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At first glance, it’s easy to conclude that Mariah Fry’s career has changed significantly in the past few years. For about a decade she worked as a public school theater teacher, and then in 2014 she joined Cobalt’s support team where she works directly with clients to troubleshoot their association management software problems. These two roles couldn’t be further apart, right?

“They’re not as different as you might think,” Fry said in a recent interview. When teaching school children, her most consistent challenge was to identify a gap in the understanding of a particular subject and figure out how to close that gap. And it turns out these skills transfer remarkably well to enterprise software support. “The job basically boils down to: let’s figure out why this is hard. You start by diagnosing what the issue is and then develop an action plan to teach the client the tasks they’re struggling with. People keep asking me if I miss teaching, but I always tell them I’m doing a lot of the same tasks, just in a very different content area.”

Work long enough in software support, and patterns will start to emerge. It turns out that association management software users often run into the same bottlenecks and problems, regardless of the industry or size of the organization, and recognizing the patterns allows Fry to quickly pinpoint the problem and address it. So we asked her to identify the three most common problems her clients encounter:

Data issues

During the implementation of any new AMS, most clients will need to migrate data from their old AMS, and invariably you’ll have cases in which not all the data transferred perfectly. Cobalt’s implementation process includes multiple opportunities to check data to find and resolve any large gaps or issues. Checking data isn’t the most exciting part of a new implementation so it can sometimes be overlooked with users saying, “it’s fine,” and then they encounter issues when the system goes live. Even with thorough engagement and checking in at implementation, there’s no way to check every single file, so some errors can slip through the cracks. In those cases it may be just a few individual records and they may not come up right away.

“When either of those cases come in, we try to figure out what’s missing,” said Fry. “How did the record get created? When did it get created. And if it wasn’t created by the system, who created it? And then we have a variety of methods to update incorrect data.”  

Finding the records and updating them is often a quick process and in many cases can even be done by the organization’s staff when they know what to look for. Determining why the records were missing or incorrect can sometimes prove trickier. Ironically, the larger issues can be easier to solve since there are more data points to use as an example and confirm the issue. The support staff can check for workflows that aren’t set up properly, incorrect source data, and manual errors, but sometimes there’s a single record that isn’t right and the information Fry’s team has doesn’t fit a known pattern. In those cases they sometimes have to wait for additional records with the issue so a new pattern can be determined and a solution developed.

Getting the AMS to perform new tasks

As people get comfortable with their AMS system and how it impacts their current tasks, they often start to think about new ways to leverage the software to meet their business needs.

One of the most common reasons clients file support tickets is that they don’t know how to get the system to perform a particular task, often one they’ve never tried before. “Someone on the membership staff might get asked by senior leadership to pull a report that includes X, Y, and Z information, and they realize there’s no easy way to do it,” said Fry. In some cases, that functionality might not exist in the current version offered to the client. “In those cases we’ll try to find a short-term workaround, and then what we end up doing is working with the tech team for a future release that will allow them to perform that task.” In other cases it’s a matter of teaching the staff how to use part of the CRM software that may be new to them or that they haven’t fully utilized before.

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As clients become more familiar with the product, they start attempting more and more ambitious tasks, and so they’re always pushing up against the limits of the CRM software. “Sometimes they’ll come to us and say, ‘Can you make the system do this?’ And we’ll say, ‘Gosh that’s a cool idea, we never thought of that.’ And then you’ll see changes to our core product that we make available to all of our clients.”

Third party problems

Cobalt’s AMS allows clients to use additional solutions and can provide integration with other vendors. It’s very common for clients to leverage third party vendors for everything ranging from private message boards to social media management (or test administration), and occasionally this integration can go awry, either on the CRM side or the third party’s. In many of those cases, Fry will call the vendor directly on behalf of the client. “For the most part, the vendors are really responsive,” she said. “They have just as much incentive as we do to solve the problem as quickly as possible.”

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Humans as a species have a tendency to fixate on when things go wrong. And since Fry only deals with clients when things go wrong, she has to sometimes stop and consider the number of client transactions that occur without incident. “You look at how many clients we have and how many pieces of data that are going between us and the third party vendors, and then you realize how infrequently problems actually occur.” And typically when there are problems it’s because the client is trying to explore the system in new ways. “Our customers are pretty savvy and creative people,” she said. “It’s amazing how often they push our assumptions about what our software can do.”

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