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By Joe Cooke

RISMEDIA, June 2008–“This database is a real sore subject with me,” says Jean, a real estate agent in Florida. “I need to bring a method to the madness.”The complexities of data management are not confined to the real estate industry-every business deals with this issue. But, as a somewhat independent business person in a service business, your database can be your greatest asset.

Are you wondering how other agents manage their client and prospect lists? Here is a profile of the average real estate agent database: it can have from 50 to 6,000 names; it is online or off-line, in the form of Excel, Outlook, TopProducer, ACT!, Rolodex or 3×5 cards; it is synced-up with PDAs or it is a pile of Post-it Notes; it is expensive or cheap; and it allows multiple users or it is restricted to a single user.

In other words, for real estate agents, there are as many different systems as there are situations. So, how do you weed through this muddle of information to find the right system for you and your team?

First Things First

You absolutely must have a data management system. During the boom years of the seller’s market, agents could “cherry pick” and make a decent living, although even that could-and did result-in drastic revenue swings, creating a feast and famine business model.

In order to steady out the income stream from your business, on a month-to-month basis as well as year-to-year, you have to track and maintain a client base that includes not only the prospects who are ready, willing and able to buy or sell right now, but a robust list of future prospects. Think of your database like a greenhouse garden. Well-tended, it will produce a steady harvest no matter what the season or climate.

Without a client management system, you are completely at the whim of the market. However, before you even consider implementing a database or customer management system, you have to do some business planning. Mainly, you have to figure out exactly how you are going to utilize and maintain your database.

Needs Assessment

Begin your search with a “needs assessment.” Are you solo or the leader of a team? What kind of follow-up do you do? Is your business based on Internet leads or on referrals or a combination of both? How do you add prospects to your database?

If you are leading a team, you will want to consider a database solution that allows multiple users. You may also want to consider multiple-user systems if you rely heavily on an assistant. Some multiple-user systems are Web-based or server-based, which means that you and your team can log in to the same database to make updates, additions and deletions.

Alternatively, systems like ACT! can be configured to stand alone on different desktop and laptop computers. The standalone systems have to be synchronized-which means linking them up periodically so that they can automatically update each other with the most current information. Often, this is done via an e-mail with an attachment. These systems can also update your personal digital assistants (PDAs) like your Palm Pilot or BlackBerry. Obviously, synchronization can get complicated.

As part of your needs assessment, determine what you will do with your database system. Will you be sending direct mailings? Some of the proprietary, online systems will allow you to send e-mails but you can’t download the list for direct mailings. That will be an extreme drawback if you want to send personalized postcards, paper newsletters or other mass-mailings.

Some systems will allow you to merge data directly into your word documents and/or print mailing labels; other systems will require you to download the mailing list into a text file (often comma separated values, CSV) that you will then have to import into your word processing or direct mailing system. This can be a very useful feature, especially if you are using an online customized card system or other outside mailing service for your customer appreciation and follow-up programs.

Functionality

ACT! and Goldmine are robust systems that allow you to create a single e-mail message, such as a market update, and then merge your e-mail addresses into that single message, automatically sending it out to each person, one at a time. If you have 6,000 names in your database, you could then send 6,000 individual, personalized e-mails, including a personalized salutation.

Online systems like Constant Contact also allow you to send hundreds, or even thousands, of e-mails to your client base. You can download your mailing list to a text file that you could then upload into a direct mailing program.

Systems like Point2Agent allow you to build a website, market your listings nationally and include e-mail accounts with the capability for drip e-mail campaigns, auto-responders and prospect tracking. As with any of these data management systems, you will have to invest some time in learning the features and in importing your existing data.

Financial Assessment

You don’t have to go to a huge expense to keep a client database. In fact, the basic, free Yahoo! e-mail account includes a calendar, contact management and the ability to send e-mails. However, each e-mail has to be sent individually, unless you want to blind-copy everyone, which is getting to be more of a sure way to end up in the junk mail folder.

Your desktop may include an e-mail management system such as Outlook, and there are some add-ons and how-to articles available that can help you customize those desktop programs to better perform real estate specific activities. However, the more customizing you have to do, the more complicated things can get, and therefore, the less likely you will be to implement a successful system.

ACT!, Goldmine, Top Producer, Constant Contact and other robust systems like these can be expensive. Some require a large upfront investment, while others require ongoing monthly fees that can add up over time. Even so, even one more sale per year can more than pay for any of these systems.

Implementation

Finally, you either need to build your database or import your existing names list. For a small list, from zero to 100 names, you can often enter the data by hand. For a larger list-especially one that includes addresses, birthdays and other demographic and personal information-you may have to automate the importing process and then follow-up with a data integrity check.

All of this can be intimidating, even for a technophile. For instance, I recently consulted with a business that had over 7,000 client contacts managed in several different systems. We had to compile a current mailing list, with updated addresses, and then we merged that list with the lists from the other systems, consolidating everything into Goldmine. The implementation included integrating incoming and outgoing e-mails, consolidating client demographic data and designing a follow-up and client management system that incorporated the new database. It was very complicated and the business is still struggling to manage the information. A client list that large requires constant maintenance.

Implementing a new database is not enough. You have to create a way to use it that fits with your business plan, which takes you back to the needs assessment process. You can purchase an extremely powerful and flexible system, but it has to fit your business model in order to be useful to you.

Start with what you hope to achieve; then work toward how you will achieve it, and then, finally, research and choose the right system for you.

Joe Cooke is an author, speaker and entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience in real estate, marketing and management. Visit www.joecooke.com for more information on how to build your real estate business.

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