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What it means for CRE tech to be created by and for brokers

Jun 6, 2018

Apto screenshot 6-6-18It all started with a broker and a spreadsheet.

Or in reality, probably many spreadsheets. Tanner McGraw founded Apto in 2012 after 10 years as a broker, many of those at Marcus & Millichap. The product evolved from his own frustration with the technology—or lack thereof—that he needed to do his job well.

Today, Apto has grown and evolved well beyond our bootstrapped beginnings. And one of our biggest areas of investment has been in our product development team. Tanner still lends his expertise as Chief Strategy Officer of Apto, but not everyone working on the product has a decade of experience working in commercial real estate.

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To put the broker workflow at the center of what we build, the product team needs to talk to brokers. In person, on the phone, on the street, via email—the communication is constant and the channels varied. And it seems only fitting that we approach a relationship-driven industry by trying to build our own relationships with customers and non-customers alike.

When we say we were created by and for brokers, we’re not just referring to our founder’s origin story. Here’s how we make sure our CRM and sales tools are built for you.

What an onsite visit looks like

To understand our customer, we first go broad on CRE context. That means sitting down with teams in person to really learn what it means to make a living in the world of CRE.

In the last six months, we’ve visited more than 10 teams across the country. Here’s how it works: a handful of product team members go to the broker team office and start the day by interviewing the managing broker. We’ll talk about their day-to-day work, their habits, the technology they use, and so on. Then we’ll sit in on a team meeting to see how everyone works together and manages their business through each day and week. After that we’ll do more one-on-one time with other members of the team such as senior brokers, junior brokers, admins, transaction coordinators, etc.

Our goal is to get a thorough understanding of team functions, dynamics, and processes.

What brokers get from the experience

Now, if someone at a tech company asked you to shadow for a day, how would you react? It might seem a little weird. Even if we already have a good working relationship with them, many brokers are initially skeptical of our request to visit their office and talk to their team. They’re not sure what they’ll get out of it, or even what we’re looking to get out of it.

But once we’re there, I’m always surprised at how people open up. They like talking about their business and their team. And then as we get into the conversation, we’re able to share what we’ve seen across many other teams. We’ll often validate their processes or show them a new way of doing things. For example, we’ve seen a lot of brokers break their teams in two—one to prospect and win new business, and one to operate the business and execute deals.

And if they’re Apto customers, we can give them more insight into the product and get their feedback in the moment.

(If this sounds interesting to you, let us know! We’d love to come talk to your team. Just email product@apto.com.)

How and why we do discovery calls

Of course, we do much more than go on site with brokers. As I mentioned, those visits give us broad knowledge. But we also want to go really deep on the specifics of the broker workflow. We do that on what we refer to as discovery calls, and they typically run 30 minutes to an hour with one or two brokers.

On these calls, we’re digging into the product design and user interface (UI) to validate what we’ve done or ideate on new features. We’ll get more specific on broker type and role, the problem we’re addressing, etc. So that means we’ll talk to investment sales reps, tenant reps, and more to make sure we’re addressing everyone’s needs.

For example, when we were building deal functionality, we wanted to make sure we were right on the phases of each deal, what features and reports they would need at each stage, etc. We talked to a number of brokers, showing them different mockups and prototypes. Generally, the workflow for a deal is the same set of high-level steps, but there are important variations depending on specialty. Did the stages we had set out make sense across each one? It turns out that at the highest level, they pretty much do—at least for the 80-90% of folks we talked to. This helped us guide major decisions in the product from a very early stage in the development cycle.

Internal feedback loops bring it full circle

Then of course, there’s continual feedback through various internal channels at Apto. Each department interacts with customers and prospects in unique ways, and we’re careful to construct obvious paths for feedback in each.

For example, we talk to our sales team about who’s buying Apto and who’s not. Is there something major the product is missing that’s turning people off? The brokers who don’t buy Apto at the moment often have great insight.

Then of course account management works with existing customers every day, and often have great ideas to improve the product. Our support team is on the front lines of how people are really using Apto, and sometimes our product team will listen in on calls or review support cases to see trends.

We also embed feedback tools directly in our product. We find that some of the best feedback is given in the moment. These tools allow users to reach out to us directly without having to send a separate email, hop on the phone, or just forget to pass along the feedback altogether. We’ll combine this with our usage data to get a better view of what features brokers like, what they’re not using, and so on.

Let us know if you want to talk to us

Onsite visits, discovery calls, prospect and customer feedback—all this informs what we do and how we build tools brokers love. In the coming weeks we’ll be sharing more on how this has inspired specific Apto features, but in the meantime I’ll share my favorite story.

There’s a broker in the West who does well for himself despite the fact that he relies heavily on paper to manage his business. He’s been a broker for many years, but his primary organizational system entails dropping a file folder on the floor in front of his door. He can’t leave until the work in that folder is done.

And it works for him! But here at Apto, we’re making sure that brokers have more options. There are a lot of ways we can save you time and make you more efficient, and we’re working to get better at it every day.

If you’d like to talk more about that or have our product team pay your team a visit, let us know! Just email product@apto.com. 

Jeremy Dillingham

Written by Jeremy Dillingham

Jeremy Dillingham is Vice President of Product Management at Apto. A technology product management executive focused on bringing new and sustaining innovations to market within both SaaS and web-based applications, Jeremy is a resource for all things data and product management.

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