How to Hack a Better CRM

Customer relationship management is a necessity, but many platforms fall short. These real estate pros are creating their own solutions.

A good CRM is hard to find. Just ask Mark McPherson, who’s tried customer relationship platforms at three different brokerages over the past two years. His prior career in corporate communications exposed him to even more of these programs. But he never found the right fit. He’s tried Salesforce, Realty Pro, Contactually, and Boomtown, among others. “A lot of them were so expensive or really geared toward teams,” says McPherson, a practitioner with Coldwell Banker United, REALTORS®, in Spring, Texas.

The plethora of options speaks to a major pain point in the CRM business. There are nearly as many relationship management strategies in this industry as there are real estate professionals. McPherson believes CRM companies could address the problem with products that offer various services—such as social media management, website analytics, and lead generation—in an à la carte fashion, so users would have to pay only for what they need. “Our business is based on being able to adapt and move fluidly,” he says. “Being able to pick and choose [features] and design your CRM in the way that’s most conducive to how you do business. That’s what’s needed out there.”

McPherson currently uses Market Leader, mostly because it’s supported by his brokerage and coordinates well with the office’s Outlook email services. He pays extra to get web analytics that aren’t included in the free version Coldwell Banker offers. But he needed to search further afield to find other business solutions he wanted. He uses Microsoft’s OneNote app, which is included in his Office 365 subscription, to supplement Market Leader with annotations of phone conversations and interactions with clients. His OneNote videos, checklists, and comments are automatically backed up in Microsoft’s cloud drive and accessible on the go, whether he’s showing a home to a buyer or back in the office, pasting notes about his client’s reactions to a listing into his Market Leader database. He uses the notes to build more robust, personalized profiles for his contacts.

McPherson and other real estate pros say these kinds of CRM “hacks” are the only way they can get a high level of customization at a reasonable price. Saralyn Maurer, an agent with Realty Executives Integrity in southeastern Wisconsin, crafted her DIY solution from Google products after finding Top Producer to be cluttered and not sufficiently -mobile-friendly for her.

She wanted something organized that had only the features she needed, but she also wanted a program that didn’t backfire. When she was starting out in the business, she’d send test emails from her Top Producer account to her boyfriend, and they frequently landed in his spam folder. “That didn’t stop until I started sending stuff through Gmail,” she says.

She was already using several tools in the suite of free Google products, which includes an online calendar, documents and spreadsheets, data storage, and software for presentations. So when she left her sales team to become a solo practitioner, it made sense for her to use Google tools to cobble together a CRM for herself.

Here’s how it works: When Maurer gets a new lead, she enters the information into her Google contacts. For past clients, she adds the date that they closed a deal in her contact notes, and in her calendar, adds a reminder to congratulate them on the anniversary. Also, Google has the ability to import some public data from Facebook. Using that feature, Maurer was able to automatically populate her calendar with Facebook friends’ birthdays so that she can be reminded to send out birthday wishes as they occur.

Maurer moves contacts to different groups that she’s created to reflect her relationship with them and their current location in the real estate process. For example, annually she creates a new group for people who have bought or sold a home with her that year. She uses the groups to send nurture emails that address the specific needs of the contacts on each list.

After Maurer established her -Google-based CRM, Realty Executives began offering a proprietary CRM called Prime Agent. She uses the system to access marketing materials, stock photos, and templates to use in her business outreach, but she’s sticking with her DIY CRM. “I’m incredibly satisfied,” she says. While she’s okay with the free version of Google’s products for now, she realizes she might have to upgrade for more storage space eventually. She’s using around 75 percent of the standard 15 GB of storage provided for the cloud drive and email. If she upgrades, the cost for 100 GB is only $2 per month.

The low cost of a do-it-yourself CRM is certainly a driver, but for Maurer, maintaining control over client data is priceless. “I would be very concerned with these small CRMs. If this is something I’m paying for, and they just go under one day, what will happen to my contacts?” she asks. “I’m confident that Google will always be there. They’re too big not to be.” She also feels her data is safer in Google’s hands when she thinks about all the identity theft and phishing scams targeting real estate professionals.

But managing a brokerage or a team can pose other CRM challenges. Jason Mitchell, a Scottsdale, Ariz.–based real estate pro who leads more than a dozen agents at the My Home Group brokerage, needed a technology platform through which to pass on referrals to his agents. He also wanted to provide a plug-and-play system that would automatically send texts and emails to customers as they moved through the transaction and help agents keep in touch with past clients.

That was the motivation behind Shabang CRM, which Mitchell launched last year. After buying a license to build upon a small-business sales software package called Infusionsoft, he spent three years writing copy for more than 100 email templates, making client groups for drip campaigns, and creating referral alerts for vendors and other agents—in addition to his sizable $400,000 investment for the license and customization costs. Mitchell says the platform helped to nearly double his team sales to a $142 million volume in 2016 over the prior year.

Now he’s taking his uber-hack to the open market, charging a one-time signup fee of $1,897 for agents and $3,497 for teams. They charge team accounts a monthly fee of $197 per user and individual users $247. Mitchell hopes his software can succeed where many technology solutions fail: the initial setup and training. “A lot of agents don’t know what they have in a CRM. They don’t use it to the full advantage because it takes too much time and effort,” he says. Shabang offers short training videos and a dedicated support staff.

So how can you break away from a CRM that’s not doing your contacts justice? Experience in web design or software programming isn’t necessary, but patience surely is. Maurer says the best way to start is by writing up a marketing plan. Then look for a communications platform that provides the tools you need to carry out your plan. She guesses that more than half the agents she knows could do what she’s done, but drastically fewer actually will. “They don’t like to change,” she says. “But I always figured, ‘I’m a real estate agent and I’m trying to save a buck. What can I do?’ ”

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct an error in our reporting of the pricing for Shabang CRM.