Weichert Realtors has aggressively entered the Internet lead business.

Inman News asked Bret Violette, president of Weichert Lead Network, to explain the company’s vision, strategy and tactics:

IN: What is the relationship between Weichert Lead Network and Weichert?

BV: Weichert Lead Network is a separate legal entity, but is owned 100 percent by Weichert.

IN: Who had this vision?

BV: A couple of years ago, Weichert was looking to expand its internal lead generation capabilities. I was looking for an opportunity to develop a residential real estate Internet lead generation model. After connecting with Weichert, the synergies were evident.

IN: Why did you decide to join ’em, instead of fight ’em?

BV: I think it makes perfect sense for a real estate company to have its own Internet lead generation strategy, and Weichert has long been a pioneer in our industry. Weichert has offered us the opportunity to be very entrepreneurial, while providing the infrastructure, support, and 35 years of experience to help Weichert Lead Network create a significant Internet lead generation platform. My goal was to develop and launch the best Internet lead generation model in the business, and Weichert was the perfect fit.

IN: How does the lead system work?

BV: Weichert Lead Network has a two-step approach. First, we’ve developed a significant Internet marketing strategy with the goal of getting in front of every consumer on the Web who is interested in buying or selling a home in the Weichert footprint. This includes a multimillion-dollar annual investment in traffic driving initiatives to Weichert.com through search engine optimization and pay-per-click investments. We launched this strategy Jan. 1, 2003, and already Weichert.com has experienced over a 400 percent increase in daily site visits in the first 10 months of 2003. Weichert.com is now one of the most highly visited real estate Web sites in the nation, despite the fact that we are primarily an East Coast company.

We have also focused heavily on content syndication of our listings to major general consumer and real estate Web sites (NYTimes, NJ.com, Philly.com, WashingtonPost.com, etc). We’ve even begun direct lead purchasing from lead generation companies. In short, if you’re interested in buying or selling a home in our footprint, and you use the Internet, we want to reach you.

The second part of our strategy is our lead capture and conversion system, which is centered around our state-of-the-art, multimillion-dollar contact center. We wanted the ability to respond immediately to customer contacts, whether they come in the form of inbound calls or electronic inquiries (e-mail, Web form, etc). Weichert Lead Network has the technology, systems and staff to engage with a customer in seconds and minutes, rather than the industry norm of hours or days. Our contact center is staffed seven days a week, and if a consumer inquires, we’re there for them. When a customer calls our 800-number, we typically answer the call in one-to-three rings. When a customer submits an electronic “more info” form, we’ll call the customer back in seconds or minutes.

We then “scrub” the customer and identify which offices and lead specialists (sales associates in our program) represent the best match for the customer’s needs. Our technology contains sophisticated algorithms, which allow us to perform the matching function, and we’ve been perfecting these business rules for the past year.

A very unique feature of our system is that once we “scrub” the customer, we bring a lead specialist right on the line with them at the end of the call. This “warm handoff” allows us to complete a process that begins with immediate engagement and service and ends with an introduction to a “matched” lead specialist live on the lead specialist’s mobile phone.

All leads are also immediately e-mailed to the lead specialist, and are ported to our Intranet, and the lead specialist is required to log in and routinely update each of his or her leads. The Intranet also provides sales management and Weichert Lead Network with a wealth of real-time reporting detail at the micro or macro level.

If the sales associate is not actively working the lead, this system prompts the associate to return the lead to Weichert Lead Network, so we can incubate those customers until they’re ready to re-engage with us.

This complete cradle-to-grave solution has involved substantial investment and 18 months of development, and we are working to make our systems more efficient and intuitive, which results in an improved experience for our sales associates and customers.

IN: How well do the agents like the leads?

BV: The majority of the lead specialists like the program very much, since it provides them with a much better system to market to and interact with Internet customers. And when you add the scrubbing features and follow-up tools, conversion rates will remain far ahead of the industry average.

Weichert Lead Network has relieved many of these sales associates from the stress of maintaining their own Web presence, plus they don’t have to be the one making the initial contact with the customer. With our system, we are scrubbing the customers and introducing them live on the phone with the lead specialist.

IN: How good is your conversion rate? Are you happy with it?

BV: We’re well ahead of our goals after generating tens of thousands of leads in our first year, with many still very active. With our new marketing programs and improved systems, we’re expecting a significant increase in Internet lead volume and conversion rates in 2004.

We fully expect that a good percentage of our 2003 leads will convert in 2004 or even 2005. I’m confident that our cradle-to-grave systems will prevent leads from going to the wrong place or “dying on the vine.”

IN: What are the best sources of your leads?

BV: Our system contains very sophisticated, custom-built ROI (return on investment) tracking reports, so we can track all investments to the marketing source. We also have our own paid search management systems that enable us to buy hundreds of thousands of monthly clicks for an extremely low average cost-per-click.

IN: Do you think other brokers will follow your lead?

BV: We’ve been so focused on our business that I really can’t speculate.

IN: What have you learned?

BV: We’ve learned an incredible amount so far, and we’re learning more every day. We’ve been improving this business for 18 months, and it’s amazing to see how much things have changed in our model. Even if we could have had unlimited funding and staff, the only way we could have gotten to this point is by learning through our experiences.

Our technology infrastructure has been built to enable us to quickly and efficiently adjust our workflows, algorithms and business rules, which are critical for a new model. But what I have learned more than anything is that we’re in the right place at the right time!

IN: What’s next?

BV: The next major initiative is a data-mining effort, and the refinement of our incubation and follow-up systems. We feel we’ve developed the industry’s most complete Internet marketing, lead capture and lead conversion model. Based on our research, we have yet to find a model that responds to Internet inquiries in seconds, matches the customer with a sales associate based on specific criteria, then completes a warm transfer to a sales associate on the initial call. We’re also always looking for new ways to acquire leads and traffic. We’re also focused on continued efficiency and improved experiences for our lead specialists and customers.


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