Technology Solutions

Choosing a CRM

Wouldn't it be nice to have a full-time assistant who could remember all your clients' names, properties, and birthdays? Even better, what if the assistant was available 24 hours a day and never called in sick? For many commercial real estate professionals, a customer relationship management system fills that role. A CRM system can improve a company's efficiency, as long as the system matches the company's needs.

CRM Features

The term customer relationship management is loosely used by software makers to describe programs that have a wide range of functions, including grouping contacts, automating sales tasks, qualifying leads, and tracking marketing analytics. Commercial real estate professionals often turn to CRM systems after realizing their email address books are insufficient for managing customer interactions.

Systems such as Real Estate Assistant, Rethink Commercial Real Estate CRM, ACT! for Commercial Real Estate, and ClientLook are made specifically for industry professionals. Other systems, such as, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, SugarCRM, Infusionsoft, Daylite, Highrise, and Kazeli CRM, are designed for general business use.

A common feature that distinguishes a commercial real estate system is a built-in property database, which allows users to connect people to properties. A property database isn't standard in general business systems, but it can be added with some customization.

Jason M. Allen, CCIM, leasing manager at Dean Realty Co. in Kansas City, Mo., has used ACT! for Commercial Real Estate for about three years. His company customized the system to track office and industrial leases. "The opportunities feature, which syncs with our calendar, allows us to set up a series of activities for tenants whose leases are expiring." Those activities include tenant meetings 8 months to 10 months before the lease expires to see how business is going. "Six months out, we'll start talking about the renewal process and improvements that might need to be done," Allen says. And when a prospect is added to the system, it is automatically assigned a three-month follow-up campaign, including emails and phone calls.

Most CRM systems also include reporting features that offer an aggregate view of a businesses' activities. "Reporting is really helpful for me," says Daniel J. Scanlon, CCIM, adviser at Grubb & Ellis Northern New England in Manchester, N.H., who has been using REA for about seven years. "Reports allow me to identify specific property types and match them to investors who are looking for that type of property."

Allen, likewise, prints a weekly report to see who's at the top of his opportunity list.

Email integration — which gives users seamless access across desktops, smartphones, and other mobile devices — is another important feature for many CRM users. "REA syncs with Outlook, and Outlook syncs my calendar and contacts to my phone," says Nicholas L. Miner, CCIM, of Commercial Properties in Phoenix.

Email integration also helps commercial real estate professionals manage email marketing campaigns. "I use REA's merge function to send personalized emails every week to about 500 people and maintain a history of recipients," Scanlon says.

CRM System Buying Tips

CRM systems can offer vastly different features, which can make comparison shopping difficult. Prioritizing features and setting a price range make the selection process easier.

For example, a cloud-based system may be a priority, which would eliminate any products requiring network or desktop installation. Other features to consider are mobile access, email marketing and tracking capabilities, tech support quality, property listings, and scalability. Prioritizing features can focus the buying process.

CRM providers charge either a recurring — monthly or annual — fee or a one-time fee, and systems are priced according to the number of users. Single-user prices begin at about $40 per month. One-time fees range from $230 to $2,000 for more advanced systems. When pricing systems, buyers should include costs for training, maintenance, and upgrades.

To avoid overbuying, potential buyers can take advantage of free trials offered by most CRM companies. "Once you know how the system will be used, research the options and do some trial runs," Allen says. "During the free trial, play with the features and apply them to your business model. Think beyond the standard Rolodex idea."

Taking advantage of every feature a system has to offer can help commercial real estate professionals expand their business models, but full adoption can be difficult. "Most brokers use 10 percent of their CRM's capabilities, regardless of what system they use," says Rod N. Santomassimo, CCIM, president of the Massimo Group in Cary, N.C. "CRE professionals should really evaluate what features they will actually use versus the ones that seem really cool."

Underuse may be the result of feature overload or reluctance to modify routines. "You have to be consistent in your use," says Miner. "If you're not consistent, you'll get frustrated and resort to what used to work, which for many people is Outlook. Ask yourself, 'Am I really willing to commit to the new CRM system and make it a part of my daily routine?'"

Dennis LaMantia is interactive marketing manager at the CCIM Institute.


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