Technology can make your salespeople more productive. Here’s how.

By Bob Schultz.

Would you hire a salesperson who avoids the telephone? Employees who feel uncomfortable browsing the Internet or sending e-mail are fast becoming as much a liability. Yes, selling is still a face-to-face process, and the new-home salesperson must still be a world-class communicator, but verbal skills alone no longer guarantee success. We’ve got to reach out and connect with our customers. Increasingly, that first connection happens online.

Of course, some salespeople–especially those under 30–are technical whizzes. But while your salespeople need not become IT experts or know how to design a Web site, they do need to know how to send an e-mail with an attachment. And they need to take online leads seriously.

Here are some tips for helping your sales force use the technology you’ve provided them to sell more homes.

Topgrade your people

Topgrading is a term coined by Bradford D. Smart in a 1999 book by the same name. The book shows managers how to staff their organizations with top performers by hiring well and offering targeted training programs. In new-home sales, part of being a top performer is knowing when and how to use information technology to increase sales.

One way to weed out the Luddites is with a series of seemingly obvious questions: Do you have a computer at home? What software are you familiar with? Can you type? Given two potential hires with roughly equal sales skills, I recommend giving the job to the one with the highest level of computer savvy.

Getting an existing sales force up to speed may mean changing some ingrained behaviors–and making some tough decisions. Builders should give their computer illiterates 90 days to attend an introductory computer class and to learn basic Internet and e-mail skills. If they can’t get up to speed by then, they should be let go (which frees them to go screw up your competitor’s business).

Develop site smarts

All salespeople should print a copy of every page on your site and familiarize themselves with the information on each page. No matter how many interactive features your Web site includes, it’s basically an electronic brochure, and a prospect’s impression of your company will have a lot to do with what’s on it.

Every time there’s a site update, salespeople should be notified so they can print the updated pages. Then, when a prospect calls and says, “I looked at your Web site and saw something about the clubhouse,” the salesperson will know what the prospect is talking about.

Each sales office should also have printouts of the Web sites of your top five competitors. When on the phone with a prospect, your salespeople can ask: “In addition to our Web site, what other builders’ sites piqued your interest?” That will tell them what the buyer’s selling hot buttons are, and what printouts they should be looking at.

For instance, if a prospect continually refers to tennis courts, it’s probably a hot button. Using the printout, your salesperson can quickly see that the competitor’s community has six unlighted courts, while yours has twelve lighted ones. The salesperson might then ask: “Do you like to play at night?” If the prospect says yes, they could continue with, “Would having lighted tennis courts at night be of interest to you?” If the amenities at your community aren’t as good as the competition’s, the salesperson can steer the conversation in a different direction.

Salespeople need to browse competitors’ sites at least once every two weeks. Browsing doesn’t substitute for on-site shopping of the competition on a regular basis; rather, it supplements these visits. Looking at competitors’ sites is the easiest way to keep informed about what they are doing. If a competitor comes out with a new incentive, model, or price reduction, it’s typically announced on the Web site.

Master e-mail

Do you know why e-mail auto-responders are so common in other industries? Because people who shop on the Internet are an impatient lot: If they don’t get an immediate response they will go somewhere else. Don’t let them get away: Internet shoppers tend to be excellent prospects.

People shop by a process of elimination, something the Internet makes easy. Take someone who needs to relocate from Boston to Atlanta, who’s looking for a single-family home costing between $250,000 and $400,000. They may look at 20 sites, then narrow the list to five finalists.

If they contact you, it’s because they’ve probably compared you to the competition and concluded that you might have what they want. So the e-mail you get from your Web site will more likely become a buyer than someone who happens upon your model-home sign while out for a leisurely Sunday drive.

In spite of this, I’ve had builders tell me that it takes them days to respond to e-mail inquiries. Typically, the inquiry gets routed to a marketing person at the central office who has five other jobs to do.

A day or two later, the marketing person forwards the inquiry to a sales office. It might be another day or two before the person who made the inquiry gets a response. By contrast, an auto-responder will tell the prospect to expect a phone call by a certain time, say 10 a.m. the next morning.

But an investment in auto-response technology is a waste if your salespeople don’t make the calls when promised. Getting them to do so is a management problem. When I work with clients, I suggest they make Web lead follow up part of their traffic reporting and activity accountability systems.

Systems have to be put in place that tell the sales manager that a certain salesperson got nine Web leads last week. The sales manager can then follow up with the salesperson to see how he responded.

E-mail also makes it easier to communicate with current customers. E-mail reminders can be used to confirm appointments. If a customer has a question about where the kids will go to school, the salesperson can follow up with a link to the school system. Of course, you have to get customers’ e-mail addresses.

One warning: I’ve noticed a lot of people getting sloppy with e-mail. They don’t check spelling; they write incomplete sentences; they type notes with no attention to form. All electronic correspondence should have a proper salutation, body, and ending, and should be proofread. A professional e-mail that reads like a business letter shows respect to the recipient and will impress prospective buyers.

Make a photo finish

Digital cameras are a must-have in today’s sales environment. This tool is obviously useful when working with out-of-town buyers. In the case of a couple relocating to the area, usually one partner comes in advance, like a scouting party. Then a week or so later the other one shows up.

Find out about the one who isn’t there from the one who is. Give that person the camera and tell them to take shots of details their other half would like. (“Tom, can’t you imagine how Cheryl will enjoy this beautiful view?”) You can then e-mail the photos, and the couple can be discussing them over the phone that evening.

Be sure to e-mail low-resolution shots since many people still have dial-up Internet connections. If they do, don’t attach more than two or three shots to an e-mail. If relocation buyers are working with a Realtor, you can send the photos to the Realtor.

Digital cameras can earn their keep with local buyers as well. People buy on emotion, and being able to intelligently combine an e-mail and a digital image can help you catch people when their emotions are high.

I saw this happen when working with a builder in Austin, Texas. A wife and husband came to look at a completed home, then left. A few hours later the wife called back to ask if they could have a countertop with a raised back in the kitchen.

The salesperson called the construction department and asked for a drawing of the requested kitchen configuration. The construction liaison faxed him a drawing, which he scanned into the computer. He then went to a completed home and used his digital camera to photograph the kitchen with the optional countertop. He e-mailed the drawing and the picture with the following note: “I will be at the office until 7 p.m. Please call because I have more information for you.”

The couple called back, and he gave them the pricing for the option. Soon after, they bought the home.