Editor’s note: With more consumers starting their home search on the Internet, online lead generation and management has morphed into a sophisticated business as agents, brokers and real estate companies scramble to adopt the new channel. This three-part series examines the changing nature of online lead generation as local Internet search becomes more relevant, more brokers get involved in lead systems, and more technologies emerge.

Editor’s note: With more consumers starting their home search on the Internet, online lead generation and management has morphed into a sophisticated business as agents, brokers and real estate companies scramble to adopt the new channel. This three-part series examines the changing nature of online lead generation as local Internet search becomes more relevant, more brokers get involved in lead systems, and more technologies emerge. (See Part 1: Search engines rev up for local realty results and Part 2: Brokers emerge in online lead scene.)

At the Pleasanton, Calif.-based Agent Servicing Center, several full-time employees trained in servicing online consumers standby to follow up and begin qualifying leads for Prudential California, Nevada and Texas Realty agents as soon as they arrive. Employees contact each consumer lead within one hour to determine their needs and confirm contact information, then either hand them to an agent or place them in an e-mail system to be contacted later.

Many of the leads come from the company’s lead-generating sources like Yahoo!, but agents also are free to send their own leads to the center to be qualified. When Prudential California President Ed Krafchow first introduced the idea, he said his management team didn’t believe agents would agree. “No agent is going to send you leads,” they told him.

But now the center is flooded with leads.

The Internet has created a mass lead-producing machine for some real estate brokerages, burying sales agents under piles of consumer inquiries–most of which are premature buyers who aren’t planning to buy within 90 days. Many market-leading brokerages have started using technology platforms to incubate these leads for agents and to track which lead sources provide the best return for their money.

After the Prudential leads are qualified, only about 12 percent of inquiries are actually today’s home buyers, according to Krafchow. About 40 percent are eight to 18 months away from purchasing.

“My agents said they are overwhelmed with leads,” Krafchow said. “This kind of lead management needs to be done cooperatively between the agent and broker.”

Katabat, a Chicago-based real estate technology provider, created a lead management system called Pipeline Manager, used exclusively by large brokers and realty companies rather than individual agents, according to chief executive Eric Antonow.

The technology offers brokers insight about their lead sources, conversion rates, and each agent’s progress and success in converting leads. Brokerage managers can run reports using specific categories and criteria. For example, reports could show transactions by office, dollar volume by customer type, or property performance by office, among other types. Managers can track progress by looking at pending or closed transactions, assigned leads or lead origin.

The system shows how long a lead has been waiting since first entering the lead system. It shows the lead name, status, type of request, phone number if provided and origin, such as Realtor.com, company Web site, LendingTree, etc.

“Most of these companies are at the stage now where they are asking, ‘What’s the quality of these leads and what’s the price for them?'” Antonow said. Pipeline Manager enables them to manage leads from multiple sources and figure out which ones are converting and which ones aren’t converting.

Taking it a step further, brokers could analyze why certain leads haven’t turned into sales by looking at the lead’s history recorded in the system. Most companies using the Katabat system have transaction coordinators on staff who interact with the lead system, enter information into each lead history log and assign leads to specific agents.

The Katabat system itself doesn’t perform any analysis of the lead information, Antonow said, but it gives brokers the capability to look at their numbers in intelligent ways.

“There’s not a ton of rocket science to it, but it gives really good data,” he said. And it adds efficiency to the lead management process by not having to re-key information into the system. Leads that come in through a company Web site automatically populate a lead record in the Katabat system without anyone having to transfer the information.

Antonow thinks the next big step in lead management technology will be developing more sophisticated e-mail campaigns that would automatically categorize a lead by when they plan to buy or sell. The system would know how often to send e-mails to consumers depending on what transaction timeline it chooses.

Katabat also is testing the concept of agent scoring, which would enable the transaction coordinators to score an agent’s responsiveness to leads, service level, strengths and weaknesses. The scoring model is similar to the one Amazon.com uses, Antonow said.

“Most brokers are realizing that they’d rather be more conservative about what (leads) they are handing out,” he said. Brokers using Katabat’s system send only about 30 percent of leads to agents because they want to ensure they’re legitimate leads and maintain a good reputation with their agents, he added.

“We have brokers now who have seven or eight coordinators managing this business. Most brokers find this is a pretty huge time saver,” Antonow said.

Minneapolis-based WolfNet Technologies takes a customized approach to lead management, letting the companies decide which system works best for them. Some brokerages prefer to send leads directly to agents, while others want to scrub the leads and distribute them more strategically.

“What we’ve heard is that many market-leading companies want to have a little more foothold on handling leads directly,” WolfNet CEO Joel MacIntosh said.

WolfNet’s platform for brokers includes reporting tools that can track which leads have been distributed to agents. Agents also can record how far along they are in the conversion process.

WolfNet built a unique lead system for one of its clients called “Virtual Floor Call” that puts a new spin on the old concept of office floor time. Agents in that brokerage sign up for time segments in which they agree to man the online lead platform. They can work their virtual floor time from any computer with Internet access, and respond to leads in real time as they enter the system.

“Believe it or not, they have folks who take the night shift,” MacIntosh said.

MacIntosh thinks the concept of virtual floor time and virtual customer service will continue to grow and eventually catch on in real estate. He noted the emergence of services in other industries that enable companies to monitor consumers while they’re on a Web site and offer help when they seem stuck.

With WolfNet’s technology, consumers can surf properties online without registering, and can save property searches, view previous searches or have e-mail messages sent to them. Consumers also can create a user profile, which is a passive way to create leads, MacIntosh said. “The ‘A’ buyers are more inclined to save results,” he said.

Agents can monitor searches consumers save so they can gauge the right time to call the lead.

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A longtime leader in the contact management and customer relationship management, or CRM, space is TopProducer, now owned by Homestore. The company has incorporated online lead management tools into its platform so that consumer inquiries from large national Web sites like Realtor.com or Remax.com will automatically populate a new contact record in an agent’s TopProducer database. Agents can define rules for an auto-response system that might contact a prospective client once a month or once a year.

Another service the company offers sends leads directly to agents’ cell phones, so they can respond immediately to consumer inquiries and set the lead to an action plan for follow up.

“In some cases, a lead a Realtor gets online is incredibly hot,” said TopProducer President Errol Samuelson. But there are an increasing number of people starting their home searches on the Internet very early in the home-buying stage, often six months or more before they intend to buy or sell.

Most agents don’t have the time it takes to service leads that far in advance, but technology systems are catching onto the need for agents to pay attention to these prospective clients.

Samuelson believes the issue of agents addressing early-stage leads will grow even bigger in coming years.

“I think you’ll see market share shift between the agents who have an automated follow-up plan to deal with those early-stage leads versus the agents who cherry pick the leads that are ready today,” he said.

TopProducer also has a lead platform for brokers called LeadDesk that enables brokers to perform the initial follow up with consumers then pass them on to agents. Brokers also can track lead conversion progress.

Chicago-based BirdView is one of the technology companies enabling agents and brokers to auto-populate their TopProducer systems with online lead information they glean from Web visitors or Realtor.com inquiries. BirdView offers a lead management product at both the broker and agent level.

The company’s LeadView system acts as a centralized lead management platform for brokerages. The software tracks the information consumers provide online and their search behavior while visiting the real estate Web site. Managers can correspond with consumers, track their searches and adjust search criteria, then hand them off to an agent.

Virtual Floor Time is BirdView’s agent-centric lead management system. Brokerages determine which types of leads should be distributed to its customized group of agent recipients. The software analyzes leads as they come into the system, then assigns them to the next agent member on the list.

Michael Kehoe, EVP of BirdView, said real estate companies traditionally had taken either a broker-controlled lead management and distribution approach or a more agent-centric approach that puts leads directly into agent’s hands. But the two are becoming less distinguished, he said.

“For the longest time, those were separate models,” Kehoe said. “But just as we’ve seen commission structures changing, we’re starting to see those lead systems merge.”

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to jessica@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 133.

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