“The club can announce that agreement has been mutually reached with head coach Andre Villas-Boas for the termination of his services,” said a Spurs statement. Agreement? Mutual? Of course not – he was fired! But for whatever reason the club and coach feel the need to “manage the truth” with euphemism and sugar-coating.

Who knew that CRM system vendors, in their own way, may be proponents of similarly euphemistic language and sugar-coating too? Well they are – I know because I was a vendor for many years, in many competitive tenders, and understand the vernacular. They’re not the “bad guys” – but let me explain why you need to interpret what they say.

The pressure on the vendors is huge. The cost of selling you a CRM solution can amount to hundreds of hours of effort, and with diminishing margins they need more than ever to close the deal to make it worth spending that time on you. That’s going to put pressure on them to tick all the boxes you put in front of them.

I do understand why charities take the approach they often do – get a consultant on board, ask them to create a scoring system, get the vendors to strut their stuff, score them accordingly and the one with the highest score wins. The problem is that can result in getting the vendor who’s best at selling, rather than the best solution for you. Of course the vendors don’t and can’t set out to mislead, but they have to get you excited about their product but without crossing the line which might lead to an encounter with the Trade Descriptions act. Of course, where to draw that line is up to them to decide, and for you to find out.

So as poacher-turned-gamekeeper, here is my CRM buyers’ guide to what the vendors really mean when they say….:

Yes“. Often expressed in the form of a tick in a lengthy Request For Proposal (RFP) against numerous features. Having spent many a night answering RFPs (or ITTs) instead of reading to my children or doing something useful, I can sympathise with the vendor who gets into the rhythm of answering Yes to everything in the ITT. They don’t mean to mislead, but it’s just impossible to give due consideration and helpful answers to 800+ feature questions when the prize is only getting onto the shortlist of suppliers. So they might as well tick the box and move on. Which means that Yes can be anything from a resounding “of course – it does that thing as a standard feature out of the box”, to “well, we could bend it to do that but it will take a few days of professional services to achieve”. And here’s the dangerous bit: sometimes the vendor might tick the box thinking “I know what I mean when I say our product has this feature, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t what they mean. But I’ll tick it anyway and my conscience is clean.” That’s the reason why this model of RFP fails to achieve its primary goal of smoking out the best solution. It just smokes out the laziest vendor.

A much better idea would be to ask the vendors to give full responses to a short set of questions such as “What is your solution’s approach to managing major gift fundraising?”, or “Describe how Gift Aid works in your solution” and so on. How to get the truth? Lengthy, feature-obsessed lists are not an effective way of finding the right system. Asking vendors to engage in a smarter, more descriptive approach is better – i.e. “explain how your solution approaches…”. And one thing I hated as a vendor was being asked to demo at short notice. But it’s a handy strategy for the buyer as it means the vendor can’t spend much time setting up a “smoke and mirrors” demo.

Cloud“. The C-word is bandied about, but it can mean anything from “we’ve got a client who hosts our [ageing] CRM product in a data centre, so yes – we’re a cloud solution provider”, to “we’re a true Software-as-a-Service vendor with a purpose-built, scalable, multi-tenant, 100% browser-based, switch-on-and-go system”. The benefits of cloud are in the latter, not so much in the former, so ask what cloud means to them.

Social media integration“. This might mean that their system simply has a field (even a user-defined field) that has been labelled “Twitter name” or similar. That’s not social media integration. You want to find out how the constituent’s social media activity can be seen and measured in the CRM, their social influence, see their tweeted messages to you in their activity history and so on. That’s what makes it useful, as opposed to demo-ware.

Analytics“. Sounds so much better than reports, doesn’t it? But there is a difference. Reports show you quantifiable, historical data. An analytical solution will help you infer unknown facts and relationships between data. For example, a report will show you your top 10 donors, whereas an analytical solution will tell you the probability of donor retention levels for various methods of acquisition. Ask to see examples of analytics as well as reports.

And finally, you need to read into what the vendor isn’t telling you, or the “sins of omission“. A vendor will rarely tell you, for example, if the typical cost for professional services vastly outweighs the product costs. Or that the significant pain and compromise that accompanies many of their implementations has resulted in litigation. Between product and services, the services are the riskiest part of any solution. And this is where quantifiable comparisons between vendors on a spreadsheet will let you down. Vendors are very different in their cultures, their values and their capability and you need to put some time into discerning which vendor is right for you. Choosing the wrong one will cost you on many fronts, so it’s a great idea to take some expert advice to make sure that doesn’t happen.