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 1 and Part 3.)

“First, fast and frequent” might sound like a recipe for a very different kind of relationship, but it’s one real estate marketing company’s rule for customer relationship management.

“You want to be the first agent in contact with the home buyer or seller,” said Matt Heinz, senior director of marketing for HouseValues. “You want to follow up quickly. And you want to stay in touch – frequently.

“We’ve found over the last seven years that leads aren’t enough,” said Heinz. “It’s almost as important to have a system in place to cultivate relationships with people as it is to get the leads.”

Since the average person researches real estate online 12 to 18 months before closing, managing customer relationships is a key element of success for brokerage companies and sales agents. Many find CRM software and systems of best practice to be invaluable in nurturing leads to fruition.

Though Heinz’ company is perhaps best known for lead generation, HouseValues also offers a customer relationship management tool, Market Leader. Agents who subscribe to Market Leader also have access to training sessions, teleconferences and coaching sessions.

“If they (the prospect) are not buying for many months, they still want to hear from you,” Heinz said.

One of the best practices his company teaches is to send useful information, not sales pitches, to prospects, the marketing director said, echoing comments made by many real estate agents.

Market Leader sends e-mail messages to prospects at regular intervals as directed by the agent, Heinz said. “You want to put yourself in front of someone and be direct – ‘I am ready to help you put your home on the market when you are ready.'”

However, Heinz cautioned, it’s important not to be intrusive. Another best practice: Let the consumer stay in control.

“Let them drive the timeline,” Heinz said. As prospects do their research and amass the information they need to make decisions, they will decide when it’s time for action.

Another best practice: “Make yourself an expert on the neighborhood,” Heinz said. Advice about local businesses, local vendors, schools, nightlife, weather and any number of things can make an agent stand out, he said.

In addition to sending out e-mails to prospects at regular intervals, the Market Leader system provides templated letters for follow-up via U.S. mail and call scripts for telephone calls, Heinz said.

Also, HouseValues subscribers can create their own Web sites with a template, he said. “Agents can offer mapping, directories of local businesses, where the parks are, restaurants, on a Web site that features their name and contact information. It’s very easy for agents to set up. We do most of the work for them,” Heinz said.

Linda Howard, president of network services for Prudential California, Nevada and Texas, agrees with Heinz that speed of response is a very important best practice. It’s also important to separate those who are interested in buying in the next three months from those who are more long-term, Howard said.

“We get them in the loop with an agent if they are going to buy pretty soon,” Howard said. Otherwise, “we put them in our LeadTrax.”

LeadTrax is a customer relationship management software by Lantrax, a Williamsville, N.Y.-based company. Pru California depends on LeadTrax to handle its long-term leads, Howard said.

“We call it an incubation process. We nurture that consumer and supply them with information they need during that period of time and when they are ready to start their search we assign them out to an agent,” Howard said.

The system sends prospects e-mails on a regular basis, “giving them bits of information about mortgage rates, special insurance programs, anything related to the home purchase process,” Howard said.

Howard agreed with Heinz’ suggestions on best practices.

“Consumers these days are savvy. They will see right through a sales pitch,” she said. “What they want is mortgage rates, insurance information, information about the area they are moving to. We try to make whatever we sent them valuable information.”

Pru California also gets leads through Yahoo and LendingTree, which have their own proprietary platforms, Howard said. The company just finished putting LeadTrax in place, and the president of network services is confident it will earn its keep.

Pru California is unusual in having a comprehensive CRM product available to its agents, according to Bob Woehrle, CEO of PropertySource. PropertySource is a customer relationship management technology firm that works with large brokerages including Baird & Warner in Chicago, Hunt Real Estate in New York State, Realty South in Alabama and Edina Realty in Minnesota.

“The majority of large brokerages do not have a comprehensive CRM product available to their agents. Those agents have had to sign up for Top Producer or use Outlook or whatever,” Woehrle said.

Regarding CRM, Woehrle said, “You are 40 times more likely to generate business from someone you know than a random relationship.”

As a best practice, his company recommends that agents establish and identify groups– former clients, friends, relatives, PTA, church members – and get them into a list. “We provide an electronic tool to do this with every contact they have,” Woehrle said.

Another PropertySource best practice: “Surprise and delight,” the CEO said.

“Our software allows agents to send out automatic e-greetings on birthdays, anniversary, the changing of the clocks twice a year. Remembering customers at times they would not expect you to remember them has a strong emotional appeal,” Woehrle said.

Woehrle joined the chorus recommending that agents send useful information to prospects. His company offers newsletters that agent customers can send out, tailored to buyers and sellers who are actively engaged, and to homeowners.

“We also recommend building a target group of preferred customers. The two easiest ways to make money are repeat sales and referrals. We want to target them and give them a special dose of attention,” Woehrle said. This is known as the 100 List, the group of an agent’s 100 most likely contacts to provide a referral.

With postage rates going up, “with our agents across the country we unrolled a promotion. For their 100 list, we sent them 100 cards that welcomed the new year and the new postage rate and in the cards we included a sheet of two-cent stamps,” the CEO said.

The most important best practice: “Segment them (prospects) according to their needs and speak intelligently to those needs,” Woehrle said.

***

Send tips or a Letter to the Editor to janis@inman.com or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 140.

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