May 1, 2024

How to navigate the new, AI-enabled world of CRM systems

Your caseworkers think the IT system needs upgrading. Your funders are asking you to do more, with less. Everyone is talking about AI - but would it be good or bad for your organisation? We don’t have all the answers, but hopefully this is a start.

Angela Bradbury
“The CRM is too complicated for volunteers. We’ve learned how to work with it but we’re not happy.”
“We have lots of different systems in use and not much digital capability in-house.”
“We spent loads of money on a customisation that didn’t really work out. Maybe we’d be better off starting again, but it’s been so disruptive for staff already.”
“Demand for our services has shot up in recent years. There’s no way we could have enough people on the phones to meet that. We want to see if AI can help but we absolutely don’t want to replace humans with bots.”
“We hold lots of sensitive data so we need to worry about data security with anything we implement.”

Sound familiar? These are the kinds of things we hear again and again from helplines and other casework organisations. If you’re in the unenviable position of having to make decisions around this stuff, it can all feel overwhelming.

At HelpFirst, we have a unique combination of skills and experience at this intersection of casework, database tooling and AI. We’re now on our third project working with Citizens Advice Scotland - covering call routing, CRM enhancements and chatbots. 

Andy (Founder & CEO) previously supported non profits to increase their social impact through user research and no-code tools. Harriet (machine learning engineer) was a caseworker for over 10 years. Angela (COO) has led an AI safety charity, and 3 separate organisations with contact centres including one dealing with vulnerable clients.

So hopefully we can help a bit…

Do we just need to find the right CRM?

If the main issue is providing your caseworkers with information and tools to do their jobs as well as possible, then the core of this is your database, or CRM.

A good place to start is always to identify what you need to optimise for. What are the most important outcomes for your service: keeping waiting times down, or resolving cases quickly, or reliable safeguarding, for example? What’s most critical for the way your frontline teams work: do they have a set workflow? Do you need to be able to supervise them remotely? What about other business needs: does client data need to be stored securely? Do you have an agreed budget or timeline?

You’ll need to do this not just from your own perspective, but everyone this will impact and need buy-in from: IT, data governance, the board, and perhaps most importantly your frontline teams. A recent Local Government Digital Transformation Report highlighted widespread failings in consulting staff who use the technology the most, when procuring and implementing a new system.

Through consulting with representatives from each of your stakeholder groups, you can  agree on a list of ‘must-have’ and ‘nice-to-have’ features for whatever CRM system you decide to implement.

You might assume that the next steps would then be to research a bunch of CRMs and find the one that ticks all of your boxes. Well, we have good news and bad news.

The good news is that it probably is possible to get all of your boxes checked. The bad news is that it’s rare for a single CRM system to check all your boxes. There’s so much variation between organisations in terms of needs, priorities and workflows. A CRM set up for one use case won’t work for another. CRMs that are intended to be customisable tend to be expensive and unwieldy to implement and maintain, and may still not be quite as customisable as you need it to be.

“But what about AI, isn’t that about to change everything?”

Glad you asked. Let’s take a look.

How we expect AI to transform CRMs

Yes, capabilities of CRM tools are changing fast with the introduction of AI. Here are some examples:

  • Predictive Analytics. Analysing vast amounts of client data to, say, anticipate likely client behaviour, identify those likely to go quiet, and prompt some sort of intervention.
  • Conversational AI. Chatbots and virtual assistants, often powered by natural language processing (NLP). They might handle simple client inquiries, provide some level of support, and signpost to advice or services.
  • Triaging. Analysing various data points to score and prioritise cases based on, say, website interactions, demographic information, and content of initial inquiry.
  • Automated Data Entry and Updates. Optical character recognition (OCR) and NLP to reduce manual efforts and ensure accurate and up-to-date client information from, say, handwritten forms received.
  • Sentiment Analysis. Analysing client emails, social media posts, chat logs and so on to gauge their sentiment towards a brand or service. This can help to identify potential issues or opportunities for improvement.
  • Personalised Experiences. For example, tailored marketing campaigns, personalised service recommendations, and customised client journeys.
  • Process Automation. This could be assigning cases to staff members, scheduling tasks, automated reminders and so on, to improve efficiency and reduce human errors.

The problem is, products are evolving so quickly that it’s hard for any purchaser to make a decision today that is likely to be the best one for several years to come.

Waiting to see which CRM evolves to become the best fit for you comes with huge opportunity costs in the meantime. AI could free your workforce from admin and focus on the human aspects of their job. AI could mean they can help more people, faster. AI could provide a safety net to catch vulnerable clients who might otherwise fall through the cracks.

There is another way. You could combine one of the bigger CRM systems (for example, Dynamics or Salesforce), with a specialist AI-powered workflow for your use case.

Case study: Combining an off-the shelf CRM with a bespoke AI plugin at Citizens Advice Scotland

We’ve been developing a large language model trained on data from years of case notes at CAS’s Extra Help Unit. We’ve also created a CRM plugin based on this that provides ‘case notes at a glance’.

This includes:

Automated prioritisation
Easy-to-scan visual risk alerts
Case mix overview for supervisors

CAS are using Microsoft Dynamics 365, but this approach would work for any other CRM system you choose.

Our top tips in summary

  • List your stakeholders and consult with representatives from each group
  • Determine your must-haves and nice-to-haves (including features, budget, implementation timeline, and so on)
  • Consider working with a provider who can provide a specialist AI-powered workflow for your organisational objectives and specific client needs
  • Work with them to determine which off-the-shelf CRM or database to combine this with, or how to work with the one you’ve already got

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The Priority Services Register (PSR) is a key tool that energy suppliers use to fulfil their responsibilities to vulnerable customers. But there isn't just one register. Every energy company has their own PSR and the application forms vary unpredictably from supplier to supplier. 

As part of our CivTech Challenge, we’ve been researching best practice across the industry. We were left with lots of questions:

  • Why is 'restricted hand movement' a vulnerability that almost all suppliers assess?
  • Why are archaic phrases like ‘bedridden’ used?
  • Why does only one supplier check if their vulnerable customers use ‘electric showering’? 

Alas, we weren't able to fully answer these questions. But here’s a visual guide to various PSR forms, so you can get an overview of the landscape.  


We accessed PSR application forms for Ovo Energy, British Gas, SSE, Octopus, EDF, Shell and Utilita. For many other suppliers, access is restricted.

The first observation is that the application forms are extremely varied: 

  • We’ve grouped questions into categories to make things a bit easier to read, however the forms themselves come in very different structures.  Some offer all their options in one long list, some separate into smaller sections.  Some only show certain sections once a customer has selected a particular option (e.g. selecting ‘sight loss’ gets you extra questions on the Shell application).
  • Several vulnerabilities are only mentioned by one supplier. Only one asks about autism, and another asks about breathing difficulties. The following options only showed up once: ‘female presence preferred’, ‘longer time to answer the door’ and ‘bedridden’.
  • For sensory needs: ‘blind’ and ‘partially sighted’ are separate options in all the forms. 'Hearing impairment' and 'deaf' are combined in half the forms and the former is not asked at all in one. This may be contentious, as hearing impairment and being deaf are very different conditions.
  • Some suppliers include options for accessible information provision in the same form (i.e. braille, large print letters, etc.) Others link to an additional form, or do not reference it at all.
  • When temporary conditions are mentioned, only some suppliers allow the customer to select a date when they believe the condition will no longer apply.
  • Most of the forms are multiple choice, limiting to what the supplier chooses to ask about.  Occasionally the supplier (e.g. EDF) gives the customer a larger space to talk about their conditions, equipment and needs in more detail.

Next, we dive deeper into the application forms.

Medical Conditions2

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Speech impairment
Poor sense of smell/taste
Mental health
Dementia(s)/cognitive impairment
Non-English speaker
Chronic or serious illness
Partially sighted
Developmental condition
Restricted hand movement
Pensionable age
Physical impairment
Unable to answer door
Learning difficulties
Anxiety or depression
Heart condition
Living alone
Breathing difficulties
Receive disability benefits

EDF’s application form has the highest number of options related to medical conditions (20 in total) with British Gas and Utilita featuring the lowest (13).  EDF also features options which cover multiple medical conditions (e.g. 'breathing difficulties', 'disability benefits') more frequently than other suppliers. SSE has the highest number of options for learning and mental health related conditions (including 'dyslexia', 'autism', 'learning difficulties' and 'anxiety/depression').

There is some overlap within options, which could be confusing. For example, SSE lists both ‘developmental condition’ and ‘autism’ separately, even though the latter is a type of the former. Another example is the ‘mental ill health’ and ‘anxiety/depression’ options, again found in the SSE form. It is not clear if customers should tick both or only the more specific option.

All organisations feature options to indicate older age, however they specify a variety of different ages as the lower threshold, including:  60+, 65+, 'pensionable age' or 'pensioner'.  British Gas have two separate options relating to older age ('pensionable age (65 and over)' and 'age 75 and over').

There is some degree of consistency across organisations. This appears to be where specific conditions have been mentioned within the Ofgem guidance (for instance, 'restricted hand movement' appears in all but one form, in spite of the fact this is a very specific need).

Language Used

The language used across suppliers is very inconsistent. SSE uses ‘hard of hearing’ and ‘deaf’ to describe hearing loss-related needs, while other suppliers employ terms such as ‘hearing impairment’ or ‘hearing impaired’.

Some options have multiple potential meanings: ‘carer’ could refer to the respondent either needing a carer or being a carer for someone else.

All suppliers ask about speech and language difficulties and broader language barriers. However there is no shared way of asking whether a customer speaks English. Variations include: 'unable to communicate in English', 'language barrier' and 'foreign language speaker'.

‘Unable to communicate in English’ (used by Octopus and Ovo) is somewhat ambiguous. Customers might take it to mean having a different first language or having a speech condition. The requirements are quite different: with the former you could use an interpreter or multilingual support, with the latter you would need different support.

Medical Equipment3

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Stairlift/hoist/electric Bed
Heart/lung or ventilator machine
Dialysis, feeding pump automated medication
Nebuliser or apnoea monitor
Careline/telecare system
Medicine refridgeration
Water dependent
Medically dependent on showering/bathing
Oxygen concentrator
Oxygen use
MDE electric showering
Mains powered electric medical equip
Life support
Wheelchair user
Medical or other critical dependency

Options Offered

British Gas do not offer any specific options for types of medical equipment: they solely offer the generic category ‘mains powered electric medical equipment’.  All other organisations surveyed have more specific options.  These are broadly consistent across suppliers with some more limited options (e.g. ‘wheelchair’, ‘MDE electric showering’). 

Most organisations (bar British Gas and EDF) also ask about reliance on water.

Language Used

It is unclear what is meant by the ‘life support’ option used by EDF. Often the phrase ‘life support machine’ refers to a ventilator, but EDF also have a separate option for ‘heart and lung ventilators’. It could mean life support as a condition or set of needs but that seems too broad for the PSR.

Temporary Changes

In a rare show of unanimity, all suppliers offer the same options for temporary changes.

Question asked
Young adult
householder <18
Children age 5
and under
Temporary life change (bereavement/pregnancy)
Post hospital recovery

Other Questions

Question asked
Question not asked
Additional presence preferred
Regular meter readings
Move meter to support access
Extra time to answer door
Female presence preferred
Duplicate bill to family
Power of attorney
Financial difficulties


All suppliers offered the option of setting up a password or PIN. This is usually so a technician can state this password as an additional security measure on home visits. Two suppliers required a 6-letter password, one an 8-letter password and one a 10-letter password.  A final supplier did not specify length.  An unfortunate side effect of this variation is that if an individual were to move supplier, they may need to change their password and remember a new one. (Note: not shown in an infographic.)

Life Scenarios

Varying from the multiple choice standard, Shell veer into first person narratives. In their ‘Nominee Scheme’ section of the form, they feature an additional tick box option: ‘I can be easily confused and worried by communications from my energy supplier’. When asking about meter support they offer: ‘I have a prepayment meter and no-one in my household is able to safely read it or top it up’.

Accessibility Information4

Question asked
Question asked (with variations)
Question not asked
Large print letter
Alternative language: please specify
Black and white letter
Colour contrast
Arial font
Large print letter in black and white

Organisations vary on including accessibility questions on their PSR form. Ovo offers seven different accessibility options for receiving information, while Shell offers a single broad range checkbox.


Suppliers diverge considerably in what information they collect on their customers to register them for Priority Services support.

On our travels we encountered the aspiration to create a more standardised or universal PSR. Initiatives like the Vulnerability Registration Service and Experian’s Support Hub aim in this direction. In the future we are keen to explore the user experience of these services and how they aid vulnerable customers.  

In the meantime, we hope this analysis will prove useful if you are looking to improve the experience of vulnerable energy customers. Any questions or comments, contact We’d love to hear from you!

  1. SSE was acquired by Ovo Energy in 2020.  They hadn't completed their move over when we started this research and were still registering people to their PSR. We’ve included them in this analysis as their approach was interesting with many mental health and developmental condition-type questions.
  2. Some questions have been condensed in the infographics. Numbers referenced in the discussion refer to the full options as available on the questionnaires, but the infographics demonstrate a condensed version for brevity and ease of visualisation. Full original data is available on request.
  3. 'Heart/lung machine & ventilator' is the most common formulation of question regarding this equipment. However EDF separates these questions into: 'heart/lung machine' and 'ventilator'.
  4. Octopus and British Gas do not ask about accessibility. Shell only offers a general ‘accessible information’ needs tick box if the customer has earlier selected that they have a visual impairment. This does not mean they do not record this information elsewhere, where these questions did not appear on their forms we were not able to verify what (or if) they ask about accessible information.

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