Despite the differences in commercial real estate firms, a constant across the CRE industry, from brokerage to mortgages and capital markets to development, is that executives want real-time visibility into their deal pipeline and overall business performance. The tools real estate firms use to encapsulate and utilize this information often make the difference in winning more deals, and ultimately between growth and stagnation. From the business development and lead generation to pipeline to contracts, the ability to leverage technology to surface data about the entire business, analyze it in meaningful ways, and then make strategic decisions and take action is now the defining competitive advantage of successful CRE firms.
To accomplish this, successful firms need to create efficient and effective processes to collect and organize their own valuable proprietary information while tapping into meaningful and relevant external data to create a holistic and centralized database. This creates the foundation upon which firms can analyze and benchmark their performance, identify what’s working, what’s not and continue to iterate and innovate.
Unify Information Into a Central Source of Truth
One of the main challenges for commercial real estate is that deals take an incredibly long time to close. As a result, processes are often manual, software (and hardware) systems are disconnected, and retrieving updates is often a tedious series of human touchpoints, to the point where approvals often take days. Information is siloed, stored in disparate locations like spreadsheets, emails or even notepads, and it’s extremely difficult for anyone in the firm to understand performance in real-time. And, as technology development has accelerated, in commercial real estate, “...the tools of our trade haven’t evolved to match.”
At the same time, numerous CRE firms have implemented centralized databases and Customer Relationship Management tools like Salesforce to try to solve for these problems, attempting to unify business intelligence within a single platform. From individual brokers and small teams to enterprise leaders like Colliers, Newmark Knight Frank and Freddie Mac, all have onboarded Salesforce in an attempt to build the necessary insight to move quickly and scale.
Here at Union Square Consulting, we see an extremely wide distribution in the development and adoption of these tools. Often, firms are only realizing a fraction of the potential efficiencies and performance improvement that is possible because only a portion of deal, property and client information is recorded in Salesforce while the majority remains in spreadsheets and notes on individuals’ computers.
Utilize Salesforce Through the Entire Deal Cycle to Generate Full Information
For most Salesforce customers in other industries the core foundation is the contact database. In CRE, relationships are no less important but properties (and plots of land, units in buildings, etc.) are paramount. This is the right place to start, to be sure, but when firms stop here they significantly limited the value that end users and management can glean from the system. Without managing actual deal cycles and other business processes, Salesforce implementations most often fail to deliver the desired results to the business. When deal information is still managed in Excel and property and other critical business information is still housed in siloed databases, neither management nor end users can gain the visibility they need to maximize individual and firm-level performance.
Leading CRE firms quickly adopt Salesforce to replace workflow being done in Excel and build integrations with other systems and databases, through Salesforce’s incredibly powerful API, to provide the entire company with a single source of truth. This data can then be shared across the entire firm and/or be carefully protected with Salesforce’s robust security model dictating exactly who sees what, when, where and why.
Unfortunately, many firms purchase Salesforce expecting software to deliver results on its own merit. Users may create a basic reporting structure and even dashboards, but don’t see the value in iteratively optimizing the platform to support and track all functions of the business. Other CRE businesses might invest in data science resources, but lack the executive buy-in to follow through on adoption or dictate operating standards. As a result, the platform lacks comprehensive data sets to effectively model information. And, other firms still seem to utilize Salesforce only at the end of a sales funnel, while the middle of the deal cycle remains opaque. We we see numerous CRE firms tracking marketing campaigns and lead delegation at the beginning of the sales cycle, as well as firms who use Salesforce as a transaction management tool, at the end for financial reporting. Yet both examples all too often leave customer relationship management to agents’ discretion to push deals through the pipeline.
None of these scenarios properly leverage the full potential of the Salesforce platform, which is designed to support a holistic process to scale. Firms often use Salesforce as a rolodex, but not to optimize the success of the entire firm. To maximize success, any technology product must eventually support and track, or at least integrate high-level information on, every department and business process in the company, but the value-add is often dependent on other stakeholders, and this begins with marketing, continues to inside sales and brokers and partners, to rainmakers and managers, to finance and finally executive management. This feedback loop allows workflows and interactions to be recorded and benchmarked, and creates alignment around information.
Implement in Phases with Minimum Viable Solutions to Drive Faster Results
CRE firms come to Salesforce in a variety of scenarios spanning from firms moving off Excel and Outlook to those replacing robust systems managing numerous business processes across multiple departments. Most find success by implementing a phased approach with the first phase targeting a replacement of existing systems and workflow with a new system that includes a minimum set of features that are just enough to make it better than what’s being replaced.
This offers firms a couple simple benefits. First, implementations are completed in far less time and at far less cost. Second, user training and adoption is much easier.
When companies are moving off Excel or out of very basic CRM systems, the minimum viable solution is easy to implement. When companies are moving off of more robust systems managing numerous business processes, it’s difficult for users to step backwards and begin executing work manually that was previously automated or done more efficiently in their existing system.
In either instance, the best practice is to replace users’ existing workflow as quickly and simply as possible, solicit feedback and then iterate. The sooner the solution is delivered to users, the sooner firms see adoption and collection of valuable historic data and the sooner executives can run analytics and identify opportunities for improvement in the business.
Collect and Centralize Historic Data
Once a Minimum Viable Solution is in place, the sooner firms can start collecting historic data and brokers and other end users can start getting value from daily use of the system, the sooner firms can then drive to optimal user adoption rates. When leadership asks users to give data to a system and those users get nothing in return, driving adoption is very challenging and the data collection will be of limited quantity and quality.
To address this, as part of the first phase of implementation, many firms take the time to collect their historical information and load it into Salesforce on the first day, giving users access to valuable data the first time they login. This data can then be used to benchmark against future data so that executives can see trends in the business much faster.
Some leading firms are also seeing this data centralization as a competitive edge in its own right. With everyone in the market accessing CoStar and other tools, it’s hard to get an edge, so many firms see an opportunity to build their own proprietary databases in the markets they serve so that brokers and other deal makers are empowered with more information than their competition when they meet a client.
Integrate Valuable and Relevant Third-Party Data
Once firms have full centralization of their proprietary data the next place, they turn is often to integrate third-party data sources, such as CoStar and Reonomy, and other systems used internally, such as Yardi or proprietary databases, to give their brokers and other users the most complete data possible, in one centralized location.
This is usually done via Salesforce’s robust and open API, which makes integration with third-party data very easy. Larger firms with extremely robust integration needs that are constantly changing can implement tools like MuleSoft to make their data integration solution far more scalable and flexible.
Unfortunately, in either instance, these integrations depend on the vendor of the software with which one wishes to integrate Salesforce. Vendors like CoStar and Yardi have significant limitations to what they allow from an integration standpoint for many of their products. However, there are workarounds to partially solve for these challenges and get valuable data into Salesforce and centralized with internal data.
Measure, Iterate and Optimize
The old aphorism still rings true, “What gets measured gets managed.” The fastest growing firms are continually assessing metrics and measuring KPIs. Salesforce is a powerful tool to be able to baseline and compare behavior, as well as how well a team is managing existing relationships, or the volume of a team’s deal pipeline. With a 360 degree view of the business, analytics become a powerful tool to iteratively optimize.
Salesforce analytics enable real time visibility and insight creating a virtuous circle of organization and optimization if leveraged across all departments. Measurement begins with business development and marketing and extends to prospecting. What data sources and channels are driving the best business? This empowers agents and brokers to communicate more intelligently with internal leasing and asset management teams, external brokers, property managers, legal, finance, investors, and joint venture partners tracking interactions, sales targets, pipeline and closings in real-time. This business intelligence then rolls up to sales and executive management, delivering accurate information and alerts about relationships to the status of every deal. Actionable insights about properties, leases, tenants, sales, investors, financing and development is aggregated for management from a secure, role-based hierarchy, allowing the sharing of information and best practices, whilst protecting sensitive or proprietary information at the same time.
Real-time visibility into deal pipeline reporting, current tenant tracking, market data, financial analysis, and portfolio reporting-- all of this educates the firm, benchmarking productivity and allowing for more smarter conversations and faster course correction. Strategy and investments become more informed, core processes become streamlined, while leases and sales are closed faster.
At the end of the day, Salesforce can be one of the most powerful tools in building a commercial real estate firm. And yet, the full potential of the CRM remains woefully underutilized. Salesforce is a tool, which like every other function of a business, must be iteratively optimized to support interdependent departments. But leveraged properly, the technology provides full visibility and control at the head of today’s leading brokerages.