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There’s an old joke you’ll often hear if you work in the association space long enough: everyone hates their current association management software until they get their next one. While I think this joke over-exaggerates the prevalence of this problem, association staff members sometimes have a love-hate relationship with their current AMS, and the thought of learning an entirely new system is nothing short of daunting.

At some point every association must seek out new software. Perhaps you’re getting less and less functionality or your members are complaining. Or your relationship has soured with your current vendor. Or maybe you’ve just hit the seven-year mark with your current AMS and you want to perform your due diligence to explore what cutting-edge technology you’re missing out on.

Whatever your reasons for seeking out a new AMS, the selection process can quickly become overwhelming, so much so that it’s easy to reach the end of the journey only to end up with buyer’s remorse because you failed to ask the right questions.

In the past 17 years working at Cobalt, I’ve witnessed hundreds of organizations shop for and retain database management software, and in my experience those who established a streamlined, goal-oriented approach were the most likely to be satisfied with their final decision. As a vendor, I’ve always been on the outside looking in, but I believe this gives me a unique and fresh approach to this topic. Though this approach may vary depending on the size of your organization and its needs, here’s a general framework for how you should go about selecting a new AMS.

Getting Staff Input when Choosing an AMS

Membership staff. Events staff. Marketing staff. All interact with your AMS on a day-to-day basis and all will be forced to live with whatever software you choose. So your first step should be to approach these stakeholders and discuss with them their current pain points and their wish list for the kind of functionality they’d like to see. If your organization is small enough, you might be able to group all these people in a single conference room and brainstorm in real time on a white board. If your organization is too large for such a task, then you can either schedule a series of meetings or send out a survey from a tool like SurveyMonkey, which allows you to ask both quantitative and qualitative questions.

The chief aim during this meeting is to answer one question: A year from now, when you’re using your newly-minted AMS, what would qualify it as a success? The goals you lay out should be quantifiable and easy to measure.

Consult with Your Members

Every AMS has an external-facing component, usually through the association’s website where members go to renew their memberships, register for events, and purchase services. You can use a survey tool to gather initial feedback and then, once you’ve read through their answers, schedule follow-up calls with a select few so they can expand on their feedback.

Establish a Point of Contact and Develop a Project Charter

The AMS selection process can’t be carried out by consensus; there needs to be a point person who will handle the bulk of the legwork and serve as the go-between for the association and potential vendors. Once you’ve selected that person, have him or her write a project charter that incorporates all the feedback you received from both your internal staff and members. As we’ve written elsewhere, the project charter is a document that establishes “high-level objectives and achievable, measurable success criteria that will help structure the project and steer it in the right direction.” You will use it as your guiding light as you begin researching potential vendors and find yourself facing an overwhelming onslaught of information.

Establish an Initial budget for Your AMS Implementation

I say “initial” here because often an association will go out with a budget in mind only to come across must-have technology that forces it to increase the amount it’s willing to spend. The cost of a new AMS can range wildly from a few thousand dollars if you have a small staff with simple business process and no legacy system to migrate massive amounts of data from to upwards of a million dollars if you require extensive customization, integration and data migration from one or more complex systems. There is a solution for every budget, so you should establish a range and have your priorities in order.

Do Your Due Diligence Research

Now, all the steps I’ve listed up until this point aren’t really controversial and are considered best practices for selecting any new software. But often it’s the next step that sets an association off on the wrong path. More often than not, you’ll see an organization immediately jump from the brainstorming stage to crafting a massive RFP (request for proposal) that contains hundreds of questions, many of them superfluous and unnecessary. They then blast it out to dozens of vendors. This is a terrible strategy for two reasons:

  1. It wastes the vendor’s time: Any vendor with a well established brand and sales pipeline isn’t going to spend the time it takes to fill out hundreds of questions (most of them redundant and obvious) if it doesn’t have a reasonably good chance of winning the work. If I receive an RFP that was sent to 10 other companies I don’t bother responding. I only have so many hours in the day.

  2. It wastes the association’s time: For every vendor you inundate with hundreds of questions you’ll have to spend that much time reading them. And the fact is that the answers to those questions, most of which could be found on the software company’s website, don’t really give you the true insight you need to make a decision.

Instead of relying on an RFP system that has very little practical purpose, take advantage of the plethora of information widely available on the internet and do your due diligence. This means taking the core features listed on your project charter and comparing them to publicly-listed offerings on vendor websites. Most AMS companies are more than willing to conduct an hour-long demo of their product for any qualified leads, so once you’ve narrowed your list down to fewer than 10 vendors, reach out and request one.

This is also a good time to dig deep and ask the questions that really matter: Does the vendor specialize in your industry? What customer support systems do they offer? What’s the level of customization? How long will it take to implement?

Ask for a Proposal

By now you should have narrowed the list down to fewer than five software companies whose offerings adhere to your needs. Now you won’t be wasting anyone’s time when you request a formal proposal from this final list. You also won’t need to ask hundreds of unnecessary questions about the basic functionality of the AMS.

Request a Customized Demo

A good AMS should be agile and flexible, so any vendor worth its salt in 2015 should have the ability to show you a version that’s customized to your specific organization. This demo will give you a deeper look into its system and help you understand how it will function in the real world.

Check the Vendor’s References

This should be one of the very last stages of the selection process. Most vendors are reluctant to connect you to their references unless you’re close to a guaranteed sale because they don’t want to overburden their favorite clients with frivolous reference checks. Try not to waste the reference’s time by having your questions prepared in advance. Focus your discussion on what it’s like to work with the vendor: What was the implementation process like? How’s its customer service? How often do you experience outages?

Present to Your Stakeholders

By now you should have no more than two finalists and you can present a clear case to your association staff for which AMS you’d like to choose. Do your best to answer their questions and follow up with the vendor if there are any you can’t answer. Hopefully by the end of this process you can reach a consensus.

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Of course, by this point you’re really only at the beginning of what’ll hopefully be a 10-year journey. You’ll still have the contract negotiations to hash out, and then the implementation of the software, and finally you’ll actually have to train your staff on how to use the AMS. But at least now you’ll be able to embark on this journey with the confidence that you chose a software that actually adheres to your association and member needs. You’ll have achieved a peace of mind that no 300-question RFP will ever deliver.

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