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Next steps in CRM for unions: 3 years on from PCS’ Salesforce move

Over the past five years our digital projects team have been working to transform PCS, based on the back of a move to the cloud CRM platform Salesforce and Microsoft Office 365.

We started our journey with Salesforce in 2018. Initially we worked with a Salesforce partner called Fonteva. Fonteva developed membership organisation functionality with proprietary development that sits over Salesforce. But after some testing and some prototyping, we decided that we would rather go with native Salesforce and take the route of building the system out for ourselves.

One reason is that the Fonteva option got us much of the way there, but Salesforce natively is ultimately a lot more customizable, giving us more scope for the future. And secondly, the rates for licenses were a lot better when negotiating directly with Salesforce rather than through a partner. This is worth considering as ongoing licences are really the highest part of your costs in running a modern CRM.

So we certainly ended up having to do a lot more work to build our own CRM in Salesforce, working with a new development partner Zentso. But in the long term it’s saved us money and given us more flexibility going forward.


We kicked off using Salesforce in the union by using it to develop a basic branch app to support our national ballot campaign, allowing reps to log conversations with members and report on how voting levels were in their branch.

This required a fair bit of work in reconciling the new Salesforce system with the old MillerTech database, which was still the master copy for member data. But it helped us learn a lot about Salesforce and how we might work with reps in the future.

Going live

We switched to use Salesforce in January, 2020, having by then replicated the functionality we had from our previous membership system, MillerTech. We had been running MillerTech and Salesforce in parallel for a few months, copying data between the two, to give us security when it came to shifting our direct debit payments over.

Once our new payment system, built for us by Smarter Pay, was operational, we disconnected and archived the old database. We did a mass download of data and related notes from the system, and we have them still historically in case we need them under data retention policies.

Building for reps

With the January 2020 launch we also launched our new PCS Digital portal – the website where members can log in to update their details or see information about their membership.

We started by offering this to senior reps. They were an ideal audience to sign up first as they already had Salesforce logins from our branch ballot app the year before. Once things were working well for them, we could roll it out to our activists more widely, and then general membership.

In Salesforce you can have different audiences within an Experience Cloud site, which is what PCS Digital is built on. This lets you manage who sees what. So if they’re a member, they’ll see one thing. If they’re an activist, they’ll see another. If they’re a branch officer, they’ll see something else.

That let us build specific tools for different categories of member. For example, one of our first tools was member transfer – letting reps transfer members from workplace to workplace in the system. The tool is simple and generates a case in Salesforce for our support centre team to authorize. But that was the first step of getting reps onto PCS Digital to use digital tools in a proactive way.

Rapid innovation in lockdown

The pandemic and lockdowns in 2020 and 21 really threw our roadmap out the window. Until then we had been incredibly specific about what we wanted to do over the course of the next couple of years, and which new tools we would work on. And that got completely sidelined.

In an immediate response to the rise in email contact, we fast-tracked our member support and what ended up being a covid response unit. This moved member queries out from emails and into a case management system where staff could deal with the cases more efficiently.

Cases still came in via email, but a special Outlook rule forwards it onto Salesforce, which automatically creates a new case from it and associates it with that member’s CRM record. This reduces the need to chase members for a national insurance number or membership number, which they may not have to hand, and lets operators run a security check before discussing the case on the phone.

In April 2020, we launched the knowledge base in PCS Digital. You see this kind of thing everywhere now, helping members self-serve aspects of new enquiries, by referring them to relevant FAQs and guides.

It launched to handle our advice around Covid, such as what it might mean for government workers. But since we’ve expanded it into over 300 topics, aimed at different groups of members, and accessible to them based on the permissions associated with their PCS Digital account.

We’ve even used this mechanism to partner with LRD in offering their ‘law at work’ book online through PCS Digital, targeted to our reps.

It also helps with our academy module, which is the tool behind our trade union education offering. Reps can register for courses, and have their registration approved by their branch to attend. We’ve built it with a view to handling reps’ expenses in the future as well.

That module took quite a while to set up. We went through a period where we were considering using an application called Blackthorn, an app on the Salesforce AppExchange for events and conferencing. But again, we found that it was fairly limiting because it wasn’t really designed for unions. So we looked again and did it ourselves essentially, launching in June 2020.

Extending the CRM to comms

In July 2020, we moved to Marketing Cloud for our email marketing. This is a Salesforce run marketing system that directly connects with Salesforce CRM. We’ve set up a number of automations in the background to make sure that the data is synced between both the databases.

Marketing Cloud holds a subset of member data, related to communications. We replace that every day with a new sync from the CRM, which is our master copy of the data. Now our comms team us Marketing Cloud to manage emails, SMS, and contacts via Facebook Messenger and other social media streams now as well.

One thing that we’ve found that this has done is generated a heck of a lot of reporting information. So we’re now looking at implementing Marketing Cloud Intelligence. This allows us to bring a bunch of these streams together Facebook ads, Google Analytics, Marketing Cloud information, Salesforce natively, into a single stream where you can view interactions across all channels.

And our democracy…

We ran an online conference in 2021, using an offshoot of the academy module that we’d built ourselves. That let us run the conferences for all of employer groups first, and then our annual delegate conference.

Managing online motions through this long process was complicated using a new system, so for our first run at it in 2021, we modified our processes a bit, and restricted branches to submit one motion under each of four different topics. This focusing of our range of topics really helped our Standing Orders Committee to work with the new system.

We also ran the registration and delegate administration for all the different conferences through PCS Digital. We had an election module too to manage nominations to group elections, and national elections. This was all recorded and processed in Salesforce.

In 2022 we ran a hybrid conference season in Brighton. Some physical attendees, some virtual attendees to our national conference. The registration process, motions and elections were all done online as they were in the previous years. We expanded it on this year to include the auto creation of credentials and voting cards, Standing Orders Committee report, and ballot papers for block elections.

In digitising a physical event, we also included QR codes in credentials and voting cards. So instead of having to have a barcode scanner, we could use the Salesforce app on regular phones to scan QR codes and register attendees and votes.

One of the big things we encountered was the sheer volume of records that were created in Salesforce from our conference processes. Through that we have been able to develop a system where we send through records in more manageable batches to be created and then printed onto paper.

Building on ballots

2022 has been a huge year for us. We’ve had massive changes of leadership and we had to deliver a lot of things very quickly. Our Organising Hub has been a big focus here. It’s the latest update to our branch app from 2019.

We’d been working on it for a couple of years, implementing the learnings from our national consultative ballot in February 2020.

We knew that we needed a better way of recording our interactions with members and how we can prioritize members who haven’t told us they’ve voted. We got quite close to the 50% voting in the consultative ballot, but the data Salesforce was telling us for it was only around 27% when we reached the end of the ballot. So it’s quite a gap there. We went away as a digital team to ask how can we make that better?

Data cleansing was a big part of that. We created a route for reps to update personal contact details, particularly ballot addresses and employment grades, and to register that they’d spoken to a member about the upcoming ballot.

Doing things in house has helped us understand the processes and devise ways to continually improve. For example, we found an issue with accessibility for activists who had colour blindness. We had been relying on colours to code information, so we incorporated symbols as well. Where we were using a red, amber, green system, we now have a red with a cross, amber with an exclamation mark, and green with a tick.

During the data cleanse period that we held from July through to September 2022, we had over 80,000 interactions with our members confirming their data.

We made a new report available to our activists and staff, recording whether a member had told us they’d posted their ballot paper or not. That helped prioritise effort locally around who to go and speak to, or where resources were needed in bigger branches that perhaps weren’t getting many interactions yet.

And in the final ballot, across a majority of our employers, we got over the 50% threshold – an average of 51%. Our predictions based on Salesforce we were at 49%, which is a much closer prediction than we had managed before. It also puts us in a better place for re-ballots in the newyear.

Into 2023

We’ve renewed our contract with Salesforce on a long term basis, and have got a lot on our plate for next year too.

As we move into industrial action, we’ve been developing an online process to manage strike pay claims. That’s currently in development and will be released in January 2023. We’ll also look at how we can manage strike levies in our direct debit processing.

We’ll also be improving our service streams, expanding our member contact channels out to chat, WhatsApp and bots. We’ll look at web forms for cases rather than email.

And we’ll be looking to expand out our academy module to include our ULF events as well.

Key takeaways

First I’d like to draw attention to the importance of executive buy-in and leadership. We were very fortunate to have our former head of Digital and Membership, Nick McCarthy in our corner and pushing Salesforce forward over the last few years. But it’s taken a lot of effort to get everyone bought in properly, across staff and lay leadership.

I would say if you’re thinking of starting out in any CRM project, definitely make sure you have somebody on your executive committee from a lay perspective and from a full-timer perspective who understands how key this is and how it can really benefit the organization and the union going forward.

Second point would be get everybody involved. And by that I mean staff, members, and reps. One of the key things we missed early on was not engaging deeply enough with the whole range of people that that would have an interest here.

And that’s something that I wish we could go back and do again. Because what you think people need might actually not be what they really need.

Thirdly it’s important to identify people internally who can work on this stuff. I was very fortunate that Nick noticed that I was suited to this sort of work. And our team has been built over the last few years by looking for people who understand CRM – or at least have an idea of how it could work long term – as well as a union organising and campaigning perspective.

Learning and development is key for those people. You really want to throw your weight behind giving people the time to get educated. Can you get your CRM provider to help educate workers within the union, to really push development capacity.

A platform CRM like Salesforce is constantly developing and bringing out new things, so you really need to have people who are engaged with that and where it could take the union. Committing to their learning and development will repay that with real connections and good work.

Fourth point is data protection. It is really important that you speak with your data protection officers early on and engage them with new developments. You will get a perspective that perhaps you don’t have yourself. It may sometimes will limit you, but it’ll also drive innovative solutions, which is really important.

And finally, just find the right partners. Our original partner for implementing Salesforce didn’t work out for us, so we changed that and have worked with a few people over the years on Salesforce. Some have been great, some less so, and it’s always a learning experience. So when a CRM provider is suggesting partners to you in your initial meetings, try to get a flavour of whether they understand what you need as a union, because a lot of them will come from a customer- rather than a member-focused perspective.

It might be best not to sign a huge contract early on, but rather to get some experience working with them over a few months to see if they are a good fit. Early pilot projects like we did with our first branch app iteration can be a good way to get used to this.

Paul Hawkins is Head of Technology Services for PCS. This blog post is taken from a presentation to a Digital Lab webinar that Paul gave in December 2022.