Technology

Tools to Go Solo

CCIMs share the technology they use to grow their companies.

After working in commercial real estate for 13 years, Chad Grout, CCIM, principal broker at Urban Grout Commercial Real Estate, in Nashville, Tenn., started his own business in 2011. He was driven not only by the challenge and opportunity of being a principal broker, but also by the potential to grow his business using technology. “I was at a firm that was in the dark ages as far as connectivity and interactivity were concerned,” Grout explains. “I wanted a platform that would enable me to communicate my brand.”

If that entrepreneurial spirit sounds familiar, it’s because 27 percent of CCIM members identify themselves as owners, partners, or principals. Like entrepreneurs in other industries, they are not only CEOs but also CMOs, COOs, and CFOs. For Grout and others, technology lowers the barriers to entrepreneurship and helps them to balance the various roles.

File Sharing and Project Management

It may only take one person to start a business, but making it successful involves a team. Email, especially Microsoft Outlook, remains an important tool for directing team activities, sharing files, and managing projects. But cluttered inboxes have caused commercial real estate professionals to explore other collaboration tools.

Grout’s team uses Basecamp, a Web-based project management and collaboration tool. Starting at $20 per month, Basecamp gives users permission-based project access, the ability to assign tasks, file-storage space, and mobile access via an iPhone app.

“When we get an assignment, we start a Basecamp project and invite all stakeholders to participate in our process so they never have to ask what’s going on,” Grout says. “It’s also useful for contract management and tracking due diligence milestones. Buyers and sellers participating in the process always have access to contract documents, due diligence materials, and outstanding items for closing.”

Managing file attachments is another common problem when collaborating via email. Assuming the message with the attachment is found, users have to verify that it’s the latest version. File size limitations may also prevent the email from reaching its intended recipient. And when it arrives, it takes up storage space.

Dropbox and its competitors (see sidebar) address these problems by allowing users to share files on the cloud and organize them in topic-based folders rather than by email delivery date or sender. File owners can share single files or folders of files, give read or write permissions to a team or individual, and email links to individual files. Collaborators can view shared files online or download them.

Collaborating Over Video

When Ken Wimberly, CCIM, managing director of Noble Crest Property Group/KW Commercial in Arlington, Texas, joined KW Commercial three years ago, he was the only person in his office. He saw an opportunity to grow not only his office but also KW Commercial’s regional presence. “We now have six people in my office, and by the end of the year we should be at 10,” Wimberly says.

One of those 10 will be a Philippines-based virtual assistant, whose main job will be to manage listings and create property packages. While offshoring is nothing new, free or low-cost tech tools make it accessible to small businesses. “We’ll communicate via Skype and work over instant messaging,” Wimberly says.

Wimberly selected the assistant from MyOutDesk, which specializes in placing virtual assistants in real estate firms. Hourly rates range from $7.60 to $8.60 per hour, and more-complex work is billed at $1,536 per month. To find a good fit, Wimberly identified skills and tasks and used a personality profile to narrow down the list of candidates.

Many small and solo business owners save money and travel time using Skype for video meetings. But the Microsoft-owned Skype is facing a challenge from Google, whose Google+ social media platform includes Hangouts, a video chat feature. Celebrities, businesses, and government officials have used the feature to publicly communicate with their fans and constituents. But teams can also conduct invite-only Hangouts.

Hangout participants can share their desktop and collaborate on files stored in Google Drive, a cloud-based competitor to Microsoft Office. “I am examining how to fully utilize Hangouts for a meeting area,” says Burt Polson, CCIM, commercial real estate adviser at Strong & Hayden Commercial Real Estate in Napa, Calif. “It is a great feature that is just waiting for us to embrace it.”

A Marketing Department of One

Raised near Silicon Valley, Polson is no stranger to technology. He started his career as a tech engineer, owned an electronics business, and moved into commercial real estate in 1995. His office is still small, but business is growing.

Polson attributes the growth to economic factors. “I am getting considerable interest from investors in syndications. High-net-worth individuals had substantial cash on the sidelines and are now looking for quality investments,” he says. The fact that he spends about 30 percent of each day on marketing might have something to do with that growth too.

“My blog and website are a great means of grabbing a prospect’s attention,” Polson says. He uses HootSuite, a social media dashboard, to share his blog posts on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. His content marketing strategy extends to CCIM MailBridge, where he shares his blog posts through CCIM Institute’s members-only email distribution list.

Polson also sends a monthly email to prospects using MailChimp, an email marketing service, which integrates with his customer relationship management system. Grout uses Emma, a MailChimp competitor, for his email marketing. Pricing for both services is based on the number of addresses on the distribution list.

Measuring the return on investment in digital marketing is an elusive goal for Polson, as it is for large corporations, but he isn’t too concerned. He says his blog and social media marketing supplement traditional marketing efforts. “As I market myself through other means, especially in-person contact, my online presence is used to provide additional information on who I am, how I work, and my major presence in the market,” Polson says.

Closing the Sales Cycle

The feature sheet of most customer relationship management systems reads like a job description for an administrative assistant, marketing coordinator, and an operations administrator. The ability to outsource various job functions to a piece of software is what makes a CRM system so important to independent commercial real estate professionals.

Wimberly estimates that about a quarter of his time is spent on client relationship development, and much of that time is spent using REA9, his CRM system. He uses it to communicate with his team, contact prospective clients, and follow up with existing clients. By having all his contacts in one place, he’s able to automate processes and remember important action items. “I get a reminder of who I need to follow up with that day,” Wimberly says. “And I log the conversations.”

Integration was an important feature for Polson when he selected his CRM, Solve360. The cloud-based system connects to Google Apps, which Polson uses to manage contacts, documents, and email. By integrating the two systems, his client interactions, including phone calls and text messages, are automatically logged in the CRM.

“I can track all communication for a particular listing in my CRM and give clients access to specific data so they can view my progress in real-time,” Polson says.

Data in the Cloud

With cloud-based systems, business owners don’t have to worry about application hosting, troubleshooting, and development. And with a data connection, they can access business information anywhere.

“Having constant access to all of your prospects, customers, and deals at all times and communicating with them as effectively and efficiently as technology will allow is the key to increasing your productivity,” Grout says.

The growth of cloud-based applications has coincided with the evolution in mobile hardware. Smartphones and tablets allow users to connect to project management, file sharing, and CRM systems away from the office. “I use an iPhone, iPad, and laptop, but the iPad has been an extension of my life,” Wimberly says. “I use it every single day to access apps like UPAD, Dropbox, and Evernote.”

Individual hardware and application preferences vary, but commercial real estate professionals who use these tools have the same goal: Provide outstanding client service. “The more customer relationships you can create and manage with less time and effort, the more deals you will close more quickly,” Grout says.

Dennis LaMantia is interactive marketing manager at CCIM Institute.

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