The CRM is the most talked about and crucial tech investment brokers make for their businesses, but adoption and long-term commitment can be problematic. Do it right this time, and follow these critical steps.

As part of Inman’s month-long focus on the New Productivity, we are publishing in-depth Inman Handbooks on the topics that matter most right now. Today: How to launch your brokerage’s CRM. 

Customer relationship management.

These three words, making up a single term, drive more industry discussion than a congressional hearing on healthcare, and rightly so.

In a time where brokers are tightening their belts and agents need to be at their most effective selves in every aspect of life, a good CRM can solve many a headache.

This crucial business technology can become the backbone of a top producing real estate agency and a valuable way to empower productivity

The right CRM software can help agents react faster to new leads and client search needs, execute broad marketing campaigns with startling efficiency, strengthen team bonds, streamline time-consuming lead qualification, and roll out sophisticated digital marketing campaigns, among a number of day-to-day productivity enhancements.

However, finding and launching a CRM solution requires care, time and leadership. Neglect proper due diligence, be too quick to make decisions, chase wants instead of needs, or forget about your buyers and sellers, and your next CRM install will likely go the way of the QR code. Cool at first, but useless over time.

This Inman Handbook is designed to help brokers and team leaders find, implement, and adopt their next — and hopefully last — CRM solution. The more upfront work you put into selection and execution, the better your chance at long-term software success.  

Writer’s note: I started in commercial real estate, helping brokers market listings and tenant representatives win large multisite clients. During my tenure, I was the in-house project lead on a team of hired consultants from IBM and Digital Equipment Corp., assigned to find a lease administration and construction project management platform to manage occupancy solutions for fast-growing technology firms and startup biotechs needing lab space. Our almost yearlong process is mirrored in the following. 

Table of contents

Perform needs assessment

Goal: To assess the needs of your agents and your brokerage or team as a whole.

Time needed: Allow a couple of weeks, maybe a month, for agents to respond to a request for what they would like to see in a provided solution.

Players: Include all agents, especially top producers in assessing needs. Appoint a first-adopter team composed of agents and salaried staff with varying tech savviness to wade through responses.

Tools: Google Forms, Doodle polls.

What you should know

This can be done via online poll (probably ideal) or by a couple of dedicated meetings. Keep interactions organized and on topic.

Don’t get overly granular in terms of features. Broach only the larger topics in an effort to reach a relative consensus, for example:

  1. Do you need native lead generation or integration of existing sources? Both?
  2. Is there a need for mobile capabilities?
  3. What marketing needs exist?
  4. Do you have teams?
  5. Is transaction management required?
  6. Would you like performance tracking or coaching components?
  7. Is there a recruiting and retention strategy?
  8. Cost tolerance

You should just assume that some features are included across the board, especially given today’s CRM options. The ability to pull IDX feeds, easily import databases, manage tasks, and in-app messaging and communications are pretty standard.

Discuss with agents what they’ve used in the past or what they would consider buying on their own. Obviously, if a CRM didn’t work for them, ask why.

Also to be assumed is that a couple of top producers will likely bow out of the process because of loyalty to their existing processes. However, try to avoid that. Try involving them in a mentorship approach because their expertise matters.

“Unfortunately, your options today are almost too many to mention, as we face an embarrassment of technological riches. The onslaught of options make it more difficult to shop.”

Craig Rowe, Looking for a CRM? 15 features you should know

Consider asking seasoned and top-producing agents to share what’s worked for them over the years — strategically speaking — and how that would translate into a software choice. Are they heavily sphere-of-influence driven? How about relocation referrals? To the best of your ability, incorporate what they know. 

Manage internal polling carefully. Keep everyone accountable for their responses, organize and weigh those responses, and clear up any vagaries.

Strongly consider scheduling a couple of meetings to go over the results with everyone in the office, which will be used to power the next step: due diligence.

Assemble a team of agents with a wide range of technology experience and varied income levels to help facilitate responses and answer questions. Include salaried staff, too, as it’s very likely they’ll be using the software to assist in marketing, transactions (if applicable), and other aspects of operations.

This team can also serve as a “first adopter” team and be on the forefront of implementation.  

The more you make those impacted by the final decision a part of the process, the better the buy in.

Pro tip: In pursuing feedback, don’t forget about your customers. Have agents chat with current and recent clients about things they might have wanted to improve along the way to closing.

Could the communication have been more consistent? Is it helpful to be more mobile-forward? Buyers and sellers are the reason you’re in business, so they can’t be left out of a process meant to make it easier for you to serve them.

Additional resources:

Conduct vendor due diligence

Goal: To find out what’s on the market and weed out what’s not going to work for you.

Time needed: Set up a timeline that works for you in advance.

Players: Ideally, you already have a team to wade through the internal feedback. For this stage, you’ll add a few more agents to help suss out the viable CRM options.

Tools: Zoom, Google Hangouts or whatever videoconferencing tools you prefer to have meetings with a host of CRM providers and internal team.

What you should know

In wildernesses search and rescue operations, the first step in a missing person scenario is a “hasty search.” Teams fan out to search the most likely locations within a specified time and distance. Do the same with your initial vendor list.

You have a wide selection of real estate CRM options to choose from and a lot of bases to cover, so recruit a few more agents and staff members to your CRM team for this fact-finding mission. It’s important to spread out the responsibilities and integrate more insight. 

Use the same team assembled for the needs assessment to contact software vendors, arrange demos and start asking questions.

Interview five (this number can vary) of what you consider the most common names in the CRM space. Who do you hear and read about? What products surface more often than others? Remember, they maintain a foothold in the industry for a reason.

“Agents need to identify the small innovations, such as how leads are scored or what behaviors trigger task assignments in order to find something truly unique.” – Craig Rowe, Demand more from your CRM! Your future depends on it

Assign members of the team to find and demo another five products, perhaps not as well known, or one that’s up-and-coming. 

Technology smarts are widespread today, and bigger does not always mean better. Some of the most technically advanced features come from smaller, more nimble apps. Additionally, smaller companies seeking brokerage-level accounts may be more open to negotiation, and they often have sneaky-cool features not yet considered commonplace.

Once you’ve come up with your initial list, weed out the weak candidates.

Surface-level due diligence should eliminate at least a couple of options. As will the price. The list will dwindle more quickly than you realize, but give each option its due time in the spotlight.

Some software products simply come across as more accessible than others, as do the people selling them to you. You’ll have to make some subjective decisions; that’s simply the nature of business. 

Once that list of 10 is halved (or thereabouts) the entire group should come together again on what remains, dedicating ample time to debating the merits and jointly attending demonstrations. For big purchases, it is not unreasonable of you to ask for in-person visits.

Everyone should have the first step’s results on hand to use as the game plan, checking off boxes as CRM sales managers walk you through features and benefits.

Tell prospective CRM companies ahead of time what you’re looking for, ensuring the big ticket items are all there.

Know that due diligence goes beyond what you see in demos and informational webinars.

Find reviews elsewhere, such as Facebook groups like Real Estate Mastermind or Inman Coast to Coast, and ask for references in different markets. Approach this as you would hiring a babysitter. What others have to say is important.

However, use recommendations from other brokerages and trusted colleagues as guardrails, not necessarily the track. Look for any outstanding recurring concerns, such as inconsistent support or unfixed bugs and errors.

A CRM has to support the way your office functions. So, what does that mean?

If your brokerage relies heavily on a dependable support staff, for example, then a per-license fee model will likely increase costs.

If you use transaction coordinators, their input on any included tools is critical. (Consider inviting marketing staff or transaction coordinators to this part of the process.)

Do you pay for a centralized lead-generation system, or have intact a proven process for new business? If that’s the case, you may require lead routing functionality, and is it based on agent performance or first-to-claim? Are open houses key to a specific team? Then options for marketing both actual and virtual events are important.

Speaking of leads, can you get a general consensus on the state of your agents’ databases? It takes time and effort to create a healthy pool from which to skim leads. What will the new software do to strengthen the office’s overall data worth? Make this part of the solution.

If there are few existing software tools in play favored by agents, can they be integrated? And if so, will it be direct or via third-party bridge, such as Zapier?

Overall, don’t make adjustments to your business to fit the software. In that vein, be wary of strong technology salespeople. Become friends after the sale, keep it all business until then.

Ignite internal debate, ask the companies hard questions, and make them earn your business. Keep in mind you may need to re-enter the market for a couple more options, which isn’t uncommon once you delve into specific features and how each product executes them. The idea of due diligence isn’t only to find the one product for your company, it’s to generate further internal discussion on what’s important.

Unfortunately, you can’t review every solution on the market. New systems arise often, and established vendors roll out updates monthly. 

Narrowing down who you interview won’t be easy, so use a combination of tough decisions and gut-instinct. This is when being in charge can become difficult, but trust the same sort of decision-making parameters that got you where you are. There are no bad decisions, merely some that are better than others.

Keep your deadline, needs and project scope top-of-mind.

Pro tip: Although your needs survey will drive how each vendor is analyzed, there is a baseline of questions every vendor should easily answer: 

  • What are your pricing models: per license? Bundled users? 
  • Where is support located, and how is it handled? 
  • What is your average customer churn? 
  • How often are updates? 
  • If needed, do you offer customization?
  • How is data security handled, and where is our data stored? 

Additional resources:

Execute rollout strategy

Goal: To introduce the entire team to the new software.

Time needed: Timeframe will vary based on the size of your team. Your vendor should be able to provide an idea of what’s typical.

Players: An expanded test team composed of agents at various commission volume levels.

Tools: Videoconferencing tools; office computers; mobile devices

What you should know

Now that you’re confident with your new technology partner, it’s time to start the integration.

Database rollover is crucial. But it’s not quite the challenge it was years ago, thankfully. 

In this phase, you’ll want to expand the test team. Select a group of agents, ideally at various levels of commission volume, to test run the new CRM. It’s beneficial for the beta team to include a couple of members with large contact lists and a few with smaller evolving databases.

If teams are involved, ensure each team is represented by at least one member. Collect enough people to represent an accurate cross section of the office, ranging from paid staff to new agents. A CRM should be a companywide solution.

This step will involve ongoing interaction with the software’s account managers and support team. Software companies approach this in a myriad of ways. Some can afford to completely take it over while others offer a combination of training and phone support. Some solutions offer in-app webinars and always-there articles and resources.

Know that there will be a handoff between software sales and account management. It’s OK to want that process to go smoothly. Be wary of the person who cuts you off abruptly after the close. The best software pros turn on that blinker early and give you a hand signal.

Even if available, don’t allow the vendor to handle everything related to install and database uploads. The way they communicate can serve as a barometer for understanding how the support relationship will evolve, so ask questions. And don’t just stand witness to the onboarding, be a part of it. The more involved your team at this stage, the more invested they become in the software’s long-term success.

Document the process. This can help those involved become an in-house extension of the support team when it’s time for a companywide install or when small questions arise over time.

When up and running, team members need to be consistent with training and functional testing. Are there any unseen weak spots? Is a feature promised not delivering? How responsive is support?

Compare concerns, note consistencies among those concerns, and provide a clear channel of feedback to the vendor. They want to know how to help you.

Never take an us-versus-them mentality. Your success is theirs, too.

The timeframe you assign to initial rollout will vary, of course, and depend on how hard your team pushes through training. Your vendor will have an informed notion based on what’s typical. Work with them on this; be flexible, but don’t let this step linger. Hold your team accountable.

Additional resources:

Foster adoption

Goal: To get everyone engaging with the software.

Time needed: A few months after rollout.

Players: Everyone.

Tools: Video conferencing tools; polling software such as Google Forms, Doodle polls, etc.

What you should know

The next few months after rollout are crucial. Agents need to do more than engage with their technology, they need to embrace it as business-critical.

Brokers and tech team leaders need to earn that return on hard and soft costs by monitoring training participation and keeping in touch with vendor account reps, who can offer ongoing advice on what’s worked and signs indicating when it’s not.

A rotating internal user group, in which members change every few months, helps create unity and offers peer-to-peer support and encouragement to stay active on the software. It helps to hear directly from others on how to best leverage a specific feature or what marketing tool is seeing better results.

“Brokers, you too have to demand more from the vendors you’re paying for. It’s too simplistic to put the lack of adoption on the backs of your licensees.” Craig Rowe, Demand more from your CRM! Your future depends on it

Allow advocates to host regular meetings, even if only 15-20 minutes or via online conference. Don’t overlook the value of camaraderie in a major software install.

Ensure all-hands sales meetings have a few minutes dedicated to the software, as do any meetings you have with team leaders. Discuss good work habits within the software. What are agents doing to ensure they interact regularly with the system?

Consider offering fun incentives for agents to attend software training or for presenting a “CRM feature of the week” at regular meetings. Gift cards, brokerage-provided closing gifts, five free leads — get imaginative. 

Your vendor should also be dedicated to adoption, and many deploy programs to empower it. Engage them as you can.

It’s beneficial to create companywide goals to help as a high percentage of everyday use as possible.

Weekly quick-and-dirty polls that inquire about hours logged-in and actions performed are helpful to supplement the software’s administrative metrics that offer the same thing.

Pro tip: Consider familiarizing yourself with DAU/MAU ratios, referring to daily active users versus monthly active users. The intent is to determine how many active users you have in a day and over a 30-day spread. The ratio provides a decent standard of measurement of the product’s value to its users.   

The ratio is calculated by dividing DAU by your MAU, numbers the software’s admin tools will provide. 

You need to set a baseline for determining what constitutes “use.” This is totally arbitrary, but what you use should be meaningful, such as number of leads contacted or minutes active.

Granted, DAU/MAU ratios are more for your vendor’s edification on how their clients perform, but it can be useful for you, too, considering the “reseller” role that brokers serve.

Additional resources:

Measure and monitor

Goal: To make sure you’re getting a return on your investment.

Time needed: Ongoing.

Players: Everyone.

Tools: Video conferencing tools.

What you should know

Here’s where the rubber meets the road.

Software will not change your brokerage overnight. It’s like advertising, results come with time and consistency in message, so keep on task.

And while the long-term user performance is critical, so is your bottom line. It’s not easy to directly connect revenue jumps to a software install, but it is easy to find its position in the overall equation of success.

Assuming market conditions remained generally steady throughout the first few quarters of install, you should be able determine what impact your new CRM had on business.

Metrics to consider comparing from before implementation, among many, include:

  • Number of listing contracts signed 
  • Volume of buyer leads
  • List to close percentages
  • Listing appointments conducted
  • Phone calls made  

Look specifically for any unique marketing features that resulted in new leads, such as marketing automations or tools that leverage big data to unearth old contacts.

Is there a retargeting strategy deployed on listing pages that led to increased branding? Has the power dialer become a favorite of a few agents?

Don’t merely assume that the software is automatically why revenue might have increased. Hold your new system accountable by linking features and productivity tools to specific commissions. 

Ask your team leaders to dig into their stats, too.

The goal is to associate increased behaviors in the software with any movements in pre-install revenue, whether black or red.

The performance equation needs to consider outstanding commission flow factors, such as retention and recruiting, unpredictable market swings, natural disasters, that sort of thing.

In brief, give your CRM software time to perform. Gauge ongoing user interest, embrace updates and few features, and remember that the “I” in ROI shouldn’t only be measured in dollars. People and time count, too.

Pro tip: Is it possible that over time your product isn’t the match you thought it would be? Yes. How will you know?

Off the top, how is the support? Do bugs go unaddressed and support requests unanswered? Are promised features festering in limbo? Make hard assessments about customer service and the general state of the relationship.

Before judging your software, make sure any revenue concerns aren’t attributable to agent performance or market factors. This is why user metrics are critical. Rely on consistent internal feedback to determine how agents are feeling about the product, and measure it often. 

It would be rare for the technology to be solely to blame. Thus, be ready to identify and address who might not be onboard.

Overall, if low morale around the product persists, realized by general lack of adoption, technical challenges and diminishing lead engagement, as examples, it’s possible a wrong choice was made. And this is why needs assessment and due diligence are so critical. 

Additional resources:

Have a technology product you would like to discuss? Email Craig Rowe

Craig C. Rowe started in commercial real estate at the dawn of the dot-com boom, helping an array of commercial real estate companies fortify their online presence and analyze internal software decisions. He now helps agents with technology decisions and marketing through reviewing software and tech for Inman. He lives near Lake Tahoe in the northern Sierra Nevada of California.

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