Jennifer Barkan was an operations manager for a real estate company representing home builders when she attended a 2012 conference about cultivating online prospects. What she heard there provided the impetus for what would be a turning point for the firm’s new-homes division and her career. Barkan convinced her managers that the company needed an online sales consultant and spent almost a year training with consultant Mike Lyon before developing the program and implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) system. During the first two years of the online sales program, the number of builder clients grew from two to 10 companies and the online division’s share of sales increased from 6 percent to 13 percent. Barkan also increased Facebook engagement by featuring shelter dogs available for adoption in her house tour videos.
Q: What was the opportunity you recognized that led you to pursue becoming an online sales consultant?
A: Mike Lyon was giving a presentation about having a commitment to online sales and having an online sales consultant. It was like a light bulb went off for me. I thought, “We don’t know how to quantify what happens after the person gets to our website.” So, sitting there, I’m thinking ... What are we doing? There’s a huge opportunity here, yet we have no idea where these people are going once they get to our site. The leads at the time were just going directly to our salespeople. And, while we love our salespeople, cultivating and marketing leads isn’t their highest and best use. I just raised my hand and said, “I think this is a huge opportunity for our company, and I’d like to spearhead it.” Our managers were like, Let’s do it!
We started the project just for our new-homes division. We have a separate page on our company website for new homes, and I started as the online sales consultant for new homes.
Q: How should a lead be handled within the first 30 days?
A: I learned from Mike Lyon that you have to be as quick as possible with your response. What we know about our on-site agents is that they’re at their best with the person who is in front of them. They aren’t going to stop their sales process to go to the phone or respond to an email. That’s where I come in. I’m like their virtual assistant. I try to be available seven days a week, all hours of the day. I do turn my phone off at 11 p.m. It freaks people out a bit if I answer the phone at midnight. They’re like, “Oh my gosh, I thought I was just going to leave a message.” We have over 40 new-home communities that we’re marketing, so there’s no way I’m going to have the answers to every single thing someone calls to ask. But it’s about being a friendly voice on the other side of that computer or phone. And yes, I respond, I’m real, and I will get back to you with an answer.
So I try to answer the phone as quickly as possible; that’s first. Second is to really find out the person’s wants, needs, and desires. I try to control the conversation so that I’m asking the questions and trying to get information about what they want rather than them asking me the questions. I try to steer the conversation so that I’m finding out about their family, where they live now, what they like and don’t like about their current home ... so I can determine which of our available homes would best fit their needs. Taking that person from just looking online to being a real, viable prospect for our sales team is my goal. By the time the prospect reaches our sales team, that potential buyer has likely had a couple of conversations with me, and I’m able to provide my salespeople with lots of good information about the prospect so that when they get to the home site, the salespeople are ready.
Q: What needs to be on a builder’s website to make the online sales consultant’s job easier and more effective?
A: Having a consistent, clear call to action on the website is really important. Also, if the builder’s site agent’s email and phone number are on there [along with mine], I don’t always know what happens to the prospect. Part of my job as OSC is to report on the activity of the website. This is how much activity your website has had. This is how many leads it generated. This is how many appointments I was able to set and here are the sales that converted because of the appointments. If there is one email, one phone number, and one call to action then I’m able to accurately report these facts. If there are different site numbers, site emails, it’s fragmented and who is the visitor supposed to call. Also, make the website so that the person can clearly see floor plans. They want to know what is available in the community. They also want past homebuyer testimonials, so having good stories about what you’re doing is important. So is having a blog presence to show you also are involved in the community. We had one of our builders do a dedication to a fallen police office and blog about it. The website is not just about buying homes; it’s about the builder story too.
Q: How do you manage/cope with staying on call?
A: It is very challenging. I have two children. I am on the go with them a lot. The great thing is with this job is you can be flexible and work from anywhere. My kids play softball. If I’m at their game, I’m focused on them but if I have to take a call, that’s fine, and I take my laptop everywhere. I will say it’s not for everyone. I am very passionate about it though. Once you see that (OSC) really does work, it’s like you can’t not do it. Lasso, my CRM, helps me keep organized as well. That’s a big thing. You have to have something to keep you organized especially with the way I’m set up because I have to represent multiple builders, and I have to have things set up to keep everything separated. Having that CRM to help keep me organized was a huge selling point to our builders because they want to know that I’m not taking their lead and selling it to another community. When I get a phone call about builder A, I’m only talking about builder A. I also use CallFire (an app for managing texting, phone calls, and call centers) for my phone numbers. That keeps me organized. Just having the flexibility where if I have stuff going on, or I have to be with my children, I don’t have to be at the office at 8:30 a.m. That’s how I stay sane. If I want to stay home with my kids and my dogs, I can. I might have to work till 8 o’clock that night just making calls. So the job is flexible and that is how I’m able to manage things.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for “Ask Jen Pup of the Week” and what kind of response is that outreach getting?
A: I’ve been a huge animal advocate. I originally wanted to go to veterinary school. I was a biology/chemistry major in college and worked at a pet hospital, and that’s what I wanted to do. Well, it was so hard to get into bet school. I tried a couple of different times, and it just was impossible and then I was at the point in my life where I got married, had children, all that. I was watching TV last year and the Today show was on and they were talking about Super Bowl advertising and that using dogs in those ads was huge. It was like a light bulb had gone off in my head because a couple months before I just started this “Ask Jen Live” program where through Facebook I would talk about one of our new home communities, and it hadn’t gotten a lot of engagement. It wasn’t reaching many people. I thought why don’t I feature an adoptable pet along with the community. The dog needs the new home, and I’m featuring new homes. My manager, she’s a big animal advocate too, thought it was a great idea. I went to my builder client and asked are you okay if I bring a dog to a model, and you pay the adoption fee if the dog gets adopted? It’s great community outreach for you. The (shelter) that I partnered with has a huge Facebook following, and I thought I’ll be able to reach so many more people about the dog and about our homes and hopefully one of the two will click. Someone will see the dog that I feature and fall in love with them or see the house that I feature and fall in love with it. So that is how it started. I just love Wednesdays now because it’s fun and I get to pick up the dog in the morning. The (shelter) selects the one they want me to take. I take them to the new home site. Have fun with the agent take pictures of the dog in the house, talk about features of the home, talk about inventory we have. Since we started I’m able to reach thousands of people on my post versus twenty before.