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Commentary: CRM options in real estate are dismal

There’s a lot of focus on digital technology that is directed at the outside of your business. But the inside of your business is an area where most businesses can get the most benefit. This is because by the time someone is known within your business, you’ve already spent a great deal of resources and effort just to get them there.

Think about it this way:

There are social media technologies for distributing content out to your groups that are linked socially. There are search technologies for distributing content to groups that are looking for specific things. There are paid advertising technologies for delivering content to people with clear lifestyles and taste. There are mobile apps for delivering content to people using little computers. The list is seemingly endless.

And it’s all focused outward … whether it’s "inbound" or "outbound" it’s still bound — bound to the outside of your business.

But what about inside the business? What’s focused there? Not much. And what is there is often either poorly executed or poorly implemented or both.

The poster child for this situation is customer relationship management software, affectionately known as CRM.

It’s known as CRM because most software of this type isn’t about the customer and is instead about some pre-baked sales process that worked for the first client who bought the software. So saying "customer" out loud would be embarrassing.

It’s also known as CRM because most software of this type has about zero to do with relationships. There might be trivia that is related to relationships like fields for birthdays or spouse names. But nothing about the software helps or encourages the user to actually develop and maintain a relationship. For this reason, it’s less embarrassing to say "CRM" so you don’t have to say "relationship" out loud and feel like a liar.

Finally, as anyone who has tried to use CRM software knows, there is precious little management involved. Sure, there is a lot of the digital equivalent of taking out the garbage and washing the dishes involved, like a sort of boring bizarro SimCity without the pretty pictures. But the only management in these things involves reports on things that the first person who bought the software found useful in running his business.

What amplifies this whole "CRM software designed by the first person who bought it" problem in the real estate industry is that in many cases there never was a first person who bought it. CRM tools are baked in as an afterthought, or bolt-on, or thinly veiled attempt to lock customers (real estate professionals) into using some other piece of software like a website or an email system or some other thing.

The sad and sorry state of CRM options in the real estate industry is why so many agents are using some combination of Post-it notes and Gmail to try to manage their business. It’s also why people can get on stage and say, with a straight face, that "Facebook is the CRM of the future" and not get pummeled by the instant airborne vegetal salad that such a statement deserves.

But as dismal as the CRM options in real estate are — and as fun as it is to bitch about software vendors — they aren’t alone in this problem.

Real estate agents and brokers are clamoring for new technologies and tricks to draw the attention of new customers knowing full well that client needs and desires are falling through gaping holes in internal digital systems. Everyone is getting what they asked for. Well, everyone except for the customers whose relationships are being managed digitally.

It’s true, I won’t joke around here: doing CRM right is hard. It requires a business to have a clear process and standard for handling client relationships. This alone is too difficult for many. And that’s a bigger problem.

It’s a problem that attracting new customers using interesting and fun technology will not solve.

I’m often approached by real estate brokers and agents overwhelmed by the complexity of digital marketing technologies. But as often as not, these same businesspeople have insufficient processes and technology for managing customers in the first place. Spending money focusing outward won’t fix problems that are built into the practice already. Fix the insides first. 

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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