The Big Issue is on track to use Salesforce for social force

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez May 22, 2014
Chief Executive Jim Mullan explains how the cloud giant is helping it better understand its sellers

the big issue
As a London resident, I'm more than accustomed to seeing people selling the Big Issue on the streets of the capital. And although it is easy to adopt an 'ignore' attitude to those trying to flog what is now the world's most widely circulated street newspaper, it is important to remember that the vendors are people that have fallen on tough times and are trying to make money, not by begging, but by selling on a quality good to consumers. No different to any other sole trader out there.

This is what makes The Big Issue fairly unique – it doesn't try to operate in hand outs, it takes a real interest in its 'vendors' (the name it gives to the sellers of its publications) and tries its best to get them on their feet by helping them help themselves. Although the company only has about 100 employees, it works with 3,500 homeless individuals every year to get them selling the publication for their own profit.

Alongside the newspaper business, it also helps its vendors get access to healthcare, finance, housing and training. Generally what people need to make a life for themselves. It also invests in social venture funds and social enterprises, which is how it stumbled across cloud giant Last year it was searching for partner organisations that were willing to invest in an early stage social enterprise, for which the Salesforce Foundation was willing to offer up some cash. From this the relationship developed and The Big Issue began discussing with the company how its current systems, which have been run on programmes such as Outlook and Excel, could benefit from new CRM capabilities.

I caught up with Jim Mullan, The Big Issue's chief executive, at Salesforce's World Tour in London this week, where he explained that interacting with Salesforce soon made him realise that its cloud CRM application could have benefits for the business, beyond the money it was investing for social funds. He said:

“Our organisation's systems developed organically over the years and it was clear that particularly for Invest, but also in respect to the way the magazine company worked, we were going to have to find a system that would allow us to perform better with respect to customer management and fund management and begin to pull together lots of disparate information that we held across the organisation. 

“And also perhaps to think about being involved with Salesforce in a more non-traditional or less conventional way to say that if this system can manage customer relationships across many layers in really big organisations, perhaps it had the answer about how we could begin to understand and develop intelligence around our vendor network (Big Issue sellers).”

Bettering the vendor network

Over the next year The Big Issue plans to roll out Salesforce to its offices that manage the vendors, which it hopes will help create a network of informed employees that can use data to really help those on the streets selling the publication. Given the nature of its business, keeping track of a vendor can often be a tricky task – one day they may be operating in the north of England, the next they may have shifted location to London. However, keeping track of these sellers had previously proved difficult and The Big Issue employees relied upon a proactive approach and what is essentially good file management. With the use of Salesforce this should be made easier, and the benefit won't just be for the employees, but also for the sellers. Mullan said:

“We had 3,500 vendors badged last year and this is a highly transient population, so we can have vendors appear in the Plymouth

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office one week and be in the centre of London the next. Historically how this was managed was that there would be a big group email sent out asking if anyone had any information. They might get a response, they might not. Whereas, if we we had a more systematised mechanism for collecting the information that's critical, locked and managed in one system, then the capacity is there share to share that. 

“The capacity for us to make smart decisions about how we support that network better. An example might be, if we had a vendor with a mental health issue, who has been operating in the South West and moves to London, one of the things that's going to help him to manage in London is if we can flag his appearance to mental health charities or the Health Board who can support him on site because they now know he is part of that population. 

“At that point the need is met, the social mission is served, and we also have people out there making the living we want to make.”

Mullan told me that he hasn't heard many complaints about the company's rollout of Salesforce so far and that given how labour intensive the current systems are, getting the business to buy into the idea hasn't been a particularly hard sell. However, he did say that if it had just been a financial decision – e.g. we are going to use SFDC because it will save us X amount of £ over X number of months – people wouldn't be that interested. Given that he can easily show the benefits that Salesforce will have for the vendors in having a connected system that makes data sharing easy, he expects employees to be quick to adopt new practices.

He said:

“To a large extent I think culture eats strategy, and we will do quite a bit awareness raising as this process goes on. But I think I'm less concerned about culture eroding or limiting how we use this system, I think that if it was purely financially or sales driven there would be a cultural dissonance perhaps -  however we can describe that it improves us socially, financially ,operationally, how it improves us on every level, that's the thing that brings the culture with you.”

Future plans for mobile

Salesforce has harped on about its capabilities in mobile for a couple of years now – especially since it has developed a re-engineered platform in

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Salesforce 1 that is mobile first. Although The Big Issue isn't just yet rolling out the apps on mobile, it has also recognised that this could again extend the social impact of the system and has plans to get its outreach teams using them in the future. Mullan explained:

“I think the possibilities there are quite dramatic. It would probably be a useful thing for our outreach team – we have office bases throughout the UK, but we have outreach work going on in lots of other parts of the country where we don't have bases. That's serviced by outreach workers out there in vehicles. 

“For them to be able to track who they are encountering, clearing, that connectivity has all kinds of possibility. Will we use it to the degree of sophistication that has been described? Probably not. But we have enough tech-savvy kids in our organisation that are IT natives, unlike me who is an IT migrant, who will begin as the user to see what the possibilities are.”

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