How often brokers prospect for new business often varies by the years they've been working in CRE or by the structure of their team. You may be fortunate enough to have junior brokers on your team who focus on generating new business, for example. Or maybe you've been around for a decade or more and have strong relationships with pretty much everyone in your market.
But even if you’ve been a broker long enough to rely on referrals and repeat clients, it's important to keep prospecting for new business. The most successful brokers understand that if you’re not moving forward, you're falling behind.
Prospecting is the foundation of a broker's success, after all. And we’ll let you in on a secret: surveys often reveal that 80% of brokers prospect only “sporadically” or “when they could.” That means that if you prospect consistently and intelligently, you have a very real opportunity to get a competitive advantage in your market.
This guide lays out the best tools and strategies for commercial real estate brokers to prospect efficiently. Here’s what you’ll get:
Successful brokers know that their value lies in their relationships and by extension, their database. To find the truly valuable contacts and make meaningful connections with those people, you have to know who they are, their portfolios, their networks, their past behavior, etc. You have to be an expert on your market and all the properties and people in play. There is so much information to track, and while there are a lot of data services out there to help you get started, they’re all imperfect. You have to gather and maintain your own data.
But if you're diligent about building your database and keeping it up to date, it can pay huge dividends.
Customer relationship management, commonly referred to simply as CRM, refers to technology that helps companies track, manage and analyze interactions with contacts, whether they're prospective or current clients. It is not a brand or a set of features, but a catchall term for the software as a whole. CRM software is generally designed to compile information across channels and can help users gain insight into their business.
For commercial real estate in particular, the technology helps you keep track of contacts, properties, comps, listings, and more. Because CRMs provide a relational database for brokers, you have more flexibility in viewing and gaining insight into your prospects, clients, deals and business functions. A technology-driven prospecting process is key.
An Excel spreadsheet is simply not sufficient: it doesn’t connect your information, it isn't mobile-friendly, it doesn’t allow for sharing, and it’s easy to lose a detail or pass the wrong version to your team.
A CRM system should keep all your information organized and centralized. We’ll get to this more later, but it’s important to track everything you need so you can group certain factors together. If you have groups catalogued correctly, technology will give you the highest probability leads in your market.
An Excel spreadsheet is simply not sufficient: it doesn’t connect your information, it isn’t mobile-friendly, it doesn’t allow for sharing, and it’s easy to lose a detail or pass the wrong version to your team.
Technology is becoming more and more specialized to each industry, so you should choose a CRM that’s built for commercial real estate, not a generic CRM or industry-agnostic system. There are a variety of fields that you need to keep tabs on beyond people and properties: think listings and square footage and NOI and rent rolls and stacking plans and cap rates and so on. A CRM built for commercial real estate gives you a big leg up when it comes to prospecting.
This should go without saying, but in case you still rely on paper, consider this story:
“I have a broker friend from my days working at a real estate development, investment and management company. He had spent time building a relationship with a man who owned three buildings in a popular business center in his city. These buildings were worth $1.5 - 3 million each, totaling about $7.5 million.
Earlier in the year, this man asked my friend to give him a call at the end of the summer to talk about a listing strategy. Ka-ching! The broker wrote a reminder on a post-it note and put it in his book of business.
Guess what? That note got lost in the shuffle and he didn’t find it until late October, about two months after he had planned to check in. He called his contact right away, apologizing profusely for the delay. But he was too late—his contact went with another firm to represent all three buildings, which of course was a HUGE miss on potential commissions that could have produced around $450,000 for my friend.”
A CRM makes everything easier. You should also look for one that has sales tools, but more on that later.
We won't go over all the ways to build a database from scratch here. It's a combination of third-party sources (CoStar, Loopnet, Reonomy, etc), and your own efforts to canvas your market and cold call and email your way into someone's business. But once you have that database, you need to continue to grow it through networking.
When you're busy juggling your work and your personal life, networking often slips to the bottom of the to-do list. Yet it’s astonishing how quickly you can fall out of touch if you fail to maintain your current professional connections―while continuously adding new ones to the pipeline.
This is bad for your business and your career at large. That’s why it’s important to find painless ways to integrate networking into your daily life. Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Relying on your network is always the best way to search for work, but leveraging your network shouldn’t stop there. If you’re trying to jumpstart your networking game, consider sending out an email to your network asking for their help.
Rather than seek out events labeled as “networking,” simply seek out opportunities to enjoy the activities your area has to offer alongside like-minded individuals and let the networking happen naturally.
Often it’s not the number of connections we have that’s holding us back, it’s the variety. One of the best ways to solve for this challenge is to learn a new skill, which takes you outside your comfort zone and lets you meet new people.
As much as we like to think that sales is about relationships, it’s really a numbers game. Brokers that acknowledge this can add a degree of predictability to their business by analyzing and tracking key performance indicators (KPIs).
Unfortunately, many brokers ignore the importance of these metrics, measure the wrong or incomplete information, or lack a system for tracking results. But if you pay attention, you can use KPIs to prospect better, grow, and improve your business—and forecast with more confidence. Here’s how.
While many brokers have a financial goal, fewer calculate how many phone calls and proposals it will take to achieve it. If you have a handle on your KPIs, you can take a bottom-up approach to sales that will allow you to control your business, identify shortcomings in your process, and better prioritize your time.
You obviously can’t have deals without leads, so begin by tracking the actions you take to secure new business, such as:
Additionally, measure your successful next steps, i.e., listings, assignments and closed deals. Then you can calculate your conversion rates and compare metrics over a given time period. Sample conversion rates include:
With this information, you can work backwards to determine how many calls you must make to generate enough leads to achieve your sales goals.
Tracking and organizing all of this information can be a bit challenging. You can use a spreadsheet, but it’s easy to make errors or neglect to keep the document updated. This is where CRM comes into play.
Many sales organizations, broker teams included, rely on CRM software to make it easier to input data and automatically calculate the key metrics needed to reach meaningful conclusions.
According to a report from Nucleus Research, a firm that specializes in case-based technology research, businesses can expect an average of $8.71 back for every dollar they spend on a CRM, which is a 771% return on investment (ROI). Of course, even the most sophisticated CRM is useless without information. The onus is always on the broker to take the time to input his or her activities.
One of the metrics most critical to a commercial real estate broker’s success is also one of the most overlooked: Proposals. This KPI directly correlates with closed deals, and by understanding how many proposals you have out at a given time, you can forecast more effectively and determine how much more prospecting you have to do.
The pitch is your chance to showcase your knowledge and expertise. It also brings you one step closer to getting your commission. Brokers should track not only the sheer volume of proposals but also where each proposal is in the sales process. This will help them stay organized and prevent things from falling through the cracks. Tracking proposals also helps you estimate potential earnings and gauge performance.
Consider tracking other agents’ on-market listings and comparing their volume to yours. This competitive intelligence helps you understand your place in the market and could improve your pitch decks. For example, if you have the majority of listings in a particular neighborhood or vertical, you might want to include that in your next proposal. This will also improve your comp database and could even become a source for prospecting leads down the road. If a listing has been on the market for a while, the owner could be open to hearing from a potential new advisor.
Commercial real estate is complicated, and as any broker will tell you, it takes a lot of steps to close a deal. If you understand how those steps—measured by your KPIs—relate to each other, you can take a truly systematic approach to your business. You will have a better understanding of your business, prospect more efficiently, create stronger proposals, forecast more effectively, notice areas that need improvement, and use your time more wisely. And the bottom line? The extra effort will make it easier to make more money.
We can't talk about prospecting without talking about cold calling. Yes, you can and should be targeted in your outreach, but in commercial real estate, sometimes you still have to pick up the phone and dial, dial, dial.
Even then, a cold call should never be completely cold. You should have some idea of who you’re calling and what your value proposition is to that person. You need to be interesting, relevant, and timely—right off the bat.
Top-performing brokers have a dedicated approach to starting these conversations. For example, many have a list of potential conversation starters on hand for their prospecting efforts, which can generally be broken down into these categories:
To get more specific, here are a few examples of ways to approach prospects with these topics.
"Single family home sales are increasing in your market, affecting demand for apartments, retail space, and office buildings. It could be a good opportunity to expand."
"I have a client who's successfully reinvested in a lower maintenance property, and it seems like you're in a similar situation as she was. Could we explore a similar opportunity for you?"
"New construction is happening in your city: a new public transportation line from the suburbs to downtown. This will affect vacancy, rental rates and demand, and has big implications for your income."
Ok, now we're getting to the strategic, tech-enabled part of the process. If you have a CRM and are tracking the right things, then you can target your outreach to certain groups. Depending on your specialization and prospecting strategies, you can pick and choose what you need and find the prospects most likely to act.
Start with some of these groups.
Maintaining relationships with previous clients should be a no-brainer. They need consistent contact, both on the phone and in person. They’re your best source of business over your career and they're the most important source of referrals to new contacts.
As we said, your database should make it easy to keep track of these contacts. They should be set aside and systematically organized for easy outreach. You should be able to pull comps and personal details with ease.
If you have a robust database, you will begin to notice trends in the data that you can act on. Top owners are the people who have multiple properties in a given location—or a large number overall. You should know who these people are, the names of their extended family members, where they went to school, etc. These are the people with money, and they’re often open to purchasing additional properties and/or selling their current assets when the time is right (and you should know when the time is right).
As a market expert, you shouldn’t just know top owners, you should know everyone who owns a property. Identifying your submarkets and what makes them unique helps you build compelling and defensible stories that help deliver value to your prospects and clients. As you build your database and capture location information, you should be putting that information to work to help identify and reach out to new prospects.
Quick note: Expert brokers also have an organized task list. If you use your technology to create to-do lists and keep all the details related to a person or a given deal in a single place, your task list can autopopulate so you have an easy place to start every morning. No prep work needed.
This one is simple but it can yield incredible results. Make a habit out of always finding and recording location information on your clients. You'll be happy you did when you want to canvas a market or feature a new deal to the surrounding business.
Depending on your market, you may want to carve yourself a niche by becoming an expert on certain industry or company types. Technology, advertising and media tenants are popular industries of focus for many brokers, especially in technology hubs like New York and San Francisco. Or if you’re in a smaller market, you can focus on hospitality, retail and grocery, or whatever sector Jeff Bezos turns his eye toward next. Segmenting regularly by industry helps you target clients and refine your messaging to suit their unique needs.
There is a higher probability of securing new business in a situation where the existing broker hasn’t executed. If you can track and estimate when those agreements expire, you have an interesting opportunity to take advantage of.
Once a new listing hits the market, you can easily estimate when the landlord/seller agreement expires based on your market’s typical representation agreement terms. The engagement to represent a seller or landlord is usually between 6 and 12 months. Your market may differ, and there may be legal considerations around the timeline for contacting those already represented. Plan your prospecting activities 45-60 days from the expiration. Then you can begin to form a relationship and understand if the client plans to continue the effort.
To create lists of on-market prospects, you need to be tracking on-market listings. Then you can set reminders for when they’re coming due, and swoop in at just the right moment.
A property sale in commercial real estate is like lighting a beacon. Every broker who sees it is likely to try and take advantage of the event to build their business, and for good reason. Sellers now have the proceeds from the sale and a substantial tax incentive (1031 Exchange) to redeploy that capital quickly. An organization that has decided to sell an individual asset may be undertaking a portfolio disposition effort. Similarly, a buyer in these transactions may have a larger acquisition strategy.
With the short-term nature of commercial mortgages, property owners with debts nearing full term are in a unique position. Action at that time is not just a good idea, it’s a must. Savvy brokers know the properties, the owners, and the debt terms—and catalog them for strategic outreach at the right time. Regardless of the situation, if the owner is at the end of the term, you need to be very intentional in targeting them.
If you work for a firm with a full-service capital markets group, you have a high probability of providing a solution to such owners. If your team is investment sales only, then focusing on owners who are more likely to sell than refinance should be your top priority.
Whether due to a market downturn, a decrease in occupancy and thus net operating income (NOI), unrealized appreciation, or any combination thereof, refinancing can be very difficult if not impossible. Lenders won’t go near the asset as they don’t want to overextend themselves with a loan-to-value (LTV) that pushes their risk tolerance.
Owners of such properties should be at the top of your call list.
To track property value, debt, down payments and the like, be sure to be cataloging not only your closed deals, but the markets’ as well. When logging a comp, pay close attention to all the details and be diligent in entering everything of value.
Whether you are working with an experienced investor or a high net-worth individual, money talks. After owning a property for a length of time, there may be a lot of equity. Identify prospects based on the last date of sale and talk with the client about how they can leverage the equity to invest in other properties and grow their portfolio.
If you’re a tenant rep broker, tracking lease expirations should be a top priority. Whether you get this information from one of the various leasing data providers or you send a junior broker out to pound the pavement, this data can and should be leveraged to find new prospects. Reaching out to tenants nearing the end of their existing lease is the quintessential way to find new business.
An expiring lease is likely your highest probability prospect, but what about tenants with a lease rate that’s above market rate? Such tenants are ripe for a conversation about their next move, regardless of the expiration date. Loosen up your lease expiration date range for these tenants and lead with the opportunity to save them money. Maintaining current lease rates through spaces and comps gives you the ability to build lists filtered by values that serve as indicators of likelihood to act.
Some businesses need to be found, others are looking for you. The latter often simply sees a sign in front of a property you’re representing and gives you a call. Ideally you can turn this into a new deal, but if the availability doesn’t work, you can take advantage of this time of need by documenting the client’s needs. Those needs can be used to build a deeper relationship and find other availabilities for the next go-round.
Buildings don’t always perform. Sometimes it’s a simple matter of supply and demand, and sometimes it’s long-term structural vacancy due to lagging maintenance or obsolescence. In the event of a building that’s operating at an above-market vacancy rate, owners and landlords need to act to either fill those vacancies, dispose of the building or invest in new improvements. Regardless the situation, property owners in this position are prime targets for your services. Stay on top of vacancies and regularly update your database to ensure you reap the opportunity to engage the owners who are ripe for such a conversation.
Warm leads are incredibly valuable to your business development efforts. If you pitch someone but fail to win their business, they should still be considered a warm lead. You could get a second chance if their broker fails to get the deal done. When this occurs, take advantage of the time to convince your prospect that you have what it takes to execute.
Owners that build enough equity in their assets can leverage them for the acquisition of new ones. Investment sales brokers tracking property financials are in the advantageous position to target such owners, whose probability of redeploying their equity is extremely high. Tracking property financials is vital. When filling out a comp record, be sure to fill out sale price, down payment, mortgage amount, NOI, CAP rate and cash-on-cash return.
Everyone likes to be congratulated. Congratulations on your baby, your marriage, your new home, your promotion, your…relocation? Most definitely! Celebrating your prospects’ successes is a great way to open a door to new pipeline opportunities. Track events like company expansions, mergers and acquisitions, relocations, funding rounds and major company milestones and use them as reason to reach out. Start with a congratulations, then proceed to have a human conversation, not a sales one.
Additionally, tracking non-property related milestones can help give you the context you need to insight interest when you are pursuing their business. What's more, some of those milestones could be an indicator of future property needs. Keep an eye on the news through sites like Crunchbase to track funding rounds which very well could be the catalyst for new property needs.
Selling is so much easier when your prospects solicit you to meet their needs. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were a marketplace for those looking for services that align with your specialty? Well there is: the Government RFP process, an invaluable source of new business opportunities.
You may already know that most brokers don’t spend nearly enough time prospecting—and we’re willing to bet that fewer spend time actively monitoring and following up on those leads. But if you're not consistently going after the same high-probability leads, you're leaving opportunity on the table.
By now, you should have a consistent prospecting strategy. Next, make sure you’re finishing the job by following up strategically. Here’s how to do it:
Your CRM should make it easy to follow up consistently so that you don’t leave valuable possibilities on the proverbial table. You should be able to organize your contacts into categories that make sense for your business, and you should be able to easily set reminders for when you should reach out.
If you’re worried about hassling your prospects, you can relax. When you follow up, just remember that your goal is to genuinely help the other person. And if your follow-ups are short and valuable, they’re often welcomed. People may be interested in what you have to offer, but they may not always get back to you right away, either because they’re too busy or have simply forgotten.
If you’ve already connected with the prospect (for example, with an initial phone call, email or in-person meeting), then you can and should follow up as many times as it takes to get a response. When do you stop? Only when the person gives you a definite, “No, not interested.” Before that? Keep going. This is about pleasant persistence—just keep it at a respectful frequency.
We’ll leave you with a few words of wisdom from a top broker in the Houston area.
Jon Silberman, Managing Partner at NAI Partners, is a firm believer in the power of establishing an organized, systematic prospecting process to support a pipeline for the long haul.
"I've always been a CRM guy...You can’t possibly effectively manage a big enough base of prospects without an organized system...You have to put the data in, but then you come in every day and have your list of calls you know you have to make."
He notes that if you use this system over time, you start seeing people you haven’t talked to in six months or more. Many brokers, including Jon, have lost deals because they simply forgot to follow up. Most don't like to admit it, but it happens all the time. And that’s exactly what a good system prevents—you never lose touch of your network, you never lose that deal.
Many brokers, according to Jon, are good producers, but fail to meet their potential because they lack consistency and organization. As he puts it, “If you’re one of our younger brokers and you’re not using Apto effectively, particularly if you’re one of our 20 younger brokers, you won’t be here very long.”
Most young brokers know the importance of establishing a pipeline through consistent phone calling, but how many brokers who have been in the business for 2+ decades still maintain that same level of discipline?
Jon says he still makes at least 20 phone calls every single day. Even though 75-80% of his business is through repeat clients or referrals, he still spends an hour or more each day prospecting.
"You have to go back to the basics, and do it every day and have the faith that at the end of the day, it’s going to pay off." He believes that no matter how far you are in your career, you always have to strive to build your business or you’ll be on the decline.
Jon says often that it’s these small efforts spread out over months or even years that have yielded the biggest returns. Many brokers see a lease expiration in five years and just dismiss it. But his mentality of consistency means he’ll call that prospect every single month for years. When the time comes, that prospect will say “This guys been chasing me for five years, he earned the business!”
In CRE, there are a lot of things you can’t control, maintaining the discipline to pick up the phone every single day is something you can and should control, says Jon. Eventually, it pays off. One example he remembers is a 50,000 sq. ft. office lease with a $700,000 commission. “It was from a phone call I made three years ago...from that one activity one day when I could have been doing something else."
We hope this guide helps you think about your prospecting process anew. Now that you know the strategy, we'd love to show you how Apto can make you much more efficient in prospecting and following up with your network. We have tools built just for that.