SAN FRANCISCO — Brokerages can’t get the most out of the leads they generated from their websites and other sources if they don’t have a program for managing those leads and getting them into the hands of agents who are skilled and dedicated enough to convert them.

That was the consensus of a panel of brokers and the co-founder of a property search site that provides leads to brokerages, during a discussion Tuesday at Real Estate Connect San Francisco.

SAN FRANCISCO — Brokerages can’t get the most out of the leads they generated from their websites and other sources if they don’t have a program for managing those leads and getting them into the hands of agents who are skilled and dedicated enough to convert them.

That was the consensus of a panel of brokers and the co-founder of a property search site that provides leads to brokerages, during a discussion Tuesday at Real Estate Connect San Francisco.

At San Diego-based Century 21 Award, agents who want to participate in a new lead generation program go through a selection and training process that’s almost like interviewing for a job, said Jason Lopez, director of interactive business development.

The brokerage — which has nearly 1,100 agents all over Southern California — looks for service-oriented agents who have the persistence and relationship-building skills to convert leads over a period of weeks or months — typically 60-120 days, he said.

After completing a 30-day training program, the agents must also participate in weekly webinars that provide opportunities to share success stories.

Century 21 Award’s technology vendor, Terabitz, built a lead management system for the brokerage that’s integrated into its website. Leads are randomly assigned to agents based on the property location, and agents have tools for filtering and managing their leads.

The goal is to funnel 10 to 15 leads a month to each agent — any more than that and agents tend to cherry-pick the leads they view as the most promising and neglect the others, Lopez said.

Six months into the program, about 5 percent to 8 percent of leads are converting, he said, and the goal of a 10 percent conversion rate looks achievable, he said.

"If we find an agent has disengaged, and is not participating in weekly calls or taking leads, we are not going to waste our time," Lopez said. "We are going to replace them, and reassign those leads."

Aman Daro, vice president of integrated marketing for San Francisco-based McGuire Real Estate, said the brokerage also seeks to enter into a "committed relationship" with agents it provides leads to.

Although McGuire Real Estate allows any agent sign up for the program, they must participate in ongoing training and demonstrate their commitment to blogging and other lead generation strategies.

"We promise to give you new leads and training on how to convert those leads, you give us a commitment to grow and share," Daro said. "You have to learn how to get better at converting those leads."

The brokerage found that its previous lead generation program wasn’t appreciated, and set out to create a new program that would be accepted by agents who’d taken a dim view of online lead generation in general.

Daro said he found research conducted by Matthew Ferrara & Company and the Massachussetts Institute of Technology helpful in developing McGuire’s program, and that the brokerages is using LeadTrax to distribute leads.

Since launching the new lead generation program in November, one third of the brokerages’ agents have signed on. Web traffic is up 130 percent, and there’s been a 400 percent increase in converted leads, Daro said.

He said McGuire Real Estate charges agents a 20 percent referral fee on converted leads, which he said was less than an industry average of 35 percent.

Lopez said one of the most interesting aspects of Century 21 Award’s program is that it’s become a pipeline for referrals — even from clients who have come into the lead management system early in the cycle and aren’t yet ready to buy.

When the agents who serve those clients are focused on service, Lopez said, their clients are impressed enough with their abilities to recommend those agent to their friends.

"They will send referrals in, and often the referral will come in before the lead transacts," Lopez said.

Agents who have the most success converting leads tend to be service, rather than sales oriented, agreed Galen Ward, co-founder and chief executive officer Estately Inc.

Estately operates a multiple listing service-based property search site, Estately.com, that’s active in eight states. A licensed brokerage, Estately charges a 20 percent referral fee. Ward said the best agents at converting leads use strategies that are not unlike those used by users of online dating sites.

"Our best agents are the nice guy," Ward said. "You have to have a relationship (with the client). It takes a few months for the consumer to find someone they want to ‘marry.’ "

Ward even recommends that agents check out a post on the official blog of dating site OkCupid, "Exactly what to say in a first message," for tips.

Agents should be low-key, and use self-effacing language, Ward said, employing specifics that demonstrate their knowledge of a property, neighborhood or market.

It’s important to reach out to a new lead within 30 minutes of being contacted, he said — an e-mail is fine, but should be followed up quickly with a phone call.

"Personalize quickly," Ward advised. "If you have three lines that you read every time you call someone, cut those lines."

In communications over the next three days, provide clients with "many reasons to follow up." Agents should provide information that clients won’t be able to find on their own that also provide an excuse for contacting them.

An agent might contact a listing agent on behalf of their client, for example, and report whether the seller is desperate or not.

"Or you could say I was in the neighborhood, I stopped by (a listing) and took some extra photos and some notes," Ward said.

At the initial meeting, listen carefuly to the clients’ needs, and have other houses lined up in the area for them to see. Based on their feedback to the first house they see, suggest the next one to visit.

Buyers rarely settle on the first house they visit, so bringing up negatives they may not have been aware of — street noise, subpar schools, high property taxes — can build trust and lend an agent credibility if they recommend another house later in the process, Ward said.

During the next three weeks, continue to keep response time to questions to within 5 to 15 minutes. Clients will often be thrilled to get text message replies to their phone inquiries. "Keep the ball in their court" by responding with questions, Ward advised.

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