A client relationship management (CRM) system is a must-have for architecture firms looking to organize, track, and expand their marketing efforts. CRMs offer automation and tracking features that can help firms increase their sales and improve the success of their marketing and business development. But selecting CRM software can be difficult, especially when there are so many choices out there. We’ve created this guide to help you choose the best CRM for your architectural firm.
What is a CRM?
A CRM helps you with contact management for existing clients and prospective clients, but it’s more than just an export of your Outlook contacts. It also allows you to track the role(s) a person has in the company, the last time you contacted them and what the outcome was, and additional details that may help you meet their needs (“hates phone calls” or “best to talk before 8 am”).
Depending on the CRM software, it can also track when people open email newsletters or visit your website, so you can see who your most engaged prospects are.
While a CRM for architecture firms is not a substitute for project management software, you can store notes about potential projects (“met about project X last year, still pending zoning approval”) and track information like RFP and project status.
Put another way, CRM software helps you manage business development and grow client relationships.
Why do architecture firms need a CRM?
The most persuasive answer is the simplest: to avoid embarrassment.
We could tell you about how it will make your marketing more effective, or that firms that use a CRM solution are 2.1 times more likely to grow. Your architecture firm may not be sold on the value of marketing or growing, so they’re not going to be persuaded to invest in a CRM for those reasons.
Embarrassment, though, is another thing.
Imagine that you’re trying to win an important and highly competitive commission. You reach out to the owner’s rep to ask about a detail and are met with silence before being told that someone else from your office already called yesterday and spent 30 minutes getting every last detail. The owner’s rep is now irritated, and you look like you don’t have a good grasp on your firm. Your chances of getting that project just dropped.
If you had a CRM, though, you could have looked up the owner’s rep and seen that another partner in the office called yesterday – along with all of the details of their conversation.
Now imagine that you’re talking to a prospective client and you mention something that went out in the firm’s enewsletter last month. The prospect doesn’t say much. Only after the call do you ask someone to check the email newsletter list to make sure the prospect is on it – and discover that they unsubscribed over a year ago.
A customer relationship management system that connects with your email system would have noted in that prospect’s contact information that they unsubscribed, so you could tailor the conversation accordingly. You may also have had an opportunity to uncover why they unsubscribed.
Not sold yet? A CRM also helps architecture firms keep track of clients and prospects when people in the firm leave. If the only place your contacts are stored is in individual Outlook accounts and Sally leaves, you lose access to all of the firm’s contacts that were assigned to her. This alone should inspire firms to invest in a CRM.
How to choose a CRM for your architecture firm
Selecting CRM software for your architecture firm is an important decision. Every firm is different, and the right CRM system is the one that meets your needs and the way your firm works. This is a tool that to be successful will need to be used by the entire office – not just the marketing team.
For many firms, cost is the first consideration when selecting a CRM. Like many software systems, CRM solutions can have several types of costs:
- Upfront – What is the purchase or subscription price for using the software? Be sure to factor in the number of users you’ll need.
- Training – Some CRMs require formal onboarding and extensive training. There may be financial costs for these, but there will also be people-hours that need to be spent getting up to speed.
- Custom programming – Almost any CRM software you choose will need some form of customization. It’s important to know if your team will be able to make any customizations themselves (even seemingly simple things like swapping the order of two form fields). Some CRMs require you to engage their engineers to make any changes, and some CRMs do not allow certain types of customization no matter what.
- Ongoing – Will there be ongoing costs to use the software? How many contacts can you store before you hit the next price tier? Is there an upcharge for more users or features as your company and needs grow? How often does the CRM provider tend to increase its prices?
- Maintenance – How are contacts going to be entered into the system, and how will updates to their information be made? If one person in the office is tasked with these duties, that’s time that the person won’t be available for their primary job. Depending on the size of your firm, “CRM Manager” could be a quarter-time to full-time job.
Be sure to look at the total cost of potential systems before deciding that one is more affordable than another. Often when initial costs are low, there are hidden costs that appear later. These can make the choice more expensive in the long run.
Your firm’s sales process
Every CRM is based on generally accepted sales models. These are not necessarily the sales models of the architecture profession or of your architecture firm.
It’s important to define your sales process before you start searching for a CRM, because this will give you something to measure the CRM against. It will be incredibly frustrating if you find yourself trying to change your sales process to fit within the CRM you chose.
If you can’t identify a good fit for your firm, you may need to look at creating a custom solution that fits your specific process. This doesn’t have to mean a crushing financial investment; there are a lot of creative ways to design and implement a system that fits almost any need.
The software must be simple for people to use, or they won’t use it. If it’s too overwhelming, confusing, or has multiple steps, people will get frustrated and give up. You’ll end up with an outdated system quickly.
Ask the people who will be using the software the most to watch a demo or do a test drive of the software you’re considering and get their honest feedback. Make them part of the decision and you’ll increase their buy-in.
The more systems your CRM platform can dovetail with, the better information you’ll have. Assess the compatibility of the CRM with your current email, IT, and e-newsletter systems. You’ll want to make sure that they can talk to each other and share data effectively. This may include things like:
- Can it integrate with your email system to automatically add clients?
- Does it work with your e-newsletter system?
- Can it be accessed on mobile phones so people can pull up information when they’re not at their desks?
If a particular CRM isn’t completely compatible with your existing systems, that’s not necessarily a reason to veto it immediately. However, you’ll want to factor in the additional workflows that would be needed to make it work. This could add time and costs to its implementation and operational costs.
Ensure that the CRM you select has robust security protocols and measures in place. Do a little online research and talk to other customers who’ve used the system. Does the CRM require a strong password or two-factor authentication? Does it detect logins from the same person in multiple locations? Does it hold any security certifications?
How easy is the system to install and configure? Some CRM systems require a complex process that is lead by a team of specialists, and you should know this ahead of time. There could be additional costs associated with hiring IT specialists or paying a consultant to get you up and running.
You’ll also want to find out if you can import your existing customer/prospect database into the new system and how much data cleaning and editing you’ll need to perform. If you have a large database, it may take days to comb through it, and that added time should be a factor in your decision.
It used to be that the more you paid for a CRM platform, the more flexible it was. Nowadays there are less expensive options that allow for a lot of customization without additional charges or the need to hire a specialist.
However, it is possible to over-customize your CRM. When you’re offered a buffet of infinite things you can add (wedding anniversary dates! number of times they’ve come to a project site! hair color!) you can get a little “data drunk.” Left unchecked, you’ll end up customizing your CRM for situations that only rarely or never come up. It’s better to set up your system with a standard workflow that fits most situations.
After you’ve been using the software for a while, you may identify new things that you’d like to include. if you decide to add those fields in, can you do simply add them, or do you have to start over from scratch and reinstall all of your contacts? The amount of time you’ll save with an adaptable CRM is worth a higher upfront cost. The system should be adaptable to change as your processes and need for information evolve.
Some CRM platforms are “smart” or designed with a lot of automation, allowing them to run key features almost without human intervention. This can be a good thing, as it will save you time and money. However, sometimes automation can cause problems if it isn’t programmed correctly or if the data needs to be checked by a person. For example, the software may pull the incorrect social media accounts because there is another person with the same name. Or it may be too easy to send out mass emails from the system or to permanently delete all of the contacts, leading to potential catastrophic errors. Make sure the system has touchpoints where human interaction is required to prevent these kinds of issues.
Can the software track RFPs and their processes? Most programs offer this capability, though it may be under another name, like “sales” or “deals.” Don’t confuse this with project management, which is usually performed in a separate system. If your CRM can share information with your project management system, that would be a bonus.
CRMs are often a significant investment for architectural firms. This is why you need to evaluate your options for the factors above before you decide. The right CRM can pay back dividends in more sales and repeat customers.