When potential homebuyers want to talk to a sales associate in one of New Jersey-based Weichert Realtors’ seven Connecticut offices, they don’t have to wait long.

“That person, within five minutes, should have a response,” said Elsie Pecorin, the office manager of Weichert’s Greenwich office.

Even with today’s technology that assures fast responses in almost any business, that kind of promptness can surprise even the potential client, but it makes sense for business.

“The sooner I get back to somebody, the better chance I have of working with that client,” Pecorin said.

Weichert Realtors’ quick responses are the result of a sophisticated initiative, called the Weichert Lead Network, which the company launched about two years ago. As part of the network, a 40-person call center – open seven days a week – answers consumers’ phone calls and, through a special technology platform, responds to e-mails within a minute or two.

The call center representatives gather information from consumers – such as the type of property they’re seeking and the location they’re interested in – and as the information is entered, a computer system dials an appropriate agent. If the agent is unavailable, the system automatically contacts another agent, continuing the process until an associate who can accept the lead is located. The agent is then connected with the customer.

“We act as a funnel for the entire Weichert footprint, which [includes] many states, and based on your needs, where your interests are, we are able to bring a sales associate right on the line with you,” said Bret Violette, president of Weichert Lead Network.

Violette, who noted that Weichert spends millions of dollars marketing to consumers who use the Internet, said the lead network has been “extremely successful.”

Over 6,000 customer leads have been converted into actual transactions, according to Violette.

‘A Perfect Match’

Out of the company’s 13,000 sales associates nationwide, only about a quarter – or 3,500 – are part of the lead network. Those sales associates who are part of the network have to “commit to a high level of service,” explained Violette.

“It’s not a cherry-picking game,” he said. “They have to agree to work with all consumers.”

Agents appreciate the company’s assistance because individually they can’t compete with lead generation companies that are spending millions to drive consumers to their Web sites.

“One thing that’s been recognized in the industry is the need for a comprehensive Internet strategy,” Violette said.

The network is extremely effective, Pecorin said.

“I think it’s one of the best,” she said.

The system further helps agents turn leads into sales by keeping track of all the calls and organizing potential homebuyers. The quick responses also keep customers satisfied, Pecorin said.

A new system used by some Cendant-owned real estate firms offers similar benefits. LeadRouter is a new system that converts a consumer’s e-mail message into voice and calls a sales associate’s cell phone within 10 seconds to relay the message.

No firms in Connecticut are using the system yet, but Bridgeport-based Century 21 Access America, which has 18 offices in Connecticut and Rhode Island, has signed up.

“We felt it was a perfect match for our agents who are up to speed with technology,” said Ken Scala, president of the company.

Although Realtors are often maligned for being less than technologically savvy, Century 21 Access America places a lot of importance on technology. The company embarks on strong recruiting efforts to find agents who are comfortable with learning new technology, Scala said.

The faster response times that homebuyers will experience when LeadRouter is installed were the company’s main reason for signing up.

“I think they want a response from us quicker than ever,” Scala said.

Five years ago, potential homebuyers would have dealt with delays in response time without batting an eye. But now they expect fast responses.

All of the agents at Century 21 Access America will be using LeadRouter, Scala said. It will have more benefits than just faster response times. It will, like Weichert’s system, help organize and keep track of callers and will help agents incubate leads. When many potential homebuyers make their first call to a real estate firm, they won’t be ready to actually buy for six to 12 months, Scala said. LeadRouter notifies agents to call them every month or so to make sure they stay on top of the clients’ needs.

“It keeps it in front of [agents’] faces,” Scala said. “It’s really big.”

“Lead management is the absolute hottest business issue in real estate growth for the next five years,” said Matthew J. Ferrara, a real estate technology expert who founded Matthew Ferrara Seminars to train Realtors.

During the last several months, Ferrara’s Methuen-based firm has been conducting 75 to 100 Web-based training classes per week on LeadRouter, which was unveiled by Cendant late last year for brokers in its Coldwell Banker, Century 21, ERA and Sotheby’s International Realty brand networks. His firm trained over 7,000 agents and brokers last year on the LeadRouter system alone.

“That tool is phenomenal,” said Ferrara.

But even companies that don’t have access to LeadRouter or other lead-processing technologies are stepping up efforts to capture online customer leads that would otherwise be lost. The industry is largely responding to studies that have shown that Realtors do a poor job responding to consumer’s e-mail inquiries.

According to Ferrara, a test conducted by the National Association of Realtors revealed that Realtors with personal Web pages took seven or more days to respond to online inquiries flowing from Realtor.com, a site operated by the trade association. The other half took two or three days to respond.

“Realtors are throwing away money,” he said. “All we hear about [from agents] is, ‘I want more leads, more traffic to my site.’ That’s not the problem. The problem is, no one is answering the phone.”

Ferrara said brokers can help by training agents to access their e-mail messages while they are out of the office, either through their cell phone or personal digital assistants like Palm Pilots.