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 2.) 

In 1992, Richard Ret had a list of 600 contacts and sold 30 homes. In 2005, the Augusta, Ga., Realtor sold 100 homes and had more than 5,000 names in his database – thanks, he says, to customer relationship management software.

Though Ret says he spends much more time managing his database now, he believes it pays off with more closed deals. “I am spending more time on my CRM and it is more productive,” he said.

One reason CRM helped Ret’s income nearly double in the last 14 years is because long-term leads comprise about 30 percent of his sales, he said.

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

“Before (the software) you got to speak with someone and you put it on a piece of paper, the paper popped up sometime later and you had no idea who it was. With a database, that doesn’t happen,” said Ret. “Even if you don’t tend to lose things, it’s hard to rely on yourself to develop a planned strategy without software to do it for you.”

And strategy is key in nurturing those long-term leads, agents say.

“If you don’t contact them at least every 15 to 20 days you’ll lose them,” says Anne Biddell, a Hayward, Calif., Realtor with more than 20 years of experience. And doing it properly is an art, agents say.

An oft-cited best practice is identifying which leads are most immediate – the A and B lists – and following appropriate strategies for each.

“Let’s say someone is in the military overseas and there’s no doubt they are being transferred here in a year,” Ret said. “You want to be more regular in your communication with him than someone who says, ‘If my child gets accepted to X University I don’t need this big house.’ With the second person, you need a less intrusive plan of action until you know if the child gets accepted.”

Here’s how it works with the service member who is overseas (Ret actually is working with a soldier in Korea):

“First I input their name, contact information, are they married, do they have children, do they have specific needs,” Ret said. “Then I send a relocation package. Then I call or e-mail them to be sure they got it.”

The Realtor then uses his CRM technology, Agent Office, made by Fidelity National Real Estate Solutions, to set up a series of reminders for himself over the ensuing months.

“This evening, I have to call the soldier in Korea,” Ret said. “There’s 11 hours’ time difference. I can tell the program to remind me to call at 9 p.m. And one of the beauties of Agent Office is you can synch it with a PDA (personal data assistant such as the Palm) so the instrument will remind you. It can tell you, ‘It’s time to call so-and-so, it’s time to send thus-and-so.'”

Two of Ret’s most effective ways of making contact, he feels, are by sending prospects a school calendar and a football schedule for the area. “With most households, the one goes on the refrigerator, the other under the remote,” he said. “That means they see your name almost every day.” Ret designs and prints out both using Agent Office.

Ret and other agents emphasized the best practice of sending useful information, not sales pitches, to clients.

Biddell, who works with Realty World Neighbors, said, “We might ask them if they have any questions about the real estate process, or send something from the title company, just a tidbit of information along the way.”

Cards or e-mail on occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries or holidays are also good ways to keep in touch, she said. “You don’t want to pressure them. Just let them know you are there.” Biddell, too, mentioned CRM software as a good way to help agents keep on top of the process.

Walnut, Calif.-based Realtor Staci Dancey is a wizard at customer relationship management. After she gets the initial lead from an online lead generation site, Dancey visits the prospective client in person with a package of information about her services. The packet includes an evaluation of the property and the price at which Dancey thinks it will sell.

One to two weeks after the package delivery, another e-mail goes out asking if the prospect received the evaluation. As time goes on, Dancey keeps in touch, sending out an e-mail with a virtual tour every time she lists or sells a property, asking if the prospect would like another evaluation when the market changes.

“When the time comes, they’ll be ready to make a decision. Statistics show that people who log onto the Internet are oftentimes futuristic. I am trying to take that time while they are thinking to build a relationship,” Dancey said.

Six to eight months is the median amount of time her prospects take to convert, she estimates.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to remain in communication,” said Geri Sonkin, a Realtor for RE/MAX Hearthstone in Long Island, N.Y.

“Even if it’s just an e-mail that says, ‘I think I’ve lost track of you; have you seen anything you like lately?’ Check in with the person to keep in contact,” Sonkin said.

The agents also emphasized keeping in touch with former clients, who, after years pass, may become repeat customers. Also, they said, keeping in touch with such clients helps prompt them to refer their friends.

The longest incubation period Biddell can remember is a couple that finally went into buying mode just last week, two years after they first contacted her.

“When they walked into the office, I recognized them right away,” she said. “They’re going to sell their house and pay cash for a condo,” and Biddell’s brokerage will handle both transactions – an example of the effectiveness of customer relationship management.

***

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

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