Working on a database. Photo Nico El Nino / Getty Images

Running CRM projects in unions

In September, the TUC Digital Lab ran a workshop for unions working on or considering CRM migration projects.

This is the second time we’ve covered CRM in the Digital Lab and, for the second time, it was very popular, with 40 union staff from 20 union organisations of all sizes attending, ensuring we captured a range of experiences.

These ranged from working with enterprise-class systems operated by dedicated in-house staff serving hundreds of thousands of members all the way through to smaller unions where individual staff juggle CRM among many other responsibilities. We heard from unions negotiating the extensive capabilities of brand new systems and unions grappling with underperforming, outdated systems destined to be replaced.

So why is CRM such a tough nut to crack? Here are a few reasons: 

  1. It’s a perennial challenge. Even when you’re finished, you’re never actually finished. Your systems are always changing and evolving.
  2. It has structural implications. CRM touches every part of the union, 
  3. It can lead to a conflict of mindsets. CRM can be seen as a system for the union-as-an-organisation and a system-as-a-servant-of-members-needs. These things don’t always pull in the same direction.
  4. It’s expensive. The “perfect” system costs more than you can afford and takes longer to implement than you have time for.
  5. It’s a one way street. Decisions made along the way aren’t often reversible, at least without incurring significant delays and cost overruns. Never was “proper planning prevents poor performance” truer than in a complex CRM project.
  6. There are relatively few union-specific options, and while the enormous functionality offered by generalised systems will probably cover your needs, that can feel overwhelming.
  7. It’s just really difficult! You’ll face technological, organisational and cultural challenges all at once. You’ll come out the other side, but you’ll surely bear a few new scars in the process.

The workshop broke this formidable challenge into three parts – before, during and after a CRM migration project  – with a particular focus on unions sharing the lessons they have learned in each.

To start, we took the temperature of the unions present, asking them to score their CRM out of 5, across 8 different aspects in which the system could be delivering for them:

vote chart on aspects of CRM - summary in list below

Results were:

  • The security of the system (mean 2.8, mode 3)
  • Its overall stability and reliability (mean 2.3, mode 2)
  • How well it supports the union’s data protection needs (mean 2.7, mode 3)
  • How helpful it is in understanding and delivering better member engagement (mean 2, mode 1)
  • How well it provides a “single member view” that shows all the needed information in one place when checking a member’s record (mean 2.1, mode 2)
  • Whether it has good/useful tools for reps to use directly (mean 2, mode 1)
  • How well it supports management information needs, such as dashboards and KPIs (mean 2, mode 1)
  • How well it integrates with other systems that the union uses (mean 1.8, mode 1)

Was this a deeply scientific survey? No.

Did it show that the majority of unions are pretty unhappy with the systems they’re using? Absolutely. 

(Only one union gave their system top scores, and they did so in four categories. It’s worth noting they had just completed their move to a new system).

With the state of union CRM looking somewhat shaky, we turned our minds to the task of making things better.

Our first case study came as a mid-project update from Prospect, who are currently migrating to Microsoft Dynamics. Their case study focused on getting started, and the prep work needed before you even choose a new system:

  • Mapping your union processes – who does what, when, where, how – both as they relate to the to-be-replaced CRM system and the wider pattern of operations in the union.
  • Engaging stakeholders – not too many, but nor too few – to ensure that voices from across the union are heard and that their work and experience is factored in.
  • Looking at your existing data. How is it structured? Where is it messy and needs to be cleaned? What do you want to keep, edit or discard?
  • How does your current system integrate with other systems? What are the potential knock-on effects of removing your current system and plumbing in a new one?
  • Turning this into a clear specification for suppliers so they’re able to understand what you’re looking for.
  • Going to a range of suppliers to get their general perspective and qualifications for the work and getting a feel for their fit with the project team on the union side (this will be a significant partnership, with the human factors at least as important as the technological ones)
  • Selecting a small number of potential providers to do a full proposal based on your impression of their qualifications.
  • Getting hands on demos and really taking your time with them to learn the ins and outs of the new system. Does this feel like a system you and colleagues can work with year in year out? Talk and think through your processes – is the demo showing you everything you need to see? Watch carefully for any hand-waviness from the supplier, as they’re likely glossing over something important to make the sale.
  • Negotiating an agreement, ensuring your scope is met, but leaving enough flexibility to account for inevitable change. Forgetting to include things will have cost and other implications later on.

The next presentation came from ASLEF, who completed their migration to Salesforce in 2021, and have since been broadening their use of CRM tools in the union. 

  • Getting good external help is critical in a big tech change project. This is doubly so in a smaller union, where there isn’t the scope for staff to specialise.
  • There was a lot of work to do before they even got near the tech. Working with their consultant, ASLEF spent a long time talking about the processes they would need to replicate in a CRM, and what the union needed from them. 
  • The pandemic showed the union how much it could change when it needed to. Moving so much work online so quickly wouldn’t have been thought possible before lockdown.
  • Working with a partner supplier has helped hugely. ASLEF used ImpactBox to handle all the interfacing with Salesforce, such as licensing, as well as building the tech. Making sure that relationship is a good fit is crucial for the project long term as well, doubly so for a smaller union without an extensive IT team of their own.
  • Union democratic structures can sometimes clash with change projects, such as when the rulebook specifies a particular way of working that was never envisaged to need to change in this way before. ASLEF purposely engaged elected leaders in as many of the decisions as possible, to find new ways compatible with the intent of the rules, if not always the letter. 
  • Training has been a big part of the post-launch workload. But rather than force people who did not yet see a need for the new tools, they chose to work with staff and reps who were enthusiastic and saw opportunities. Their evangelism for it was much more effective in bringing others on board than trying to mandate it.
  • The new system has enabled new ways of working, that have in turn had an impact on how jobs are structured. For example, everyone who needs to access data can do so directly now, rather than needing to ask a colleague to run reports and lists for them. This has allowed refocusing a role to manage the system and develop it forwards in the union.

The final part of the session split attendees into three discussion groups, one for before, one for during and one for after the completion of a CRM migration project.

Before starting a CRM project

The ‘before’ group discussed opportunities for mutual help around initiating a CRM project, vendor selection and collective negotiation. The discussion covered:

  • Getting backing for a project in the first place. This included persuading colleagues of the idea that change is needed, engaging the whole union, across all possible siloes in starting to work out the union’s needs and building a small working group or team to support initial exploration.
  • Deciding on a project approach. Phased approaches could be a useful way to break down a project without putting too much at risk. A less rigid approach to project management may be desirable, as the union will find out a lot as the project develops, which might alter its course.
  • Evaluating what level of integration the project will need. Many unions will need flexibility in the other systems that can talk to the CRM. APIs are a good option to enable greater flexibility in the future, rather than being locked into a smaller range of integrations.
  • Developing the union’s approach to tech purchasing. Unions don’t often buy tech at this scale, and it’s a discipline in its own right. Are there options for unions to work together to investigate options and share intelligence, when faced with such a wide market for platforms, vendors, integrations and support?

Challenges during a CRM project

The ‘during’ group contained many unions currently working on CRM projects on their own. This gave them the opportunity to raise issues happening to them right now. These included: 

  • Managing a complex project while too much other stuff is going on (strikes, ballots, the pandemic and more). This means the project team getting pulled into other projects to help out. This was acknowledged to be a difficult one – projects can be a “strategic priority”, but still subordinate to the needs of the day when, like an organisation, unions have limited resources.
  • Over-ambitious timescales and expectations. “We’ll do it in three months and will see a world of difference straight away” is tempting to believe, but rarely survives first contact with reality. That said, open-ended timeframes and minimal functionality never inspired anybody. As with many things, the right answer lies somewhere between – a pragmatic programme of change that delivers something relatively quickly, and more over time.
  • Organisational challenges. A powerful blocker in the union, a perceived lack of SMT support and too many personnel changes can all derail your CRM migration. To some extent, these are just part of the reality of long-term, large scale projects, but they need to be regularly assessed and managed. 

Improving or developing existing CRM

The ‘after’ group conversation acknowledged that CRM isn’t just a tech project with a defined end (“when we launch…”), but is instead an ongoing process. Challenges discussed included:

  • Keeping data clean and up to date. When were members last asked to update their address and other contact details? When did you last check your list of employers for duplicates and near matches? Ensuring you have a regular programme (including by engaging reps) of ensuring the quality of member data will put you in a much better position for improving your CRM work, making it more member-centric, responsive and adaptable.
  • Looking forward to the next steps. What systems do we have or want that we might now integrate with? How can we increase our capability and reduce risks (such as data lying around because it’s being manually moved from system to system)?
  • Avoiding lock-in. Many unions are in a difficult situation with their CRM providers because they’re using outdated technology, coming to the end of its life. This makes support and updates expensive and harder to come by (or at all in some cases). Keeping an eye on the overall market, the roadmap of the product(s) you’re using, the investment that your supplier is putting into it, will help ensure you’re not left behind when the (inevitable) change comes.


CRM projects are all encompassing for membership organisations. Losing members’ details, financial data, communications options and more is unthinkable for any responsible union, but ensuring a smooth migration to a new system with better functionality is enormously complex and touches almost every part of an organisation that will have, to at least some extent, built itself around its CRM software. 

There are many priorities to weigh – the varied needs of members, of organisers and reps, of staff and the organisation as a whole. Many of these priorities will at times be in opposition with one another. Choices will have to be made.  

Next steps

We asked workshop participants for ideas about what support they might need as part of their migration projects – from each other or via the TUC. 

The TUC is happy to help facilitate sessions about, or connect unions who wish to discuss:

  • What is a good vendor? What are their qualities? Who have people had good experiences working with?
  • How to: Process mapping
  • How to: Developing and sharing technical requirements
  • How to: Manage expectations and internal challenges
  • Investigating different suppliers from less familiar systems.
  • Peer support on project management
  • How to engage and ensure high level support for the project (e.g. at GS/AGS level)
  • Improving the relationship between reps and CRM

Over the coming weeks, the TUC will be getting in touch with unions who expressed an interest in these topics to convene further discussions. If one of the topics interests you, or you’ve got something to share please get in touch to let us know.

Sam Jeffers (of Join Together and The Shop) is a consultant to the TUC Digital Lab, and facilitator for the workshop series.