Editor’s note: Customer relationship management practices, or CRM for short, can be crucial in the Internet age, when many consumers are starting their real estate search 12 to 18 months before they’re ready to work one-on-one with an agent. In this three-part report, Inman News looks into the meaning of CRM, best practices and an array of technology systems available to the real estate industry.

Editor’s note: Customer relationship management practices, or CRM for short, can be crucial in the Internet age, when many consumers are starting their real estate search 12 to 18 months before they’re ready to work one-on-one with an agent. In this three-part report, Inman News looks into the meaning of CRM, best practices and an array of technology systems available to the real estate industry. (See Part 2 and Part 3.)

The real estate business has something to do with property, of course. But most professionals will tell you that it’s really about people: How to find consumers, how to help them find you, how to keep in contact with them, how to turn those consumers into clients, how to help them through the real estate transaction and to track their progress, and how to maintain contact with them.

At the core of this process is customer relationship management, or CRM. Broadly defined, CRM encompasses all aspects of a company’s or salesperson’s interaction with a customer, including the processes and procedures that are intended to facilitate and enhance that interaction.

CRM practices can be crucial in the Internet age, when many consumers are starting their real estate search 12 to 18 months before they’ll be ready to work one-on-one with an agent.

There are a range of CRM systems – some of them industry-neutral and others designed specifically for the real estate industry. The systems have evolved with technology. More than a Rolodex, CRM systems carry clients’ contact information along with more detailed information about those clients and the history of interactions with those clients.

Early CRM systems were typically software-based and agent-centric, though with the advent of the Internet the trend has been for the systems to migrate to online subscription-based services and to integrate with other real estate technology platforms such as MLS databases, online lead-generation systems, marketing campaigns, electronic forms and transaction management systems, and broker back-office systems.

“I think CRM is now a component of bigger systems or a complete solution whereas before it was thought of as a completely standalone application,” said Gregg Larson, CEO for Clareity Consulting, a company that provides technology consulting to the real estate industry.

There are three major categories of CRM systems for the real estate industry, Larson said, including systems that offer up fresh leads as well as systems to manage incoming leads and existing clients – HouseValues.com and Reply.com are examples of companies that offer this type of product, he said. Another category is Web-based CRM applications such as 360Agent and the popular Top Producer system. Some MLS systems also have built-in CRM systems, he noted.

These modern CRM systems “link up to more content and include more content than they did historically. They come bundled with content right in them,” he said.

Brokers and brokerage companies are getting more involved in the CRM process, he noted, and its more common now for companies to privately brand various aspects of the CRM system so it has a uniform look and feel for agents and their clients. These company-wide systems in some cases require agents to input information about their leads, and the company uses that information to stay in touch with clients, Larson said.

Some CRM vendors are building systems that cater to companies rather than individual agents, and those systems can feature better integration with other systems, more standardization of data fields and more fluid communications. “Ideally, the information can kind of flow both ways. Company information can flow into the CRM and information about the (clients) and agents themselves can flow out of the CRM into the company system,” Larson said.

It was far more common in the past for companies to market standalone CRM systems to individual agents. Now, the vendors “are going after the larger brokers,” Larson said.

Standardization of data fields is a pressing topic for the industry, he noted, and real estate companies are always looking for ways to improve staff efficiency. Some CRM systems allow users to automatically fill out or “auto populate” electronic forms with existing contact information without the need to key in that same information multiple times.

An important component of a CRM system is the ability to download or otherwise transfer information in the event that a company or individual chooses to change CRM vendors, he noted – otherwise some information could be forever lost in the transition.

Core functions of CRM systems include lead management – the ability to import leads into a system, track them, qualify them and convert them; and the ability to set up rules, documents and templates to auto-respond to queries and to send out marketing e-mails, Larson said. For example, a CRM system might be set up to e-mail or mail out periodic newsletters to past clients that provides neighborhood data and information on recent real estate sales.

“CRM is managing the relationship with different kinds of clients or customers and setting up one-to-one communications with them that are different,” he said. Real estate-based CRM systems typically involve unique action plans for various groups of clients, such as those who are buying a home, those who are selling a home, those who are past clients, and those who are prospective clients.

Quadrant2, a company that offers a system that integrates lead capture, prospect incubation, transaction management and contact management technologies into a system called 360Agent, has a literal interpretation of CRM systems.

“If you don’t have an application that does all of these things, I don’t think it’s accurate to call it customer relationship management,” said Bruce Peterson, Quadrant2 president and CEO. Peterson earlier designed and built AgentOffice, a real estate productivity and contact management software program now owned by Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions.

Peterson said he believes the future is in Web-based CRM applications that agents can access anywhere. The program includes pre-designed marketing materials, automated marketing campaigns, and integration with agent Web sites. Subscribers can access the system with their cell phones, he said. “There really is a strong movement to the acceptance of Web-based productivity applications,” Peterson said. “You didn’t see that a year ago. People were still very skeptical.”

The 360Agent system, which launched in October, has been popular with Realtor teams, he said.

ScreenDreamer, a real estate Web services company, has incorporated a CRM system into its offering for real estate agents, offices and companies. The system is powered by CRM specialist SalesForce.com.

Billy Martin, vice president of marketing for ScreenDreamer, said the company has worked to establish a common CRM platform for the mortgage, real estate and title industries. The program can monitor consumers’ Web site behavior and link this to contact information when consumers choose to provide this information. The next evolution in CRM, said Martin, will be to quantify the return on investment for online marketing dollars by providing better tracking of leads and lead sources.

A challenge in implementing CRM systems in the real estate industry is that agents are typically independent contactors, and it can be difficult for offices to get full participation by agents. “Driving adoption (higher) is the key to success in all of these implementations,” Martin said. “You give the Realtors the tools but they’re still not (all) going to use them, so you’ve got to automate as much as possible or provide it as a service. Some want to do it themselves, some want total support.”

The trend is to move toward on-demand systems, he said. “The data needs to be ubiquitous – easy to get to.” The easier a system is to use, the more likely it will be adopted, Martin said. He noted that some large companies in the industry seem to be embracing CRM systems. The mortgage industry may actually be a bit ahead of the real estate industry in implementing CRM systems, he said. “I don’t know whether that’s a function of money or whether it’s a function of vision.”

Screendreamer tends to refer to CRM as a “centralized marketing database,” which seems to resonate better with industry professionals, he said.

MapFusion, an Internet mapping company, offers its customers a CRM platform that is integrated with its mapping services. MapFusion’s tools allow real estate companies to generate leads based on consumer searches of the company’s property-search maps. The company offers agent marketing tools that provide neighborhood statistics and other information that agents can use to compile reports and help their clients narrow down a list of for-sale homes, said Doug Dragasevich, vice president of marketing at MapFusion.

The service “goes back to the definition of CRM – helping customers find information faster and also linking the customers to the salespeople. What we’re trying to do is not cut out the agent – we’re trying to provide the agent with tools that will help him.”

Guru Networks, a real estate technology company, defines CRM as “the full service from keeping the lead and/or customer in touch with the transaction while giving the agent a place to keep track of all customer contacts,” noted Penny Sullivan, the company’s vice president of business development. The company’s systems allow companies to integrate CRM with MLS information, document creation and document management, she also said, and real estate clients can access the status of their transactions via the Web.

Keith Norris, co-founder of CRMRealtor, a Web-based CRM system initially designed for his Coldwell Banker office in Salt Lake City, Utah, said there is a push to make CRM systems accessible by wireless, handheld devices. The CRMRealtor system, can import leads into its database from other data sources. “You can tap into resources from other databases and other companies and other vendors across the road or across the country,” he said.

While there are automated processes available, agents can also choose a more personal touch when interacting with clients, said Phil Baldwin, business development manager for Complete Realty Services, the company that launched CRMRealtor. “The trend is to automate the process without compromising the people aspect of it. The best people-people are the best salespeople in real estate,” Baldwin said.

Ryan Zuk, a spokesman for ACT!, a customer contact and management package produced by Sage Software, said the company offers an “out-of-the-box” CRM solution that is industry-neutral. There are about 2.5 million registered users for ACT!, which has been around since 1987, Zuk said. A newer version of the program allows users to access information via the Web and handheld devices. The basic program is intended for individuals and groups of up to 10 users, he said. The program is “very contact-centric and for high-touch individuals,” he said.

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Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to glenn@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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