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Put Your Company's Message Here

The "New" Way to Sell
by Chrissy Jackson, ACM, PHC

Our industry has been blessed with a large number of innovative and creative people. Over the years, they have built bigger and better homes, created new avenues for financing, and developed unique and increasingly attractive communities.

As most of us have weathered the downward cycles of our business and rejoiced during the upward cycles, there are those who have created their own cycle. And their own market! There are some who literally took charge of a project and forced people to pay attention to them and what they were doing with manufactured housing.

Most of us dream of being able to develop a property -- the excitement of turning raw land into a finished, full, rent-producing community is an unbelievable high! We count homesites instead of sheep; we see curving streets rather than pasture land; we hear satisfied residents laughing at community cookouts when others hear only the wind whistling in the trees.

In actuality, few of us have enough marketing savvy to be able to turn this dream into reality! The development and fill process is not an overnight venture, and is not something to be undertaken by those short of patience, time, or money. But, it has been done, and done quite successfully by many.

Aggressive marketing plans; targeted audiences; promoting quality -- not discounts; convincing people to buy without "selling"; all of this may sound like the old way -- yet it is also the new way. At the National Manufactured Housing Congress in Las Vegas this year, one of the speakers directed his comments to this very area. His topic addressed the thought that if you want to sell to seniors, you should stop selling!

The "sales pitch", in his opinion, should be addressed to lifestyle rather than floorplan, neighborhoods rather than financing terms, feature/benefits of the community rather than the home, and the main focus should be on the people invoved in the transaction. That means you, your customer, and their family. Sell yourself, your professionalism, your ethics, your neighborhood and lifestyle. Your products will then sell themselves. Instead of using an aggressive closing method such as the "urgency close", you will then be able to simply use the "which close". Your customers decide to live with you because of you, and your sale is only a matter of "which" home they will choose.

We should all take that philosophy seriously -- for our customers of all ages -- and sales numbers would probably increase for us. It has been used before, and with a great deal of financial success. It may be a new concept for some of us to accept. Yet that admonition is definitely not new to all of us.

Bob Custer, former Vice President for DeAnza's eastern region, knew those beliefs to be the right way to operate a long time ago. Back in 1972, when Bob worked for George Sanders, he developed and marketed a community in North Ft. Myers, Florida, called Buccaneer.

With 980 homesites to fill, Custer had to be creative and aggressive! The community was easily noticed by those who drove Route 41 (The Tamiami Trail), between Tampa and North Ft. Myers. The large pirate ship out front clearly drew attention and identified this community as one to be noticed. The street signs were topped with open treasure chests and sparkling, glittering jewels appeared to be falling out. The pirate theme carried through to the naming of the streets: Jose Gaspar, Doubloon Way, and Pirate's Rest Boulevard, just to name a few.

Back in the early 1970's, when Buccaneer was a new development, many northern folks were looking at Florida as a retirement mecca. It was not uncommon for an aggressive company involved in the selling of retirement housing to actively recruit their customers from this group of Midwesterners. In fact, many of our current Florida residents were initially flown down here at the expense of such a company to take a look at the retirement lifestyle they offered.

This was the type of operation Bob put into place at Buccaneer. Custer would travel up north and carry his message of quality retirement living and the exclusive lifestyle offered at Buccaneer to those who attended his well-publicized seminars.

His regular trips to Chicago, Minneapolis, and other Midwest spots brought a steady stream of prospects by the plane loads to the quickly filling community. And -- his idea was to sell them a home without selling a home! Sound different?

Not really. That's the same marketing strategy we are again hearing about today. The "gurus" of modern-day sales tactics tell us that in order to be successful in sales at communities, we should concentrate on people, not products.

"Don't sell the homes -- sell the lifestyle," they instruct. "Don't sell the lowest price -- sell the quality environment," they teach. And, finally, they stress, "don't sell financing terms or features -- sell yourself!"

The focus today has turned to developing customer loyalty by selling service; by selling yourself; by becoming a "friend" to those who come to your community to buy a home. Once you master this technique, there is no limit as to where it will allow you to go!

Too many times today, homes and homesites in communities and manufactured home subdivisions are advertised by price only -- with everyone trying to beat the other guy's lowest price. Most customers are savvy enough to realize that they get what they pay for. And when they pay the lowest price out there, they may not be getting the highest quality in anything. Not the best home, not nicest the community, not the most prime location, and not the most professional management.

Bob Custer knew this when he developed Buccaneer. He sold most of the almost 1,000 homes based on "snob appeal." His advertising bragged that Buccaneer was for "those who desire the finest." When he and his salespeople talked to prospects, they used phrases like "if you qualify", or "if this fits your budget", or "if you can afford this". This community was not the least expensive place to live, and they did not keep that fact a secret.

And, his strategy worked! Custer sold most of his homes for cash. Some were financed with a one year balloon; and paid off when a CD matured, or retirement funds were secured.

With hindsight, analyzing the reasons for this success is easy: he succeeded because he targeted his market. He knew where the buyers were, and he went after them. He understood what they wanted, and he provided it. He saw the psychological benefits of retiring to the "dream lifestyle", and he used that to his advantage in dealing with his customers.

Another reason for Custer's success was that he didn't sell homes! He sold the community, the neighborhood, the residents, the amenities, and the lifestyle. Let's take a closer look at the different areas of his operation -- and see how you can use his successful ideas today in your community and home sales operation.

The process started at the seminars he held (often as many as three in one city). He used lifestyle photos of current residents of Buccaneer, showing them enjoying the pool, one of the clubhouses, or a cookout. Constant messages of "retiring to the best", "you deserve more in retirement", etc., were sent during the presentation. The climate of sunny south Florida was an added feature which contributed to the positive picture of "perfect retirement."

Part of the reason for success was also Custer's intuitive feel for the market. He knew the prospects who came to his seminars and who were looking to buy were usually not going to retire for a few years. He knew they needed some security in the level of expenses. So, Bob introduced the "Lifetime Lease." That is a well-known tool used by some in today's market, but at that time, it was relatively new. The concept was to provide a feeling of security by allowing them to "know" the amount of rent -- and the amount of annual rent increases -- that they would be facing in the future.

By stating a rent escalator in the terms of the lifetime lease, even though prospective purchasers did not know the exact dollar amount of any future increase, they knew how it would be calculated. Recent surveys have shown the one area of greatest concern for prospective residents is not how much the future increases will be, but how they will be calculated.

Once the seminar had produced a plane load of prospective buyers, Bob went on to the next step. This involved the current residents of Buccaneer and the sales staff. After careful screening, Custer selected "host couples" for the prospects flying into town. Each of these host couples had to meet high standards in order to be selected.

They needed to be outgoing, gregarious, able to relate well with strangers, and available for the entire weekend to "sell" the Buccaneer lifestyle. They also had specific duties to prepare for the weekend. The guest house where the prospects would stay had to be checked for cleanliness, linens, cold drinks in the refrigerator, and snacks in the pantry. (These hospitality homes were the actual model homes which would then be sold with a disclaimer that they had been used for weekend visits.)

Nothing was left to chance! The host couple met their prospects at the airport, and drove them back to the community on a pre-arranged route set by Custer and specifically designed to show off the best of North Fort Myers. When entering the community, the planned driving continued so the prospects had a chance to see the amenities, the curving streets with concrete curbing, the cul-de-sacs with a grassy median, and the gorgeous homes and landscaping throughout the development. When they arrived at their home for the weekend, the host couple was given a tour of the home, and encouraged to settle in and enjoy. Saturday mornings were breakfast cooked at the home of the host couple. The day was spent walking in the natural wooded area where cypress knees rose out of the water and Spanish moss hung gracefully in the tree branches overhead, or swimming in the pool, or enjoying activities at one of the huge clubhouses.

The friendly atmosphere of Buccaneer's neighborhood continued to shine when other volunteer residents were cooks and waiters for a cookout at the clubhouse on Saturday night. The huge round tables held nine people -- two host couples, each with their prospects, and a salesman. This was the prospect's first meeting with the one who would actually sell them their home. Up until this point, all contact was with people who were "selling" lifestyle, atmosphere, quality neighborhoods, and amenities of the community.

The host couple had been in touch with the salesman prior to the dinner to give him their evaluation of the prospects: what size home they needed, their hobbies and lifestyle needs, their apparent "readiness" to buy, and any other pertinent information they had gleaned from the visiting couple. Homes were sold by asking, "Which model do you prefer?" There was no doubt in the minds of these salespeople that they were on a "gravy train". By utilizing the methods and tools Bob provided to them, they made two or more sales every weekend. And it was easy! By the time the prospects got to the salesmen, they were already "sold" on the lifestyle offered by Buccaneer. It was just a matter of floorplan and homesite location.

The professionals who bought in Buccaneer were usually buying second homes with plans to retire in "a few years." Some had to reach to qualify; they had to dig a little to afford it; and their reward was the emotional satisfaction of knowing they were retiring to something that others could only dream about!

By working with as many as seven different manufacturers, Bob was able to offer quality housing in a variety of floorplans and styles. With about 30 model homes constantly on display -- each completely landscaped, and fully furnished -- the choices appeared to be endless. The exteriors of these homes were creative and uniquely designed to mirror site-built housing.

Brick and stone were used extensively to send a subliminal message of stability, of soundness, and of enduring quality. Skirting was made of brick, stone, or stucco. Many carports were supported with brick pilasters rather than aluminum framework. Mansard rooflines were common. Landscaping was individually planned for each homesite to ensure that "storybook look of perfection."

And it didn't end there. Advertising was geared to draw attention to the upscale, quality way of life available only at Buccaneer. Each of the daily display ads referred to a lifestyle "for those who desire the finest".

One of the more interesting promotions was a result of all these various techniques pulled together -- the exterior brick work, individualized landscaping on the homesite, maximum use of the available lawn space -- and resulted in a home being set on a lake front site. It was fronted with a brick facade, there were masony pilasters to support the carport -- and Custer put a swimming pool in the back yard.

Then, he advertised it for sale for $100,000. Can you imagine a manufactured home in a land-lease community in the late 1970's selling for $100,000? Well, neither could a lot of other people! And, while some in the industry thought he was a little off his target -- the public showed them wrong! People showed up in droves to see this "mobile home worth $100,000".

Custer's response to this ad program is, "I didn't care what people said about me, I just wanted them to notice Buccaneer!" This is an appropriate phrase for today's world, also.

Look closely at some of the things that worked once -- apply them to your business today (with adjustments as needed). I bet you'll find a gold mine sitting right on your own property once you change your paradigms about the way you market and advertise your business!

Questions about this article? Call Bob Custer, FMHA Staff, 904/574-9443.

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