Equity Taps CRM for Tracking Condo Sales

National property manager invests in a CRM system from Microsoft to track sales leads, identify successful marketing tactics, monitor the sales cycle and more.

Equity Residential doesnt own boardwalk or Park Place, but if it were playing Monopoly, the Chicago-based company would manage much of the surrounding prime real estate.

So when the company, which manages more than 1,000 prime properties across 35 states, decided last year to convert several of its apartment buildings into condominiums, it made sense, especially considering the real estate boom at the time.

But Equity Residential realized fairly quickly that the condo sales strategy wouldnt pass "Go" without a new IT system in place.

The company had used Microsoft Corp.s Excel to track condo sales, pricing and reporting and Microsoft Word as the foundation for documents, but there was no central means for culling and analyzing cumulative sales data.

What the $1.8 billion property management company needed was a new CRM (customer relationship management) system that could handle functions such as tracking condo sales leads and identifying which marketing tactics were generating the best leads; monitoring the entire sales cycle for each condo unit; streamlining the documentation and paperwork required for sales closings; and tracking the inventory status of each condo unit (sold, pending and so on).

Equity Residential reached out to local solutions providers, seeking an IT partner that could design such a system using Microsoft CRM, the software companys fledgling package for midsize businesses. However, two solutions providers tried—and failed.

Then came Sonoma Partners LLC, a Chicago-based solutions provider that designs IT systems for small and midsize customers, typically those with 25 to 500 employees. In addition to serving the real estate sector, Sonomas vertical-market focus includes manufacturing, health and personal care, and professional sports.

"We found Sonoma by doing a Web search," said Anne Baker, a product manager at Equity Residential. "We were looking for information about a specific CRM function. Sonomas Web site had the best explanation, and we signed up for their CRM newsletter."

Impressed, Equity Residential asked in June if Sonoma could get the companys CRM project back on track. Very familiar with Microsoft CRM, Sonoma agreed to tackle the project and designed a fully functional system in seven weeks.

Most solutions providers are only now kicking Microsoft CRMs tires, but Sonoma has been a driving force behind the product since its beta tests in 2002.

"We have extensive experience designing proprietary Web-based customer management software using Microsoft .Net," said Mike Snyder, principal of Sonoma. "Microsoft CRM allows us to give our customers the core functionality they require, and we can extend the solution with open-software APIs and our own development experience."

Thats exactly what Equity Residential needed. Although Microsoft CRM has extensive out-of-the-box functionality, it also required custom extensions from Sonoma. On the upside, Microsoft CRM has built-in Lead, Contact and Opportunity features. When a prospective buyer expresses interest in a condo, an Equity Residential salesperson enters the information into the CRM system as a Lead. If the Lead decides to purchase a condo, the CRM system converts him or her into a Contact with an associated Opportunity record—which tracks the buyers name, unit number, closing date, down payment and so on.

Still, Microsoft CRM could not remove a product (in this case, a condo) from inventory once it was sold. "Tracking the inventory of each condo was critical," said Snyder. "Equitys salespeople had to know which units were available, pending and sold in real time."

Moreover, the CRM system had to account for specific differences among the condos. Buyers had 25 to 30 "upgrade" options for each condo, such as tile, plumbing and kitchen countertops. Further complicating matters, upgrade prices varied from condo to condo. For instance, a tile upgrade in a one-bedroom unit may differ in price from a tile upgrade in a two-bedroom unit.

Sonoma therefore created a separate SQL Server database, which tracks and manages the nuances of each condo sale. Equity Residential users view information from Microsoft CRM and SQL Server as if it were culled from a single database.

Next Page: Many solutions providers are tying Microsoft CRM to other Microsoft server apps.