Every Sales Counselor is an Online Sales Counselor: Part One

I recognize the ever growing popularity of the Online Sales Counselor role. I first saw it nearly ten years ago, and it continues with a slow and steady climb. It has always been my feeling, albeit unpopular, that the Online Sales Counselor role is a short-term solution at best, and at worst, a dependency drug we’re dealing to our sales teams.

I mean no disrespect to the many hard working Online Sales Counselors in the market. You’re answering a bazillion phone calls and emails a day. Your responsibilities and your contributions are real.

The issue lies with the reason the Online Sales Counselor role exists. In the beginning, I heard lots of arguments in support of the Online Sales Counselor. We might night have called it the same thing then, but the role was the same – an off-site contact for all Internet leads covering all or multiple communities.

Those in support of the role would cite ability and response issues with the sales team. They would say things like “The salespeople don’t respond fast enough” or “They don’t do email very well.” And truth be told, they were absolutely right. Even today, but even more so then, salespeople had little respect for Internet leads and rarely followed up with any level of urgency. They drafted poorly worded, short, and misspelled responses. It was bad and often still is.

The problem was and is real. However, the popular solution is near-sighted.

As a sales manager, you know the strengths of your sales team. You watch shop tapes, you spend time in their sales center, and you see them perform. There are salespeople that perform amazingly during an in-person demonstration, but fail when confronted with a phone conversation. As a manager in this situation, you train and coach on phone skills. You work with the salesperson so they recognize their opportunities, see the value in improvement, practice new techniques, and implement them.

Why then, do we hire someone to handle email communications of a sales nature? Would you hire someone else to answer the phone if you had that salesperson on your team with poor phone skills?

I’ve had many reject this argument quickly and cite the crucial value of the telephone in the sales process. That might have slowed me down a little ten years ago. However, is there anyone that denies that email and other electronic communication plays a crucial role in the sales process today? Does anyone think electronic communication will become less a part of the sale in the future?

Once again, to clarify, I’m not arguing the abilities or skills of the Online Sales Counselor. In fact, because the Online Sales Counselors have experienced so much practice with electronic communication, they’re halfway to being top-performing salespeople in tomorrow’s model home.

This is a complicated topic that I’ll continue to expand on in upcoming posts.

Technology’s impact on the daily lives of consumers and their buying behaviors will not decrease. If a salesperson is going to sell, they must be able to communicate with their buyer. We are doing a disservice to the buyer and the salesperson by providing this communication crutch.

EDIT: Read Part Two of this series here.


Dennis O'Neil

Dennis O'Neil

President

Dennis has spent over 19 years using the internet to sell and market new homes. He blogs about internet marketing for home builders here, wrote a book about technology's impact on the sales process, and is a respected speaker on advanced internet marketing and the online sales process.


  • http://www.doyouconvert.com Mike Lyon

    I see where you are coming from and I actually agreeu2026in theory. In a perfect world u2013 all leads would go straight to the sales executive in the community. nnBut you know as well as I do, in our business, we are far from perfect. Even the best sales executives often canu2019t follow-up they way they should with these prospects for numerous reasons. nnFor me, the necessity for the OSC is less about the ability to communicate via email and phone and more about logistics. Here is a laundry list:nn- Speed of the 1st response is the easiest way to get higher conversions from the leads. Bad sales people suck and wonu2019t respond fast, good sales people often canu2019t because they are extremely busy face-to-face with good customers and realtors.nn- Many leads are not u201csales readyu201d. This means they require a completely different follow-up process and philosophy. When you nurture these leads over time u2013 they will turn into qualified walk in customers.nn- Persistence u2013 sales executives leave, change communities or u201cde-hiredu201d all the time. Having one person in place to manage a lead over the long term insures no one prospect falls through the cracks. nn- Motivation u2013 what happens if a new leads talks to a sales exec and decides they donu2019t want their community? How motivated is that person to pass them on to the right community if they donu2019t get paid? Even if they are super nice person u2013 do they set the appointment, confirm, pass on full contact info and notes etc. nn- DNA u2013 Letu2019s face it, the character traits of an OSC vs. a superstar sales exec are different. It is the hunter vs. farmer mentality. We canu2019t ask a table to be a chair. nMy list could go on and onu2026you say the position of the OSC is a u201cnear-sidedu201d . I think that your argument doesnu2019t take into consideration all the moving parts and the substantial profit margins at stake. nnMany of the most successful sales organizations in the world (not just the building industry) have this 2 phase process in place. It is nothing new. The inside sales team manages the incoming leads/prospects and qualifies then sets up that person with a sales executive to make the magic happen. nnThe facts are u2013 we have moved from the traditional sales process working with customers face-to-face now to 2 distinct processesu2026the online and onsite. Asking a sales executive to do both in many situations is like asking them to handle warranty calls toou2026just doesnu2019t make sense.nnnP.S. Show me an onsite sales executive that can properly manage a New Home Source lead and I might change my mind on this.

    • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

      Hi Mike,nnThanks for your comments. I love a good debate. Iu2019ll actually be addressing a lot of the counterpoints youu2019ve outlined in part two of this blog, so Iu2019ll try to speed up my editing :)nnI wonu2019t argue with you that the easy solution to the logistics problem is the role of the Online Sales Counselor, but easy does not equal right. And easy does not mean permanent either.nnIn short, I donu2019t believe the online and offline shopping process are u201ctwo distinct processesu201d as youu2019ve stated. We, i.e. builders, make them two different things. To the consumer, itu2019s once purchase, one experience. They do not, and should not, care about our processes. nnIf an onsite sales executive does not know how to handle a New Home Source lead, they should be trained, or de-hired. I had about 20 of them on my team in 2007. Some were better than others, but they all learned to respect the lead and treat it like any other lead source.nnLooking forward to continuing the discussion.

      • http://www.doyouconvert.com Mike Lyon

        Let’s expand on the NewHomeSource lead. Take the recommended community lead. They have selected a box that said they might be interested in other properties. (not even our community in the 1st place) and then NHS might send that lead to 2-3 different agents for a builder. And they could be getting follow up from 2-3 different people? How does that benefit the consumer? nnnnOf course – this is just one example. nnnnWhat about the times when an agent is in back-to-back appointments on Sat-Sun and if they are a professional, they don’t answer their phone while working with a prospect. They can’t respond…and they prospect 8 out of 10 times does not leave a message. We have missed the opportunity to grab that prospect – and now they might land in the laps of our competition or go get an agent. nnnnAgain – Logistics…how would you solve that?

        • http://www.jeffshore.com jeffshore

          Dennis, Thanks for posting this. VERY relevant. One thing stands out from Mike’s first response: “DNA”. The two types of sales positions in question carry two different skill sets and two entirely different versions of what the job looks like. I’ll be curious as to your thoughts on how to direct on-site sales reps to mentally nimble enough to make that switch throughout the course of the day. nnnThat said, I agree with your premise that in many cases the initial introduction of OSC’s was in response to salespeople who simply wouldn’t make the calls vs. those who, for whatever reason, couldn’t.

          • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

            Thanks for your comments Jeff. nnI think the job and skills only look different because builders have felt the need to make it that way.nnBoth roles are all about communication and influence. The tools may be different, but the skills are the same. The use of technology is learnable. nnnI canu2019t argue that the job description is different, but builders created the job, and description, as a reaction. nnWe require and coach (hopefully) our onsite sales people to self-prospect and nurture referrals. Is that not farming?

          • http://www.jeffshore.com jeffshore

            Respectfully, I disagree. Different jobs require different skill sets. nnnFor one, selling on the phone is dramatically different than selling in person. It’s not just a matter of training; there are core issues that affect performance. nnnSecond, the OSC can concentrate very narrowly on a process that is clearly defined. For an on-site sales counselor the job is all over the map and it requires a mental nimbleness to move from the sales presentation, to backlog management, to construction issues, to problem-solving, to loan updates, etc. nnnIn short, the two positions don’t just require different job descriptions or different skills; they require different ways of thinking.

          • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

            Iu2019m not so sure weu2019re saying different things.nnIf an onsite sales person is effective at in-person sales and demonstration, I believe any deficiencies in phone and email communication can be taught. Iu2019m not suggesting thenreverse; that someone good with email can be an effective face-to-face salesperson.nnI agree – onsite sales people are nimble and can handle many tasks at once. I believe they have the aptitude to handle web leads.

        • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

          If I’m buying a home, or anything else, I’d much rather get emails from 2 or 3 salespeople that can answer my questions than one email from one person who can rarely share more information than was available to me on the website. I truly don’t think over-communication is a problem the home shopper experiences. Quality communication is a problem.nnBusy happens. There is a place for u201croll overu201d support in a secondary, not primary, lead handling role.

  • Bethany Kempf

    I have been working as an OSC for one year now. My first thought that comes to mind is the fact that I handle all of our communities (we have over 21). When I receive a lead it is not always for a specific community. Sometimes people aren’t sure where to start looking for a new home and need help narrowing down their options. That’s what I’m here for. If they call one of our communities directly I guarantee you that the salesperson answering the phone will not direct them to another one of our communities if theirs does not work best for the buyer. I do. As a result, our company gets more people in the door and therefore, makes more sales. In addition, buildling rapport with more than one person in the company is crucial to keeping the customer happy. I have had two situations where the prospect did not “click” with the sales agent so they called me back and asked to be switched to somebody else. Would the salesperson happily give this prospect to another agent if they were asked to do this? Probably not. I certainly understand where you are coming from. A sales agent should take the initiative to follow up with a lead, whether it be an online lead or a phone in lead, however, studies have proven that they will not attempt another follow up to the lead if they have not received a response the first time. I do. In fact, I follow up a total of 7 times in the first 30 days and continue to follow up until I have the opportunity to get this person in the door. As a result from good response and an increased number of appointments and sales, we have recently expanded the OSC department and hope to expand more in the near future.

    • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

      Hi Bethany,nnThanks for your comment. I think youu2019re spot on with a key benefit to your role — helping an undecided prospect choose between many of your communities. nnIu2019m disappointed to hear that you donu2019t think one of your onsite sales people would refer a buyer to another one of your communities. Thatu2019s honestly kind of shocking. Of course theyu2019d do everything they could to sell that prospect first, but if there was no chance of a fit, I canu2019t imagine a salesperson not referring the buyer to another one of your companyu2019s communities.nnIt sounds like youu2019ve got a great follow-up routine in place. Itu2019s one I hope more salespeople of all types will adopt.

  • Martha C

    I am the newbie here. So please be gentle. In answer to your question, are online sales counselors a dumb idea? I am going to answer on the side of NO. Why? Well of course because I am currently employed as an online sales counselor for close to six months and have some pride but in all seriousness because there is a definite advantage and need to this position. I am new to the sales side of the equation here but have worked in the home building business for years. There are so many interesting success stories and stats to back the need for companies to integrate an online sales counselor into their team.nnThe first thing to get over is to not confuse me with another annoying cold caller that calls your home after hours unsolicited. We all know a new home is one of the largest investments someone makes and the buying cycle is longer. Rather, think of me as a savvy and intelligent, detailed, multitasking concierge for your new home buyers. I help bridge the gap and catch prospects that might otherwise slipped through the cracks. There is not many hours of the day, 7 days a week that I will not reasonably and always respond to a potential home buyer. I help prospects narrow down the multitude of choices through qualifying them, helping them select and narrow down communities and homes in an unbiased way that is an advantage to them and warm them up for the onsite sales agent. By the time they hit our communities we have more information on them that could aid a good sales agent in selling them a home in a more efficient manner. nnBethanyu2019s response was right on the money and I can speak of 2 instances in the last 30 days where I was able to convert a lead to a sale by sheer follow up, organization and pro-activeness. The reason the sale was almost lost is because of what Bethany touched on u2013 the prospect was not offered alternative information on other communities available to them. You seemed taken aback that this could evennbe happening by an onsite sales agent but I guarantee you it happens more oftennthan not. If fact, if it is happening in Bethanyu2019s instance and it happened twice for me in the past 30 days then it is happening more places than you think. I am not the biggest stats person but I do know that the two sales I was able to keep alive for my company and profit that will be generated makes a difference. Two saved sales in 30 days for a builder that does 50 homes a year matters! nnDonu2019t get me wrong, I think you make very valid points. I completely respect you and I see where you are coming from. There are some fantastic onsite sales agents out there. They convert leads to sales every day and they are critical to the bottom line of closing homes. The one thing that I am confused about most is why do sales agents in this day and age need to be u201ctrainedu201d more on phone calls and emails by their sales managers?? I am all for training but in this day and age if you canu2019t intelligently craft an email or make phone calls then how would you expect the sam professionals to handle contracts and negotiation on behalf of your company? Online sales counselors can manipulate and navigate through CRM programs much more efficiently which resuscitates leads, saves marketing dollars and creates efficiency for a company overall. It just saves time. Time that on site sales agents just donu2019t logistically have most of the time because they are on the front lines trying to convert leads to sales. Coaching and training are great with people that are already good not with people that donu2019t want to be changed which unfortunately is the case sometimes. nnBoth positions are necessary and here to stay in my opinion. It would be more efficient to do training to marry these positions rather than divide or eliminate them. I donu2019t see the need for this position fading anytime soonu2026and I will definitely do my part to make sure it doesnu2019t. I am genuinely looking forward to part two of this conversation. The fact that it is even a topic makes a postion like mine relevant.

    • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

      Hi Martha, and thank you for your comments. I appreciate your feedback and insight very much. We agree on a lot of things.nnHowever, I donu2019t believe I said the OSC role was u201cdumb.u201d Others said I described the role as unnecessary. I didnu2019t say that either.nnI do believe there is a very real role for you and your job. My key point of this post was that weu2019ve taken so much responsibility from the salespeople, that weu2019ve created a skillset-crutch that is a disservice to them; robbing them of the skills they need to perform and robbing the customer of a consistent experience.nnIu2019ll be publishing part two early next week. I look forward to your feedback.

      • Martha C

        My apologies for the misuse of the term dumb. My comment was my initial reaction to your thoughts that the OSC is a “short term” fix and the implication that an OSC could not handle emails that are sales natured. I guess what I am confused by is why does it seem we are over sympathizing with sales agents who can’t write a decent email or handle phone calls?? Their responsibilities have not been taken away or changed. I think what has changed though is that they are being held more accountable for their follow up through the use of CRM programs that are slowly replacing archaic paper systems. Is it that these systems are now just bringing to light the fact that some (not all) of these sales agents have lackluster email and follow up skills?? nI am not sure anyone is robbing them of skills. There is only so much training and coaching that will improve that and its fair to say that even with the best coaching most will not truly adopt what they learned and truly change. That is a disservice to the organization that employs these agents not the agents themselves. There are skills that I have that onsite agents don’t and skills they possess that is not part of my DNA. A real need for both of our positions. In a perfect world both positions should compliment one another and work like a well oiled machine. Bottom line, I think it’s ok and necessary to expect more out of everyone across the board. I look forward to part two!

  • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

    For those commenters who subscribed, looking for part two, it is posted here: http://dennisoneil.com/2012/10/every-sales-counselor-is-an-online-sales-counselor-part-two/

  • Myers Barnes

    nnThe adage “a man convinced against his will is of the samenopinion still” is relevant. Respectfully, I am convinced against my willnand of the same opinion still that the new rules of new home sales requirena full time OSC. The website is the new model home. The website as the new modelnhome sees far more traffic than a physical location (in cases). Just as younwould not leave a physical model home unstaffed, why would you leave yournvirtual model home unstaffed?

    • http://www.dennisoneil.com Dennis O’Neil

      Hi Myers, and thanks for your comment.nnIu2019m not suggesting we leave the virtual model home unstaffed at all. The question is who should be the primary staff of that virtual model. Iu2019m suggesting that salespeople are the long term answer and should be learning to communicate with the digital buyer. The OSC role should be secondary.