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Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast Digital Marketing Podcast Hosted by Greg Bray and Kevin Weitzel

90 Through the Customer Journey and Beyond - Alex Akel

Alex Akel of Akel Homes joins Greg and Kevin on this week’s episode of The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast to discuss how marketing throughout the entire customer journey can help differentiate home builders.

Alex explains that marketing, “is not getting a customer under contract. We believe marketing continues during the entire customer journey, beyond closing. Our customers are more sophisticated and educated than ever before. They're so knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the products, and they're prepared. It's, obviously, a very challenging environment today with the delays, the supply chain issues, the crazy demand that home builders have seen. So, once we get someone under contract, we focus on that customer experience all the way beyond closing, because, for us, the best form of marketing is referrals, it's word of mouth, and it's giving that unmatched customer experience.”

Focusing on the customer experience is key, but your product has to match it. Alex says, “Besides the whole journey, it goes into the products, we build a high-quality product, and we try to introduce it as low cost as possible, and people see it. People are so educated nowadays with all the ins and outs and features and bells and whistles of a home. They really come in with amazing questions and they see the difference. They hear it too, from their friends that buy, and that's how we get a ton of business…you want to build a product that people get really excited about, and it's not the home that you're building, it's also the experience from every step of the way. Even if you have only been in the market for a few years, if you can excel in providing that product and that service, it doesn't take 20 years. It can be very fast, and you'll be rewarded for doing so.”

Listen to this week’s episode to learn how you can create the best customer experience for your home buyers.

About the Guest:

Alex Akel is the President of Akel Homes. A second-generation developer with nearly a decade of industry experience, he is responsible for establishing the company’s strategic vision and overseeing land acquisitions and entitlements, product design, construction operations, and sales and marketing functions of the company’s developments.

Alex graduated summa cum laude from The George Washington University School of Business with a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Upon graduation, he was awarded the John Henry Cowles Prize and the GWSB Outstanding Achievement Award. Alex is also a graduate of Harvard University with a master’s degree in Real Estate. He was the recipient of the Harvard University Real Estate Academic Initiative Excellence in Service Award and is a member of the Harvard Alumni Real Estate Board. Alex has been recognized by the National Association of Home Builders as a Young Professional award finalist, by ProBuilder as the leader in home building, and the South Florida Business Journal as a member of the 40 under 40 class of 2021.

In addition, Alex is a licensed Certified Building Contractor in the State of Florida.

Transcript

Greg Bray: [00:00:00] Hello everybody, and welcome to today's episode of The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast. I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine,

Kevin Weitzel: and I'm Kevin Wetzel with OutHouse.

Greg Bray: We are excited today to welcome to the show. Alex Akel, the President of the Akel Homes. Welcome, Alex. Thanks for joining us.

Alex Akel: Thank you guys for having me.

Greg Bray: So, Alex, for those who don't know you yet, why don't you give us that short introduction, help us to get to know you a little bit better.

Alex Akel: Sure thing. My name is Alex Akel. I'm President of Akel Homes. We're a south Florida home building company. We've [00:01:00] been building homes for the last 30 years, primarily in Palm Beach County.

We specialize in everything from active adult or age-restricted communities to single family-oriented communities, attached product. If it's residential, we do it. We also do multifamily garden-style apartments. We built over 4,000 homes in this market. It's a market that we love and it's been very kind to us over the many years. Personally, I'm a second-generation home builder. So, I've grown up in the business for as long as I can remember.

Kevin Weitzel: You pretty much have to be second-generation because to be in business as long as you've been and you being in the 40 under 40, the math wouldn't equate otherwise.

Alex Akel: Yeah, that's true.

I've been very blessed cause I grew up in it, but I also ended up liking it. A lot of times you may grow up in something and you don't like it, but I love it. I have a great mentor in my dad who's taught me everything, and I've been absolutely blessed to have the opportunities that I've had over my [00:02:00] life and now in my career.

Kevin Weitzel: That's the business side of Alex, so what about the personal side? Do you have any fun facts about you that you could share on our podcast?

Alex Akel: Well, recently I got into building gaming PCs. I like gaming, play everything, especially during quarantine and COVID. Needed that escape when there wasn't that much to really do, so, yeah. I play everything from shooters to sports games to strategy games. Yeah, I'm a huge nerd.

Kevin Weitzel: Much respect for being a PC gamer and not a console gamer. Love it.

Alex Akel: Yeah. Yeah. I went through, I got all the parts. Thankfully, I did it a year ago, supply chain was already pretty much destroyed. It was impossible to get a graphics card. By nature, I'm a builder, so it was fun for me to build a computer and now I have to maintain it. That's one of my hobbies. People who know me dearly know I spend a lot of hours when I'm not working.

Kevin Weitzel: Did you go liquid-cooled or fan-cooled?

Alex Akel: Fan. Didn't want to go through [00:03:00] that.

Kevin Weitzel: It looks super cool.

Alex Akel: It looks cool. I didn't want him to have to maintain it.

Kevin Weitzel: I gotcha.

Greg Bray: I'm just sitting here going, Kevin knows the difference. Okay. That' great.

Kevin Weitzel: I do. I Ido. No. So, my son is going to NAU to be a computer engineer and he builds his own computers. So, I've gone through the whole gamut of, you built that kind of computer and what does that retail for? He tells me like the difference between retail and building them, and it's exponential how much less you spend when you actually build a computer versus buying it. You know, it was just off the rack. You go buy a computer off the rack, it's obsolete before you buy it. If you build it, you can upgrade it and change it and make all the changes you want.

Alex Akel: Exactly, you hit it right in the head because I can go upgrade a part tomorrow and I've got the chassis it's perfectly fine. Whenever there's a new part, rather than buying a completely new computer, I'll just get a different graphics card or upgrade my CPU. It's a lot of manual work, but it's worth it over time.

Kevin Weitzel: So, speaking of education, and, you know, a lot of the computer people that I know are self-taught, but did you go to school for it? What'd you go to school for it?

Alex Akel: I went to The George Washington [00:04:00] University for undergrad. I studied finance international business. Then I went to Harvard University for a very niche masters in real estate degree. I did not study anything computer engineering, so I learned how to build it on YouTube.

Greg Bray: So, tell us a little bit more about that masters in real estate and what kinds of topics that focuses on cause that is different.

Kevin Weitzel: That is different.

Alex Akel: Yeah, sure. I went to business school undergrad, so educationally, I didn't want to do an MBA because I felt like I already had a pretty strong understanding of all the concepts.

I always knew I wanted to be in real estate, and in particular home building. There are lots of programs at various universities like Harvard, MIT, Columbia, NYU, also in Florida. I know Nova has a program. I believe Miami. There's so many schools that have these more niche master's degrees.

So, my program was housed at the architecture school at Harvard University. It's the graduate school of [00:05:00] design. The beauty of the program was we were able to take classes that all the different schools at Harvard University from the business school to the Kennedy School of Government and Policy to the graduate school of design, the law school, and I was also able to take courses at MIT.

So, real estate, in general, is very multidisciplinary. What I find myself doing as an owner of a home building company is one day I'm talking to utility providers, the next day I'm talking to government officials. Then I'm talking to my shell contractor, or I'm talking to my lawyer.

So, it requires a Jack of all trades, and be dangerous in every different discipline, because real estate is at the intersection of so many different subjects. That's why I wanted to do a program like that because it gave me a great footprint and foundation to build upon.

After I graduated, I got my contractor's license in the state of [00:06:00] Florida. Jokingly, I call myself like a dual threat or a triple threat where you're, well-versed in the legal issues, the construction issues, the architecture issues and design issues and so on and so forth.

Greg Bray: That's really, really interesting, Alex. Thanks for sharing that with us. You're absolutely right. There is a huge intersection of a variety of disciplines and being able to understand those so that you can communicate well in all those different areas I'm sure it a big asset for you. Absolutely.

Alex Akel: We rely on our trades and we rely on our consultants all the time, but you have to have that knowledge because at the end of the day, it's your hard dollars that are going into these projects, and you have to know what you're doing and be able to ask the right questions.

Greg Bray: So, Alex, you described a little bit about the company and the kinds of homes you build, and there was a wide variety of different types of homes that you guys do. Is there a particular goal behind providing such a wide variety of homes or is that just the way [00:07:00] things have evolved over time? What's the strategy behind that?

Alex Akel: It's pretty much dictated by the land constraints and what's available in the marketplace. Palm Beach County has increasingly become more challenging to bring new projects online.

Just seven years ago, you could find 200, 300 lots, 50 to 100 acres of land, and do a traditional family community. You could even find land to do an active adult community. Nowadays, there are more infill sites, call it 9 acres, or less than 10 acres, and you're really restricted on what you can do. Attached product is obviously in demand because of the land constraints and what's available, but also because of price sensitivity. Housing has, obviously, become very expensive. We build in a very desirable place where people want to live and work.

On the alternative, we do have some large land positions outside of Palm Beach, [00:08:00] like in Port St. Lucie, where we have 2,500 acres for over 7,700 lots, and so that we take a different approach. So, a lot of it is, going back to my first part of the answer, is deal with the hand that we're given and what's available in the marketplace, and being nimble and being able to respond to the demands and the products that our customers are seeking.

Greg Bray: So, as you look then at that variety, let's just dive in a little deeper into marketing, right? If we can stay in a little higher level at the business level, but obviously those different areas different target buyers, different demographics, different products, how do you structure your marketing team and kind of deal with that variety at that level?

Alex Akel: Yeah. So, marketing, we operate fundamentally different than most other builders. To answer the first part of that question, if we're targeting an age-restricted or active adult [00:09:00] buyer, we do incorporate more traditional methods like print.

Digital is and will continue to be, that primary use of our marketing dollars, but we still will use newspapers. We'll still go into print. Obviously, things like billboards when you're doing larger developments, brand awareness is so important.

More specifically, in how we fundamentally are different, I don't look at what's my cost per lead. There's so much in marketing that it's not even worth quantifying. You want to be present and you want to be kind of ubiquitous some degree. You want to be on everyone's top mind. So, when we look at campaigns, whether we do something digital or we do something print, we don't just evaluate it from a dollar spent. We look at the bigger picture and we just want to be present. We want to be conscious to our buyers, make sure that they know that we're in the [00:10:00] marketplace. The strategies differ from community to community depending on the demographic that we're targeting, and obviously the product that we're building.

Greg Bray: Do you then have different teams that focus on the different products or do you have one team that just understands all of it and is able to deal with the whole opportunity?

Alex Akel: Because we're a private builder and we're smaller, even though we have some larger projects in the pipeline right now, a majority of my marketing is in-house. I personally oversee the marketing. I have an in-house graphics coordinator who works on my collateral and my creative, and then I work with an agency that essentially purchases the ad space, whether that be traditional or digital. We're extremely lean when it comes to our marketing.

So, whether it's a 55 plus, or it's a family community, we do as much as we can in-house because that [00:11:00] has proven to be, it's not even just cost-efficient, it's just time because we like to control our own destiny if you will. Be able to upload that new brochure or that new flyer and create it right when we need it, rather than waiting on an agency, and I understand that model works for others. That's just the model that we decided to use because it was just more efficient for us.

Greg Bray: I can totally respect that cause there's pros and cons to both directions and being able to get things done faster often does require you to have a little more control over the resources which can't always happen with agencies the way you might want.

Alex Akel: The con to that is, I personally get very sucked into marketing. It does end up taking a lot of my time. Most builders will say they're marketing companies first, then home builders. I don't agree with that philosophy because I'm a very product-centric person and I've built a very product-focused company, but marketing obviously is paramount to the success of any company. It [00:12:00] does suck up quite a bit of my time, but I felt like I ended up managing the process either way. It depends on the agency that you do use.

Greg Bray: So, when you then look back over the last couple of years, how are you seeing what the buyers want and expect to evolve and change, and how are you trying to adapt your marketing and sales processes to meet those expectations?

Alex Akel: What we're trying to build at Akel Homes is something that is very unique and different for one primary reason. For us, marketing is not getting a customer under contract. We believe marketing continues during the entire customer journey, beyond closing. Our customers are more sophisticated and educated than ever before. They're so knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the products, and they're prepared. It's, obviously, a very challenging environment today with the delays, the supply chain issues, the crazy demand that [00:13:00] home builders have seen.

So, once we get someone under contract, we focus on that customer experience all the way beyond closing, because for us, the best form of marketing is referrals, it's word of mouth, and it's giving that unmatched customer experience. That's where I believe we've been able to set ourselves apart, and that's things that we've invested in digitally through a website.

We have my Akel that kind of guides them through the home buying journey. It also assists them with their post-closing needs, to the types of meetings that we have with our customers throughout the construction process, and their whole experience through our design center, seeing their house come to life.

Then there's always the most important aspect, which is the human element. I think everyone talks so much about interactive floor plans or digital marketing tools. The people that you have [00:14:00] on your team will make or break you. There's so much that people under-emphasize about the human experience, whether it's to marketing, to the customer journey, and then post-closing, and that's something that can't be underemphasized. It's the most important thing that we can do as home builders is emphasize the constant touching points with their customers, strong and effective communication, and keeping them engaged. There are no digital tools that are substitute for that. That's something that we're constantly, we haven't perfected it, we still got a ways to go, but that's something we're constantly putting our energy. I spend more of my time on how do I improve the customer journey from contract to post-closing than I actually do on how do I get people in my sales office. Granted, it's an easier market right now to get people to your sales office.

Kevin Weitzel: So, Alex, speaking of sales offices, and obviously the big C word, [00:15:00] COVID, let me ask you this, you guys already do have some pretty decent digital tools on your website, did you find yourself chasing some of that technology or did you already have it in place? Were you caught off guard when the lockdowns were happening across the country or were you already poised to be able to pounce on those opportunities and digitally connect with your clients?

Alex Akel: So, a lot of what we've always done has been fairly proactive. Some of it was a little bit reactive. I won't lie. You know, when it came to the interactive floor plans, we already had that on board, and it was implemented. We were in Florida, so we were shut down from that period of April to May. Then after that, Florida was like, okay, we're going back, and we're opening.

We had a ton of buyers who were out of state and things like the online design center, which we did do post-COVID. That was extremely effective for the out-of-state buyers. The interactive floor plans we were doing prior to COVID. We were [00:16:00] generating so many walk-in appointments after May after the lockdown was lifted, so the digital tools were great for getting people in the door, but they weren't a substitute for that human interaction, seeing, and physically visiting the models, and being present.

I love all the new technology that's around. It's awesome. What all these companies are doing, it's absolutely incredible. Most builders are doing it nowadays. For us, we're very quick to adapt because we're small and nimble and I don't have a large number of communities, so it's very easy for me to, even if I'm being reactive to something, to implement something and do it well, simply because I don't have as many communities under construction simultaneously. So, I can be a bit reactive and things will turn out relatively fine versus the public builders. It's an undertaking when you've got hundreds of [00:17:00] communities or thousands of communities to decide, Hey, I want to do interactive floor plans.

We were getting lots of traffic, and there was really no substitute for that, but the digital tools were immensely helpful for the out-of-state buyers. California was a huge surprise, I think for everyone. New York and New Jersey were always our primary demographics in terms of out-of-state. Even Texas was a massive surprise, and they needed those digital tools to make decisions, but ultimately they still came in person. We didn't do that many site unseens. There were a few, but not that many.

Greg Bray: So, Alex to step back to your customer journey comments. I love some of the things you were saying there, how you have tried to focus even beyond that normal period I think that most builders do. What was it that made you decide to focus there? What was the pain point that you saw that said, we can be different if we look at this piece of the journey [00:18:00] and try to make it better? Was there a particular pain point or opportunity that kind of jumped out at you that made you go in that direction?

Alex Akel: Yeah. It's primarily a function of our competitive landscape as a home builder, especially as a private home builder. Prior to 2008, there were obviously way more private home builders in the marketplace. As the market has become more saturated by the larger builders, there've been tons of mergers and acquisitions. We're in a land-constrained market where you can't have as many storefronts or communities as you would, maybe in other markets. South Florida is very unique.

My primary competitors are the large public builders and I use that customer journey as my competitive advantage and being a private builder allows us to have more of a concierge and intimate home buying experience for our [00:19:00] customers. That's really what started it, is just how can I differentiate myself, provide a better service from my competitors, and create a memorable experience because as expensive as a home is, you'd be surprised how many people refer, or they purchase a second home if they like a builder, and they move with you from community to community. It's very incredible. Once you create that awareness that wow Akel homes provides a really a white glove type of home building experience, news travels fast. That's something that has served us well, and it's so core to our philosophy as a company that it's who we are now. Besides the whole journey, it goes into the products, we build a high-quality product, and we try to introduce it as low cost as possible, and people see it. People are so educated nowadays with all the ins and outs and features and bells [00:20:00] and whistles of a home. They really come in with amazing questions and they see the difference. They hear it too, from their friends that buy, and that's how we get a ton of business.

Greg Bray: I think that's really insightful, and how you've decided to focus on it is unique looking at how you can make it a competitive advantage. You have to be a builder that's been around awhile, like you guys have though, to really see some of that repeat buyer opportunity, right? A builder who's only been around for a few years just doesn't have the time to have seen that repeat buyer opportunity. So, I think that's one of those insights that comes with longevity in the business, especially with you being in the second-generation like you told us. So, that's terrific to hear.

Alex Akel: You kind of get envious of the companies like Apple or Tesla that have these cult followings. I'm not saying every builder should try and be an Apple or a Tesla, but you want to build a product that people get really excited about, and it's not the home that you're building, it's also [00:21:00] the experience from every step of the way. Even if you have only been in the market for a few years, if you can excel in providing that product and that service, it doesn't take 20 years. It can be very fast, and you'll be rewarded for doing so.

Kevin Weitzel: It definitely didn't take Tesla 20 years.

Alex Akel: Absolutely.

Greg Bray: Your comment about referrals and word of mouth being the best marketing, often when you think of word of mouth, you think of the really small, like the custom builder who's doing just a handful of homes a year or something, but someone your size, to still be focused on referrals and word of mouth, is great, and it becomes harder the bigger you get, right? The law of averages kick in at some point sometimes things go bad, no matter how hard you try, just sometimes not a good fit, but you're absolutely right in today's digital world referrals because they end up as online comments and testimonials, or negative comments, really is a powerful part of that whole marketing landscape.

Alex Akel: Absolutely. We live and die by the referrals. It's [00:22:00] pretty incredible how you can get entire families just to move to your community and buy four houses at once, or friends will say, my one friend is moving to your neighborhood, and then they end up bringing four or five other families. You can spend all you want on PPC and a Facebook or SEO, there's no better return on your marketing costs than keeping your promise, building a high-quality home, and delivering every step of the way.

Kevin Weitzel: You know, Alex, we had the same issue in the Arizona market, but it's that four or five families move into the same house, not into the same community.

Greg Bray: Thank you, Kevin.

Alex Akel: Listen, I won't say we don't get some of that as well. It's always exciting when your salesperson calls you and says, I have a family here and they're looking to buy three houses. That's something, and they came here because they have a friend who bought lot 20.[00:23:00] When you get those types of calls, you get the feeling, okay, we're on the right track here. We're doing something right. That was before COVID, that's not a COVID effect. That's before COVID.

Kevin Weitzel: You're basically building communities with that kind of endeavor where that word of mouth is getting Carl bringing Bill and bringing Sue, and they're all bringing them to the same neighborhood cause they're equally yoked. They like to be around each other, et cetera. That also speaks high volumes of the product that you're building in the community that you're building. Do you guys have anything that's close to your heart that you support in the community?

Alex Akel: We do quite a few things in our community. We support a wide range of organizations. We're a big supporter of habitat. We support them annually at the CEO builds that they have. Affordable housing, listen, I wish I could build houses that cost $150, $200,000 in Palm Beach County. That's how much the land costs, and that's if you can find it, so affordable housing is very near and dear because I believe shelter is universal.

We [00:24:00] also do work with other organizations. We work with Feeding South Florida. We work with the Pap Corps for Cancer Research based out of Sylvester, University of Miami. One of the things that we've done, is actually engage our home buyers in that process where at the time of contract for each home, we donate a total of $300 per home, and we allow them to choose between Habitat, The Pap Corps for Cancer Research, and Feeding South Florida. To donate that 300. They could split it three ways, or they can give the entire 300 to one organization. That's something that allows these organizations to get the buyers engaged to learn about their missions and their causes.

Another thing that we recently did we are supporting the Boca Raton JCC, the Jewish Community Center. They have a program for special needs adults. The isolation that has occurred during COVID, it's been absolutely devastating, but for special needs adults, [00:25:00] they're often a demographic that is very under-discussed in my opinion. We create a program in partnership with the JCC so that every month we're planning like a night out to a nice restaurant and a social activity. They're anywhere from 20 to even 50 years old. Some are employed, the majority are not employed. They're often stuck at home. They don't have a lot of socialization opportunities.

The JCC, it's the Jewish Community Center, but the program is open to anyone. So, we started the first event last month, and it's a monthly thing we're going to be doing. We've committed to this each month for the next three years. So, we've committed over $24,000 towards the program. I'm always looking for opportunities like that, where we can give back, we can support our community. The community has been very kind to us, and we're always looking for new opportunities to give back and do what's right because there are a [00:26:00] lot of very underserved people using the special needs as an example.

Greg Bray: That's fantastic.

Kevin Weitzel: You're a pretty slick dude, very cerebral. I've actually enjoyed this interview very much. I have a question when people are as intellectually sound as you are, nobody just creates all their own ideas. Who are you looking at? Where are you looking for your ideas? What are those future trends that you're seeking?

Alex Akel: I look at everything. I look at my competitors. I see what they're doing. Listen, I have a great team too. I definitely don't take credit for my ideas. I look at everything. I look at what other industries are doing. Talk about Tesla, everyone's always watching Tesla. They're always watching Apple because people essentially, for lack of a better word, people get pre-programmed. So, big companies implement things first, and then it trickles down to everything. That's what we've seen in things like Ecommerce and whatnot. I look at what bigger companies are doing because they set the trends.

Whether people [00:27:00] like that or not, they set the trends and eventually people adapt, and they become used to it, and that's their new guideline. So, we look across the board for inspiration. What's great for me in my position is, I have a great team. They're always a sounding board for ideas. I've been very blessed to have this opportunity to shape this company the way I want to. I know it's difficult when you work in a family company to be able to make your mark sometimes. My dad has been, really, the best mentor I can ever ask for. There's really no one better to have than someone who's built 4,000 homes, and he's also gave me the keys to the house, pun intended. So, I can do what I want because he trusts me, which is very rare to find in most companies that are family-owned.

Greg Bray: Thank you so much for sharing so much with us today. We really appreciate you contributing your time. Any last words of advice that you wanted to share today with our listeners before we wrap up?[00:28:00]

Alex Akel: Yeah, I think the only advice I would give is always just stay on your toes. I love being an innovator. I love implementing new things. I love experimenting with new things, whether that be on the digital side. The only downside is you use some of your time, but you end up learning a ton.

There are so many things, especially post COVID, that we've learned that work, doesn't work. As a private builder, being able to be nimble, quickly react to things, and execute. It's such an advantage for us. For the people listening, or reading this podcast just experiment. Don't hesitate to try on new ideas. It's okay if you're reactive, sometimes. I think people put too much of an emphasis on, oh, you're reactive, that way it was bad. It just depends on how you go about it. So, that's the only advice I give.

Kevin Weitzel: Yeah. I see a lot of people growing sideburns now because I was proactive with mine. So, all those reactive [00:29:00] sidebruns...no, I'm just joking.

Alex Akel: They're just going after a great look.

Kevin Weitzel: I couldn't even say it with a straight face,

 I wish I could. I wish I could do that. I wish I could do that. I can't I wasn't blessed with those genetics.

Greg Bray: I can't take Kevin anywhere. All right. Well, Alex, thank you so much for joining us today. If someone wants to get in touch with you and connect, what's the best way for them to reach out?

Alex Akel: Probably, LinkedIn is the best. If I don't respond to you in a day or two, doesn't mean I'm ignoring you, it's just I check it every few days.

Greg Bray: Awesome. Well, again, thank you so much for joining us, and thank you, everybody, for listening today to The Home Builder Digital Marketing Podcast. I'm Greg Bray with Blue Tangerine,

Kevin Weitzel: and I'm Kevin Wetzel with OutHouse.

Thank you.

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