs to be conversational. Today’s technology savvy buyers like to buy from people they have a relationship with. Remember, it is all about them. Every lead represents a person. Help them to solve their problems, and they won’t be just leads for long; they will be in-person, on-site appointments.

Dedicated Online Counselors

Ideally, builders will employ an online sales counselor to respond quickly and effectively to online leads, laying the foundation of relationships within moments of an online inquiry. Fellow MIRM Kelly Kenton Fink, regional marketing and Internet director with Bowen Family Homes says having a full-time, dedicated online sales counselor would be great, but it has become a bit of a luxury for most builders. Still, Fink says no matter how many leads your online activities create, builders should remember that each lead represents a prospective home buyer who wants a response quickly. “Not having someone in place to handle leads is like having a sales center open with no one there to answer questions or demonstrate why a prospective homebuyer should choose you over the competition,” says Fink.

Because having that one dedicated professional may be a hardship for many, Fink presents a hybrid approach to the position of online sales counselor. The builder may choose to have one dedicated agent handle the initial online inquiry, and then feed it to the appropriate on-site agent to follow up with specific information. Other builders have an office staff member handle the initial inquiry. They then forward to their onsite agents for additional follow-up.

The major problem that can occur with these approaches is that leads can easily get lost in the shuffle. It is always preferred to have one dedicated person to handle all “corporate” follow-up to ensure each lead receives quick and effective response. That is not to say that a unique approach cannot work effectively, but it is much more challenging, and it is imperative that a builder has the correct staff in place, Fink says.

“With limited budgets it is understandable that builders are choosing different follow-up methods, but in the end, having a dedicated online sales counselor is the most effective method. The sales and closings produced will be worth the investment,” says Fink. She suggests that builders also consider more bonus-based compensation structures on appointments and closings in order to help fit this position into their existing budget.

Beyond the Website into Social Media

Meredith Communications’ Meredith Oliver, MIRM, helps home builder clients augment online sales and service through social media.

“In my opinion, customer service may actually be the best application of social media, perhaps more powerful than marketing and sales applications,” says Oliver. “The idea that a company could monitor customers’ conversations in a very non-big brother way and be apprised in real time of customer dissatisfaction makes this an incredible customer service tool.”

Oliver continues, “Companies can know the instant a customer has a concern and on a worldwide Internet stage resolve that issue with total transparency. WOW! That will only gain more loyalty and customers. No amount of advertising dollars can buy that kind of marketing!”

Builders often doubt that home buyers will fan a builder on Facebook and/or follow them on Twitter, but Oliver has proof that they do. She says many builders are using social media tools to build a fan base. She discourages marketers from holding Internet media to a different standard than other mass media. “We don’t ask the newspaper [if] buyers are reading this because I only want buyers,” she says. “No! We understand that with other media the power is the mix and repetition. The same is true for social media.”

Oliver believes the key to making a difference in social media is having fun without overselling. “The key to social media is to be social but professionally appropriate,” says Oliver. “I call this ‘Personal-Professional.’ It’s kind of the new ‘Business-Casual.’ Let people get to know you.” Oliver’s rule of thumb is one sales pitch type post for every three social, fun, informative or educational posts.

In the end, society may call the phones “smart” and the media “social,” but it’s the people who learn to use them effectively who deserve the real applause. And in the home building industry, they’re likely the ones who stand to build more relationships and sell more homes. Who are we calling smart now?

Carol Flammer, MIRM, CAPS, author of “Social Media for Home Builders: It’s Easier Than You Think,” is the “go to” for real estate and construction products public relations and social media. She is the visionary behind the nationally-ranked and award-winning, Atlanta’s most popular real estate blog. Flammer is president of Flammer Relations, Inc., and managing partner of mRELEVANCE, LLC, an Internet marketing, social media and public relations firm with offices in Atlanta and Chicago. F lammer is a speaker at several tradeshows and speaks frequently to sales and marketing councils and teaches social media seminars at home builders associations around the country. Contact Flammer for social media, public relations on Internet marketing at 770-383-3360, @CarolFlammer or