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First of all, what is CRM?

Customer relationship management, commonly referred to simply as CRM, refers to technology that helps companies track, manage, and analyze interactions with contacts, whether they're prospective or current clients. It is not a brand or a set of features, but a catchall term for the software as a whole. CRM software is generally designed to compile information across channels and can help users analyze their business.

For commercial real estate in particular, the technology helps you keep track of contacts, properties, comps, listings, and more. Because CRMs provide a relational database for brokers, you have more flexibility in viewing and gaining insight into your prospects, clients, deals, and business functions.

There are a few key features of the technology that make it so useful for your business processes: 


Secure in the cloud

Modern CRM systems secure your data in the cloud. No more cumbersome implementations, it's easy to set up and keep safe.


The beauty of the cloud is that you can take your data with you. Many CRMs for commercial real estate have dedicated mobile apps, too.

Integrates with tools

For any task your CRM doesn't directly accommodate, it should work with the tools you already use (think email, marketing, etc).

A quick history of CRM, and its rise in commercial real estate

Some version of CRM has been around for a few decades now. And while it’s always focused on tracking company interactions with current and prospective clients, it’s come a long way since the 80s. While some industries adopted the technology early on, CRE has lagged behind—but it's catching up quickly.
Before CRM, you had pen and paper

CRM has been helping companies build stronger relationships, identify and implement best practices, and boost sales for four decades.

CRM software has always focused on tracking, managing, and analyzing company interactions with current and prospective clients. It analyzes data to help users gain insight into their business, making it easier to identify successful strategies and push the business forward. 

Yet CRM hasn’t alway been the robust software businesses large and small depend on—a lot has changed since the industry took its first steps in the 1980s. From the birth of the digital rolodex to the first cloud-based CRM, here’s how CRM technology evolved to where it is today.

It all started as a digital rolodex

Mainframe systems had been digitizing files since the 1970s, but it wasn't until the mid 1980s that marketing teams began integrating customer information with sales strategies. This trend reached a new level in 1986 when Conductor Software launched ACT!, the first contact management software.

Essentially a digital rolodex, ACT! was the first software to let companies store and organize customer information. Like all older CRMs, companies had to invest in an on-site system, purchase expensive software and hardware and hire in-house IT experts to use the system. Not every industry was ready to do that, but thanks to how ACT! boosted efficiencies and made many paper files redundant, companies in the health care, utilities and consumer goods industries fueled adoption.

(And let's face it, there are commercial real estate brokers out there who are still using ACT!)

The 90s saw a degree of automation with CRM

Moving beyond a digital rolodex, CRM evolved in the 1990s toward sales automation. CRMs started consolidating contacts, leads, and deal tracking into one system, giving businesses more ways to act on customer information. Some systems also began automating tasks like customer interaction tracking and inventory control.

The term CRM was coined in 1995, finally giving the industry a name and replacing previous terms like "customer information system" and "enterprise customer management." But the real magic happened at the end of the decade—in 1999, Siebel launched the first mobile CRM and Salesforce.com introduced the first software as a service CRM on the cloud.

The first mobile CRMs were not popular, largely due to a lack of suitable devices, but Salesforce’s SaaS CRM quickly gained traction because it was much cheaper and easier to install than all previous on-site systems. Although it was originally only suitable for small businesses, over the next few years it scaled to support more powerful systems and ultimately encouraged larger organizations to move onto the cloud.

Dealing with the dotcom crash, and innovating from there

But it wasn't always smooth sailing—when the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s, CRM sales slowed and many online CRM vendors were hard hit.

In the aftermath of the financial crash, clients prioritized CRMs that could operate with legacy software systems. In 2003, Microsoft capitalized on this trend and created its own CRM by merging MS Office and Outlook. Microsoft Dynamics was born, and it continues to be a major player in the industry.

Why store data on a static spreadsheet when you can integrate everything onto one platform, share it easily with others, and access it from anywhere?

In 2007, Salesforce combined its SaaS with its cloud application development program, making its CRM more customizable and able to handle the needs of larger and more diverse businesses. And at the end of the 2000s, CRMs adapted to the age of social media by focusing less on transactions and more on building relationships. Businesses welcomed the change and started implementing social media campaigns into their CRM.

CRM is evolving to industry-specific, mobile platforms

Today’s industry is building on the advances seen at the end of the 2000s. Many platforms are working to seamlessly integrate social media capabilities, and there is a growing trend towards industry-specific platforms. Before long it’s likely each industry will have its own group of dedicated CRMs to fit the way it does business.

Mobile is another major focus point. Originally introduced in 1999, mobile demand only really took off over the last few years, and today mobile capabilities are a key part of every top CRM. That's unlikely to change, considering more online traffic came from mobile devices than from desktops last year, and we can expect the emphasis on mobile to grow.

Finally, the cloud-based SaaS CRM model is continuing to gain popularity. Few companies want to maintain and build on-site systems anymore, and the added security of the cloud and ease of integration with legacy systems suggests this model will become even more dominant.

How it all fits in commercial real estate

Commercial real estate is not exactly known for being a tech-forward industry. While that is beginning to change, there are many brokers and firms who long found CRM platforms unconvincing.

The reason why largely has to do with the CRE industry’s specific needs. It wasn't until recently in CRM's history that platforms were developed specifically to serve the CRE industry, and since then many firms have either experimented with or fully embraced the technology.

That's no surprise when you consider how a good CRM can benefit the industry. From helping brokers sift through properties based on client needs to using the latest sales tools to turn data into deals, modern CRM software is unlocking new possibilities for brokers.

Those possibilities are making once-key technologies, like Excel and other siloed databases, largely irrelevant. Why store data on a static spreadsheet when you can integrate everything onto one platform, share it easily with others, and access it from anywhere? Industry-specific CRM also analyzes your data and helps you discover new opportunities. While Excel isn’t going anywhere overnight, the advantages offered by CRM are making it more or less redundant, at least when it comes to storing data.

From it’s digital rolodex beginnings to modern industry specific solutions, CRM has been boosting efficiencies and putting data to work for four decades. The story is far from over, and whether it’s helping you prospect or locate your market’s next big deal, top brokers are using CRM to push their business to the next level.

About the cloud 

We mentioned the idea of the cloud in the introduction, but it's worth taking a closer look. This is a technological innovation that changed the game for everyone, and had a huge impact on the capabilities of CRM. It benefits brokers in particular, since your job has never been confined to the office anyway. Getting out and meeting clients, touring properties, networking with prospects—being on-the-move is the status quo.

What is the cloud? It’s technically a network of remote servers hosted on the Internet (rather than on a local server or personal computer) to store, manage, and process data. If you use Gmail, Spotify, or any streaming service, you’ve used the cloud.

When you combine CRM and cloud technology, you get a whole host of benefits. It's more flexible than software you need to install, and you're not putting memory-gobbling software on your desktop. Recovery is no longer an issue; if your computer crashes or gets stolen or lost, you don't lose any of your data. And it's more secure than keeping data on your personal computer. 

So if you have your CRM in the cloud, then you have all that data and information everywhere, opening up a whole new level for:


Practical Guide CRM Icon-productivity (1).png


Get more done while you're not at the office. On a property tour? Add notes on your phone. See a vacant building while walking around your neighborhood? Take a picture and upload it to your CRM right there.

CRM helps you stay organized


All your information is in one place, no matter what device you're on. It's updated in the moment so you're never looking at an outdated spreadsheet or missing a piece of paper with that crucial phone number on it.

CRM helps you collaborate more easily


If you're working with a team, then these key benefits multiply. It's easier to stay on the same page as everyone when everyone is able to update data in real time.

The ROI of CRM

If you’re looking to justify your impending CRM purchase, you no longer need to fret about whether that money was spent wisely. Research has revealed that for every dollar spent on CRM software, businesses can expect a staggering 771% return on investment (ROI).

CRM technology is more than worth the investment, at least according to a report from Nucleus Research, a firm that specializes in case-based technology research. The analysis was conducted over several years, and considered companies from start-ups to large corporations across a wide range of industries. The findings revealed that the ROI for a CRM implementation—in the form of increased revenues and improved operational efficiency—is substantial. Furthermore, it continues to grow over time because of software design improvements and fierce pricing competition.

ROI in dollars and time

How the ROI has grown and grown 

As we've outlined, CRM software is crucial to any company in the business of selling (which is to say, just about everyone). These applications provide one platform to track every interaction with current and potential clients, helping businesses improve relationships and prospect more efficiently. We traced the evolution of the technology, and its worth noting that as it gained popularity, more tech providers were able to innovate on the existing technology. As it added functionality over the years, businesses saw more and more efficiencies. It only makes sense that it's spreading into different industries now, and specializing for each one.

More possibility in the cloud

Cloud-based technology has been at the fore of software innovation, enabling companies to store their data and use it across platforms and on multiple devices. Switching to the cloud costs little, tends to be faster, and further increases the return on investment. According to Nucleus research, cloud technology for CRM delivers 1.7 times greater return on investment than a desktop or server-based implementation.

A move away from traditional IT

Historically, CRM software was a component of a company’s in-house IT department, often supported by expensive technology consultants. Knowledge of how to use and get the most out of the software was several steps removed from the employees who actually interacted with clients and prospects.

Today, the decision to invest in technology is usually driven by the business—with a greater burden on the vendor to ensure a smooth and successful implementation process. The end users are closer than ever before to requirements gathering, vendor selection and deployment, and are more comfortable demanding what they want. In commercial real estate in particular, we're seeing the investment decision being made more and more by small teams and brokers themselves as the software becomes more affordable and easier to adopt. 

Now CRM software can more easily be used by employees throughout the company, empowering them to make smarter business decisions and collaborate more seamlessly. The emergence of this user-friendly approach has allowed businesses to adopt a more systematic process for tracking and managing client relations.

Smarter software

Three of the four largest software vendors in the world are making aggressive investments to improve their CRM market positions. More and more, vendors are including embedded analytics and automation tools to make the technology more intuitive and insightful.

The software is also increasingly being designed to deliver productivity and results, rather than just functionality.

And the more CRM software applications become streamlined, the more time the user has to focus on high-value tasks.

How it helps brokers

For the commercial real estate industry, CRM software allows brokers to segment contacts according to their own criteria, browse through available properties based on client needs, and automate frequent activities like lease expirations and meeting follow-ups.

It helps brokers make sure they’re prioritizing the right leads, and allows everyone to see the history of a client or potential client. Gone are the days of hunting through different programs to figure out who to call or how to keep track of the status of a client.

Many companies have already churned through a CRM or two in the decades since they achieved mainstream popularity, but continued investment in the space and improved technology are ensuring that the functionality is only getting better and the return is only increasing. And with the availability of scalable, cost-effective cloud-based CRMs designed specifically for the commercial real estate industry, even brokerages that have been skeptical have more reasons than ever to give them a try.

CRM vs. Excel

Hopefully you’re starting to understand the features and benefits of a cloud-based CRM, but we all know those brokers who have their processes in place and remain set in their ways. They believe it works for them—and they could be right! But it’s worth taking a look at why CRM is better than Excel.

Excel has been the go-to tool for small- to medium-sized business for years. But now that cloud-based CRM is here, is that still the best option for tracking clients and prospects? Think about how each meets these three business needs.


CRM gives you easy access to shared data

Access to shared data

In Excel, data is only shared when the file is shared, meaning there could easily be different versions of that data. In CRM, you can control who shares what data and what can be edited. Users will see data as it's updated.

Information is connected in your CRM

Connected information

Excel has rows and columns for your data, but there's limited (or complicated) connectivity between them, and you have to scroll to find what you need. In CRM, data is connected in a variety of ways on one screen. 

CRM apps allow for easy access on-the-go


While some smartphones and tablets have Excel access, it's not an ideal interface and can be difficult to navigate. In a CRM, you have easy mobile access that's designed to work well on a smaller screen.

How to choose the right CRM vendor

In terms of commercial real estate technology, there are a number of options out there. Not all CRMs are created equal. The right one for you is ultimately the one you'll actually use—but there are certain important considerations to take into account.
How to choose the right CRM vendor

You’re probably aware at this point that any software you choose should offer the basics: a cloud-based system, mobile access, and ease of use. 

Those are the obvious must-haves. But there are probably a few things you haven't thought of yet. To choose tech that will help you be successful in the long run, ask each vendor you’re evaluating a few questions. Of course you should look into client testimonials, learn about various integrations, and ask about training and support. But beyond that, don't forget these three questions.

What happens to my data when I leave your company?

If you move to a new CRM, you're going to have to import your data into the system one way or another. Your vendor should help with this process. It might take a little effort on your part to clean up the data you have, but once it’s in the system, it’s worth it. Think of it like you would a move—a great opportunity to get rid of junk you don’t need, organize your most valuable assets, and then get set up in a clean new space.

The trouble can sometimes arise when you need to move again. Let’s say you don’t like this new space. You need to take out your furniture and belongings and move it all again.

Any new tools you choose require a commitment on your part. No matter how easy the technology is to use, you’ll have to make it a part of your everyday workflow to get the full benefit.

Will your vendor help you move? Will they provide an easy export of your data that can then easily map to the next system? You spent time and effort making sure it’s clean and organized after all. You don’t want a vendor to hold your data hostage in return for your business, so make sure to ask upfront the process for exporting that data should you choose to move on.

Was the tech built for my business model, or was it adapted from elsewhere?

Some CRMs and other business tech are generic and can be adapted to many industries. And for a lot of industries, that works fine. Most sales people need names, contact info, addresses, a place for notes, and not much else.

But commercial real estate is different. You have people and companies and properties, and then listings and square footage and NOI and rent rolls and stacking plans and cap rates and so on. You have to prospect and find new business. And then you have to get to work either finding the perfect property for your client, or finding a buyer for your client's property. All this information comes into play at different stages of a long, complex transaction process.

In other words, the technology you choose to help you be a better broker should be designed by and for brokers. Fortunately, there are tools out there that fit that description.

How long before I see value from the tool?

No matter how easy it is to use, any new technology takes a bit of time to get set up. You’ll need to get your data into the system, and you’ll need a little training on the basics as well.

There's no magic number that this should be, but ask anyway to learn about their training and the average time to value for most clients. What are the quick wins you can capitalize on as you get set up? What does the ongoing training and support look like? They should be able to talk about this in depth.

(And a bonus for you) Will you use it?

Any new tools you choose require a commitment on your part. No matter how easy the technology is to use, you’ll have to make it a part of your everyday workflow to get the full benefit.

The good news is, if you choose that technology wisely, it’s worth it. Commercial real estate is finally coming out of the Dark Ages when it comes to tech, so it’s time to say goodbye to Excel and post-it notes. You can get much more done with software that organizes your data the way you think and applies it the way you work. You just have to get started.

Valuable Features

Most commercial real estate CRMs have a lot of functionality that can help make you and your team more efficient. Make sure you're taking full advantage. If you've thought about data, time to value, and the origins of the tool already, go a little more in depth on these features when evaluating different commercial real estate CRMs. The technology has evolved beyond simple data storage, so make sure any vendor you choose has some of these features. 


Automate tedious tasks with a good CRM

Task automation

Let your CRM nurture your contacts, leads and opportunities for you. Workflows allow you to set up and activate triggers that keep your communications, tasks, and events automatically moving at the speed you want. Think automatic reminders to call old clients.  

Most CRM systems integrate with tools you already use

Email integration

Whatever email you use, it should sync your email, calendar, contacts and tasks seamlessly into your CRM. No more missing important emails or switching to your email just to check your calendar or find a contact; you should be able to do it all in your CRM.

Broker sales tools that work with your CRM

Sales tools

At this point, your CRM shouldn't just organize your data. It should put it to work for you. Whether that's through call lists to segment contacts or an interactive deal board that shows you likely buyers, there should be added features to make you more productive.

How to improve CRM adoption

Encourage CRM adoption

“My brokers are used to Excel and Outlook. They have their way of doing things and they don’t have time to learn a new tool. What can I do about?”

We hear it all the time. Brokers may be particularly resistant to change sometimes, but change management in general is something all businesses (and managers) face. New technology often promises to make your lives better, easier, but you have to get everyone on board for it to work.

Here are some ways to make CRM adoption successful.

1. Get communication and training going right from the beginning.

When announcing the change and communicating along the way, don’t overwhelm your brokers with information. Talk about and train brokers on changes to their day-to-day process. By focusing on real-world examples, you can overcome the “fear of the new” as users realize the benefits of the new technology.

Also be clear about what’s changing and what’s in it for them. Will it give them the opportunity to make more money? Will it increase productivity in a way that reduces weekend work? Make that all clear from the get-go.

2. Remember it’s a political campaign. Get the right people on-board and neutralize negative parties.

You probably already know the people who are going to be excited about this, as well as those who will resist the change. Make sure to sit down with both parties first.

Get the champions involved so they can coach others on how to use the tools to their benefit. Don’t just pick the tech-savvy individuals; choose people who work horizontally across the organization and are well respected among the team.

Continue to manage emotions through the process. Focus on the positive, and stay positive yourself. Your brokers look to leadership, so make sure to lead by example.

3. Make it fun.

Every year, companies get together to create their March Madness brackets, fantasy football teams, etc. to compete internally for bragging rights or another prize. Create a similar competition to encourage your team to use the tool.

To reduce the technology gap between individuals, set up teams so the more tech-savvy brokers can coach the less tech-inclined. For example, give a company-paid dinner to the first team to have each broker log 50 calls inside of the CRM. Or give a gift card to the first broker to successfully convert five new proposals to a listing.

4. Share success stories.

Once employees begin to use the technology more and more, draw attention to the positive impact it’s having on your organization. Publicizing quick wins helps build a case for change and encourages further adoption. It's as easy as sending an email or giving a shout-out at your weekly team meeting.

5. Have a post-implementation plan.

Training and adoption do not end when the new system goes live. In fact, post-implementation support is an important area for ensuring ongoing user adoption. Make sure to take advantage of any webinars or training your technology vendor offers, and follow-up with your brokers frequently.

6. Set your expectations for using the technology.

If the tool produces reports and analytics, make sure to use them during check-ins with your team. Use it to review pipeline, performance or other metrics you care about. If you use it yourself—and expect them to as well—make sure it becomes part of your process and interactions.

Get a demo of Apto today

We hope this guide helps you make some sense of the buzz around CRE CRM technology. Now that you have a grip on the technology, we'd love to show you all Apto has to offer. We go way beyond CRM to help you drive deal flow more efficiently and effectively.

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