Good CRM Vendors Should Be Good Corporate Citizens, Too

Company ethics are top-of-mind for today's consumers. Whether it's the clothing they wear or the toothpaste they use, consumers want to know the products they buy are from businesses mindful of their impact on society and the environment.

Employees are consumers, too—of the products and services their company decides to buy. For many employees, software is the most common product they use daily. Customer relationship management (CRM) is one of the most purchased software types out there. In fact, according to Gartner, worldwide spend on CRM software totaled $23.2 billion in 2014.

While often it's just a few business executives researching and purchasing CRM software, many more employees will use the system, and potentially form opinions about it. This could spell trouble for companies that choose systems without corporate social responsibility (CSR) in mind—which is why execs should consider the CSR of any vendors they buy from.

We conducted a survey to learn more about how employees using CRM software feel about the importance of evaluating vendors' CSR and whether this matches how companies actually purchase. Here’s what we found.

CRM Users Care, and They’re Comfortable Saying So

The majority of CRM users (78 percent) feel it’s important, to some degree, that the software they use at work come from vendors with good corporate citizenship. This is good news, as 70 percent of executive CRM buyers say good corporate citizenship is an important factor in their purchase decision. The other one-third of buyers, however, may face some challenges.

Another key finding: The CRM users in our survey aren't afraid to speak up—73 percent say they are comfortable suggesting to their employer that they only purchase from vendors with good CSR.

In fact, many CRM users expect their company to purchase software only from good corporate citizens. For example, one says that doing so is "[the] first and foremost responsibility of an organization," while another says "it must be followed at any cost."

At the very least, company decision-makers who didn't consider the CSR of vendors when purchasing CRM software should be prepared to defend this decision. But given how strongly CRM users seem to feel, laggard companies may be risking much more than just difficult conversations.

Companies that fail to evaluate the good citizenship of vendors may find themselves with some very disgruntled employees. With so many businesses jumping on the CSR bandwagon, they might even find it hard to compete for top talent.

Executive Inaction Doesn't Go Unnoticed

A common sentiment among CRM buyers is that it's difficult to define "good corporate citizenship." As a result, they struggle to evaluate vendors for it. Some executive buyers say they never thought to consider a software vendor's CSR, even if they're ethical consumers themselves.

One buyer says: "I have never really thought of the values a company has in order to do my business. … I have ... boycotted companies for my personal beliefs, though."

Some even distrust CRM software vendors' intentions, dismissing them as "empty words, that's all. Why would any vendor be willing to demonstrate citizenship if it hurts their business?"

As a result, many buyers may avoid looking into vendors' CSR altogether.

Unfortunately, inaction (even with the best of intentions) doesn't go unnoticed by CRM users. Many respondents in our survey feel their employers don’t tell them enough about software vendors’ practices, or about the influence this had on the purchase decision.

For instance, one CRM user says that “[company decision-makers] seem to be geared toward the right direction, but the average employee doesn't know that." In other words, there may be a serious lack of communication between CRM buyers and users.

At best, this is a missed opportunity to connect with employees. At worst, embittered employees may assume companies aren’t working hard enough to evaluate vendors. Even if you already have software in place, talk to employees to get their opinions on it. This goes a long way toward showing employees they’re valued. 

CRM Buyers and Users: Trade-Offs for Software With Good CSR

4 Simple Solutions to the CSR Conundrum

1. Start the conversation. CRM users are willing to voice their thoughts and hear information, so consider enlisting employees to help research vendors and participate in early planning conversations. This helps them feel heard and valued, and makes the purchase process more transparent. It also prevents unpleasant surprises that could harm relationships with employees.

2. Make mutually agreeable tradeoffs. Some employees place more value in knowing a system is from an ethical vendor than on the features and functionality if offers. According to our data, CRM users are willing to accept a less attractive user interface (38 percent), less customization options (19 percent), and a less intuitive interface (18 percent) in exchange for knowing that their software comes from a vendor with good corporate citizenship.

When we asked executive CRM buyers what they'd be willing to sacrifice, they offer similar compromises. While acceptable tradeoffs might vary from company to company, this suggests CRM buyers do have some leeway when making purchase decisions. 

3. Place the burden of proof on vendors. It can be difficult to evaluate the CSR of software companies. But it's also reasonable to ask vendors directly about their practices. Send vendors a Request for Proposal (RFP), and add questions about their social and environmental initiatives. If asking the source doesn't pan out, don't stop there—consider checking Ethisphere's list of The World’s Most Ethical Companies. Some vendors even offer this information on their Web sites and promotional materials, so do your homework before you buy.

4. Prepare to defend your decision. Not every company can be the Patagonia of business software—you may find yourself having to settle for a company with a less-than-stellar CSR because of budget limitations or more pressing business needs. If the good corporate citizenship of software vendors is trumped by other purchase criteria, however, be prepared to defend your decision to ethics-savvy employees.

Luke Wallace is a researcher and strategist for Software Advice who has worked at Facebook, Mercedes-Benz and the American Cancer Society. Luke now focuses his time researching and writing about CRM market trends and technologies. He can be reached on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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