My property software already does key management; Why would I need a dedicated system?

If you've already got a module in your existing software that manages keys, do you really need another?

This is a really valid question that I hear a lot, so here's my comprehensive answer.  If you're a letting agent, the existing software that manages keys is usually your CRM (Customer Relationship Management) System, where you do most of your property management.

The short answer:

If you have a key book system in your CRM and it works fine (i.e. you never hear "Who has the keys" in your office, never spend time looking for keys that aren't where they were expected to be, and you have 100% confidence that you can prove who had a key at any given time) then of course there's no need to invest in a dedicated tool to help you.

But if this isn't always the case, or you're not sure, then read on....

Many people areusing dedicated Key software, in spite of their CRM's keybook

About 75%-85% of our lettings clients come to us despite having tried their CRM's key book function. Many have even gone back to pen and paper for some or all of their key processes, because they couldn't get on with the way the CRM works.

Most CRMs have some sort of key management functionality, ranging from a simple input box where you can store a key number, through to more advanced functionality, that matches or even improves what you might find in a paper log book. All CRMs are different, and some are of course better than others, so please forgive some generalisations in what follows, but here are my top 10 reasons why you still might need a dedicated system:

1. Ease of use

Computer Screen Showing Keyzapp's Search
Keyzapp is often described as "Google for Keys". Can you see the resemblance?

This one is a bit of a "catch-all", but it's probably the most important. It's that overall feel of getting what you want, when you need it. Almost everyone coming to Keyzapp from a CRM comments on how easy to use it feels.

If it isn't simple and immediately obvious what to do, then people won't use it. An early client described Keyzapp as "Google for keys", which we're pretty proud of - It's always clear what you need to do next, and you get the right information at the right time.

Here are a just 3 things that make a dedicated Key Management system easier to use:

  1. Guided processes that are tailored to you - Everyone manages keys slightly differently, but a good dedicated system will fit to the way you want to work in your office, asking only for information that you need, and making it clear what to do next.
    Keyzapp's Sign Out Guided Process
  2. Physical Scanning - More on this later, but in the context of ease of use, scanning a key tag makes signing keys in and out faster and more accurate.
    Consider this scenario: You come back to your desk and find someone has dropped back a set of keys. With your CRM system, you have to first open your CRM app, move away from what you were doing, look at the keys to identify them in some way, by looking up the number or figuring out the address and searching, often then clicking through to the key module, before signing the key back in. With Keyzapp, by contrast, you just take the key and scan it (in most cases you don't even need to open the app), and check it back in.
  3. Clarity of experience - With a dedicated system, you're there for one job only, to look up keys and your whole experience is tailored to that task. An example of this might be colour coding key statuses, or flagging reservations so you can see at a glance if there are any issues you need to take care of.

Because CRM systems have to do hundreds of different tasks, they generally can't provide same clarity and ease of use as a dedicated system.

2. Scanning keys for quick identification and proof of presence

Adding scanning to key tags means that you can interact with them much easier. As I've shown above, it makes processes like issuing and returning keys much faster and simpler. But there's more than just this...

It also adds a high degree of accuracy - I've seen many occasions where people mistakenly hand out the wrong key to a team member or contractor, only for them to visit the property and return because they can't get in. This round trip wastes everybody's time (45-60 minutes or more isn't uncommon) and can also make you look pretty silly if you've turned up to a viewing with the wrong keys. If you scan the keys as you hand them out, you get a visual confirmation that those are the right keys for the right job. You can even have a confirmation sent to the person receiving the key to validate that they have indeed been given the right key.

A third, very powerful advantage of modern smart fobs, is that they work on mobile phones, meaning that you can track keys outside of the office. If Jenny meets Sanjay at the property and gives him the keys, a simple scan will log that the keys have changed ownership and Sanjay is now responsible. These are the sorts of things that are very hard to track using a traditional CRM, and they are exactly the sort of scenarios that lead to arguments back at base about who did what and when.

3. Clear auditing of who's done what

This is a big one. Being able to know, with a high degree of accuracy, who did what and when will make everyone more accountable in your business. CRMs really struggle with this when it comes to key management.

The classic scenario is that someone looks up a property in your CRM to find the key number. They then go to your key cabinet to get the key and rush out of the door, forgetting to sign the key out. Now you have no record of who has that key and you're out of compliance with just about every property code of conduct out there.

A properly set-up dedicated key system will help you avoid this. The very fact that someone searches for a key is logged, so you can see immediately if a key was looked up but not signed out, and who did it. You can then train that specific team member. If a key is missing, you know who the last person to look for it was. Our clients are often amazed by the difference this makes to the way their staff take care of keys.

When you factor in that the dedicated system is generally much easier to use, those looking up the key are far more likely to sign out the key correctly, because it is so trivial to do.
This can be enhanced further if you choose to add a dedicated key computer or "kiosk" right next to the cabinet, so people can lookup and sign out keys, at the same place, at the same time.

4. Tracking the right information

This one's a bit of a bugbear of mine, as I'm actually surprised by how many CRMs don't even track the right information to let you manage your keys effectively. In my mind there are 3 key pieces of information you need to track, besides the key itself:

  1. Who has it (Some CRMs only track "In" or "Out" - Useless!)
  2. Who gave it to them, and when (Always good for understanding context, and a second person to call on if something goes wrong)
  3. When it is due back - An absolute must, but for reasons that escape me, a large number CRMs ignore it. If you know when a key is overdue, you can take action. If you don't, you probably won't.

Going beyond the basics, there are other things many CRMs ignore - for example, does it ensure that you can properly contact the actual person who has your keys? It's all very well to check out keys to "British Gas", but British Gas is a big company- how do you hope to chase it if you don't know who you gave it to?

5. Chasing Keys Back

Many CRMs have some basic Text/Email/Alerting capability, but few, if any, extend this to their key system. A good dedicated key system will handle the chasing of keys automatically. Most people think it's much nicer to have an apologetic contractor turning up with their late keys, than to have to remember to chase them. Evidence suggests that a good chasing system will work on around 80% of your contractors, leaving you with only the handful of "usual suspects" to chase. Knowing who isn't following your process, is also pretty handy when making decisions about which contractors to use....

6. Organising your keys: Key codes and key storage

If there's one thing I've learned in the last 5-or-so years focusing on nothing but key management, it's that almost everyone has a slightly different way of organising their keys. Sometimes, this is borne out of necessity (e.g. If you manage a lot of HMOs you'll have different needs than if you focus on let-only single lets). Other times, it's just because different people think and work in different ways (we're all different after all!).

Every CRM I've seen will do one of two things:

  • EITHER it will enforce its own draconian numbering system on you, which is totally inflexible and forces people to "work around" its foibles
  • OR it's way too permissive, giving you just a simple box to fill out for "Key Reference", leading to every member of staff filling it in slightly differently, and resulting in long-term inconsistency and confusion. Customers using this type of CRM regularly find themselves with 2 properties having been given the exact same key code

A good dedicated key system understands both how you store and how you code your keys, making it extremely easy to add new keys without introducing problems. Not only does this mean that you get the labelling system that makes most sense for your business, and that everything is done consistently, it comes with added benefits, for example:

  • Suggesting which hooks on your key wall are free, when you add a new property
  • Noticing that when you add a second set of keys for the same property, that they should probably hang on the same hook as the first (if this is indeed what you want)

Some CRM systems don't even allow for you having 2 sets of keys for the same property and that these sets might be slightly different. How many of us have a basic set for a tenant, and then a management set which has extra shed keys, window keys and such like? Shouldn't we be able to track when each type of set is given out, and to whom?

7. Managing all the nuances of real-life key management

Most people look at managing keys and think, "How hard can it be"? "It's either in, or it's out, right?". As agents we know that it's never quite that simple! However, your poor CRM provider needs to give you the tools to manage all aspects of your business, and they rarely have time to delve right into the nitty gritty.

With keys, the devil is in the detail - it's in the nitty gritty where things most often go wrong. Most CRMs understandably can't go down to this level. Here are a couple of examples:
• Tenant Keys need to be managed completely differently to the keys that are in the office. We need to record what the tenant has, and when we gave them out, but we don't keep track of them day to day. While keys are with tenants, we don't want them leaving an unused empty hook in our cabinet, but we do want to know that they are out. At the end of the tenancy those keys come back into our position, and we might need to give them out temporarily to a whole host of people; staff for viewings, cleaners, inspectors etc.
• Transfers between people Not all situations are as simple as a key being signed out or in, sometimes it moves between people, and as I've already mentioned, this is a prime opportunity for us to lose track, if our system can't cope with it
• Master, Suited and Communal Keys. Sometimes one set opens multiple doors in a building. Other times, you can't enter the property unless have the communal gate key AND the property. This sort of thing is particularly common when managing large blocks or HMOs.
• Reserving Keys There is nothing more frustrating when someone turns up for a pre-arranged visit (e.g. Gas inspection) only to find that you gave out the key 5 minutes ago, to someone who has just gone across town. A good dedicated system will allow you to reserve keys and stop them going out.

8. Moving keys between offices or departments

If you have more than one office in your agency, then you may well see the scenario where people pick up the keys from office A, only to return them to office B. This is you offering great customer service, but what a nightmare to keep track of! Your staff might mark the key as signed-in in the CRM, but actually it's in a completely different place. Your dedicated Key Management system will ensure that it's very clear exactly where that key is now stored, even if it's only on a temporary basis.

It's also not uncommon for keys to move around during the lifecycle of a property. When you first take on the property, your front office team need all the keys. Once let, your management office takes over. This sort of thing is second nature in the dedicated system, but how many hoops do you need to jump through to make sure your CRM knows what's happened?

9. A key log that's really usable

So you're capturing all that data about your keys, but how easy is it to properly put that data to use? CRMs can traditionally only provide you with fairly limited reporting on your keys (and of course some are better than others). Others provide you the information, but you've got to delve in report builders to get it. Worse, they might export a static PDF document, that runs to many pages and is hopeless for finding information quickly.

A dedicated system should provide you everything you need when you need it, organised in the most logical way. Consider these questions and think about how well your CRM can answer them:

  • What keys are out of the office right now?
  • What keys should have been returned by now?
  • What keys do I have right now?
  • Who's had the keys to 25 London Road in the last 3 weeks?
  • How long did the cleaner spent with the keys on 14th August?

We've seen examples where contractors have been caught over-charging, because they actually held keys for fewer hours than were billed. We also had a client who sold a property, only for it to be broken into with no sign of forced entry, just days after the sale. In one click, that client could provide the authorities with a full list of everyone who had had access to any set of keys for that property over the previous month.

10. Enhance your overall client experience

We all know that poorly managed keys can lead to embarrassing mistakes that impact on your brand's hard-won credibility. We've also seen that few CRMs give you everything you need to stay fully in control. A last thing that a dedicated system can do for you is help recover lost keys a lot more easily. This type of service is especially popular for those who deal in student and professional lets.

If your dedicated system provides you with a fob that can be uniquely identified, it is trivial for an exact key to be traced, if someone finds it in the street. Some, like Keyzapp, provide a self-service option, where all someone needs to do is scan the tag on their own phone (no app required) to report a lost key.

Others still like using the phone to call us or the agency direct. In a matter of seconds, you'll know what key has been lost, who lost it, and can provide instructions for getting it back. This saves your tenants the risk of high admin fees for replacement keys.

Some agents will hand out custom-branded fobs to clients following a sale or let-only completion. The recoverability of the key incentivises the person to carry your brand around with them wherever they go, and ensure that you stay front of mind. All food for thought in this competitive market....

Conclusion: CRM vs Dedicated System, or both together?
My main purpose in writing this article is not to slate your CRM's key management capabilities, though hopefully I've shown how difficult it is for CRMs to cover all the bases that make Key Management truly successful. That said, surely the answer is to combine the best of both worlds?

This is best achieved when all the nitty-gritty of key management is handled by the dedicated system, but the right information is visible in the CRM. The very best CRMs offer a superb management experience, particularly for property managers, branch managers and directors who need to see everything that's going on with a property in one place. By contrast the overall strength of the dedicated key system is the simplicity it provides to the frontline worker, making many of the complexities I've described above feel natural and seamless.

Bringing everything together in an intelligent way means that you work in the right place at the right time, without the need to input data separately into each system. At Keyzapp we wholeheartedly believe in a wide eco system, where the agent can pick the best tools to suit them. As such, we're committed to integration with other systems and can already report events like overdue keys to any system that can receive them, as well as bring in shared property data from systems like Rezi and SME Professional.

How does your CRM measure up for managing keys? What have I missed about dedicated systems? Get in touch and let me know your thoughts.

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By Tim Hill
27th October 2019

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