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Of Frogs and Princes

By: John Salustri

The Long Road Brokers Travel to Success with CRM Platforms

Passionate brand-loyalty is alive and well. For proof, just ask any broker why they use their specific Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

That loyalty is understandable. CRMs can play a key role in efficient business operations, pitching in not only in tracking client contact data, but equally in such otherwise time-intensive chores as creating customized marketing campaigns, monitoring their success, and keeping clients up to date on new deals and transaction milestones. Properly executed and utilized by all team members (an important issue, as we’ll see shortly), CRMs can also provide company leadership with solid broker-performance metrics.

The passion comes in part from the number of different CRM systems that are available. Every brokerage is different, with different areas of strength and weakness, unique cultures, and their own sets of goals. Success with CRM is typically marked by a lot of trial and error, and every CRE leader we spoke with provided details of the frogs they kissed along the way to CRM happiness.  

“A CRM is the lifeblood of any investment broker’s business.”

Why so much experimentation? Like brokerages themselves, every CRM is different. Price, ongoing tech support, customizability, and data integration and migration were all named as must-haves by all our sources. Issues with each were also prime reasons why they left one system for another.

To ease the pain of trial and error, “Call, call, call their references,” says Gary Parker, SIOR, principal and CEO of Intelica CRE in St. Louis.


Despite the number of systems available on the market, a handful of names came up as the “top” systems—but here too the experts disagreed, based (not surprisingly) on their personal needs and their experience with each. For the record, and in no particular order, those top names were:

RealNex (an outcropping from legacy system REA); SalesForce; HubSpot, Apto; Ascendix; and Rethink (these last three all purchased in the past two years by Buildout, a developer of property marketing software).

“A CRM is the lifeblood of any investment broker’s business,” says Marcus & Millichap senior associate Justin Fenn, SIOR. “Even in the early 2000s when I was selling residential, you could see the value of having some way to track the buying attributes and contact information of all of your potential buyers and sellers.” The Columbus, Ohio-based Fenn says CRMs are also the easiest way to get a listing in front of “the people who are the best fit for a property.”

But the potential extends far beyond customer contact, as essential as that is—as long as everyone plays along. “Everybody you hire has to drink the Kool-Aid,” says Rise Pittsburgh CEO Kim Ford, SIOR, frankly, and confusion ensues when one fails to partake. Then “your CRM initiatives will be a waste of time and energy.” Imagine when a top broker, still doing things manually, up and leaves. “We’re left with nothing: no data, no insight, no history.”


Getting everyone on board also means there’s no duplication of effort, and “we don’t end up calling the same people without even knowing it,” says Fenn. For that reason, “incoming agents should be incentivized to add their information.” A house rule that the person inputting the data owns it, becoming the record holder, means, “they own the turf, and that highly incentivizes them to continue inputting.”

Ford adds that before anyone “can even touch” the system, they get a full tutorial, not only on how to use the system but why. “When people understand why, they typically feel much more comfortable doing what we ask them to do. But really, it’s not an option.”

With everyone on board, the system allows for full connectivity and—as important—full transparency. “We utilize our CRM to see how many calls have been made and how many emails have been sent,” she says. “We can see how often our brokers are making client connections.”

To that extent, CRMs can also play an important role in performance reviews. “We know not only if you’re producing, but it also allows us to form goals that are achievable and very results-oriented.”

Client activity can be monitored as well, she says: “I can see what clients were the most engaged and what the open rates were for our email marketing campaigns.” She can track how often clients visit the Rise website, if they opened the last email campaign, and how far down they’ve drilled. “I know everything about you that has to do with our company.”

Clients are as unique as fingerprints, and Ford indicates that a marketing campaign tailored for one vertical (say legal firms) probably won’t work for tech firms. “We know what’s working and what’s not.”

Which is why “you always want something that’s easily customizable,” adds Fenn. “The more complex it is, the more you risk unintended consequences, where stuff won’t save or changes become difficult to make. If I can’t customize a box or add this or that extra field easily, it’s not workable for us.”


The above-mentioned frogs (Ford says that her firm went through 10 ultimately unsatisfactory applications over two decades before finding CRM bliss) provide valuable insights for members looking to switch, upgrade or start a CRM platform. Yes, as Parker advises, call your target firm’s references, but bring a grain of salt. No one will connect you with dissatisfied clients.

The above-mentioned frogs (Ford says that her firm went through 10 ultimately unsatisfactory applications over two decades before finding CRM bliss) provide valuable insights for members looking to switch, upgrade or start a CRM platform. Yes, as Parker advises, call your target firm’s references, but bring a grain of salt. No one will connect you with dissatisfied clients.

Some systems, designed for larger operations, can cost “five or six times what we’re currently paying,” says Ford.

Technologies change, adds Fenn, but he says you want at least three good years out of a system, especially one “you’ve gone through so much trouble to implement.”

Speaking of support, think like the salesperson you are. Fenn wants to know what the ongoing relationship will be like. “A chat box won’t cut it,” he says. Neither does he want to be “jostled around” to a lot of different people. Ongoing relationships also speak to track record and longevity. Run, don’t walk, from the garage start-up.

Question the Origins. Our speakers were divided on the issue of off-the-shelf systems as opposed to those claiming to be “designed by brokers for brokers.” Fenn prefers the latter because off-the-shelf means they can sell “anything—medical supplies or cars. I wanted one that was designed for commercial real estate by brokers.”

Ford has no such qualms. “There are many specialists in this industry,” she says, and “I’m not a fan of the broker who does everything. For us, what another broker would use it for is not how we would use it.” She finds most systems leaning toward an owner’s rep orientation. As a tenant rep firm, “That’s not what we do.”

Ease of Use is critical, of course. “If the data entry process is cumbersome, people just won’t use it,” says Fenn. Not unlike fabled John Henry racing against the steam drill, Fenn tells of a rep who bet him $50 he could do data entry faster than other systems or via spreadsheet. Full disclosure: it was a hypothetical bet, but “when someone makes a promise like that, you know they have fast data entry.”  

"It all relates to getting something done quickly and being as efficient as possible."

Broker firms don’t rely on CRMs alone, of course, so data integration is also vital. “We’ve seen firsthand how limited certain CRMs can be in their internal integration with other applications,” says Ford. In those cases, she needed intermediary programs, forcing her team to go outside the CRM to get certain data.

Which brings up the issue of data migration. Some platforms charge thousands of dollars for data migration, Fenn reports. Information could be lost in a mass dump of information that has to be aligned with the correct excel spreadsheet rows. “Some providers will come right out and say they can’t guarantee a smooth or inexpensive migration,” he says, and prices can be all over the map, from free to as high as $2,500.


While the greater efficiencies that can come from a well-chosen (and fully used) CRM are clear, specific returns on investment have been hard to capture. “We’ve been using our system for a little over a year and a half,” says Parker. “If you ask us next year, we can give that data to you, but not today.”

While some sort of return is necessary (or else, why bother?), “I’ve never figured how much time we’ve saved with our new CRM,” says Fenn. “It all relates to getting something done quickly and being as efficient as possible. Our CRM is the best way to refine all this information into something that’s consistent and digestible.”

Ford agrees, both on the performance and the nebulous ROI. “When I think of the money it brings in or saves us,” she says, “I can’t quantify it. But I can’t imagine making money without it.”


Justin Fenn, SIOR

Kim Ford, SIOR

Gary Parker, SIOR


Media Contact
Alexis Fermanis SIOR Director of Communications
John Salustri
John Salustri
Salustri Content Solutions

John Salustri is a freelance writer and editor-in-chief of Salustri Content Solutions. Contact him at jsal.scs@gmail.com.