If there’s one thing more frustrating than working with an AMS/CRM that doesn’t meet your needs, it’s finding and implementing a new one.
After 20 years of partnering with associations, that’s one thing I’ve seen with our prospective clients over and over again. That’s why the Cobalt team has created the most detailed and strategic guide for changing your AMS that you’re going to find, anywhere. This resource walks step-by-step through the assessment, research, and selection process you’ll need to choose the best AMS for your organization. (By the way: in our guide we are going to simply use the term AMS, even though many organizations use CRM and AMS interchangeably.)
As a strategic partner with associations, Cobalt has been able to see the struggles, mistakes, and doomed shortcuts an organization like yours typically makes in this process with a level of objectivity you can’t. We’ve been watching, learning, and sympathizing with you, too, because this is not an easy, fast, cheap, or simple project — ever. Anyone who promises you otherwise is lying.
At this point, I have worked with hundreds of organizations shopping for database management software. In my experience, the companies that establish a streamlined, goal-oriented approach are much, much more likely to be satisfied with their results.
You need a detailed and proven methodology for this endeavor. We have a vested interest in helping prospective clients understand the most important factors in this decision, as well as the wisest, most efficient path forward. We sincerely hope this will be a help to you along the way. Let me know if you disagree, have questions, or find a better way to do something.
We see the same five reasons to implement a new AMS over and over again for membership organizations:
- The team is frustrated with a complex system
- Your platform doesn’t reflect today’s technology; members and staff expect more
- Your vendor charges to make small changes
- There is a lack of actionable business intelligence
- Your AMS has weak integration with other systems
At this point, you’re probably sick and tired of being reminded of at least a couple of the things on that list in your day-to-day operations. Sometimes, though, you might see some of the problems, but can’t really tell if it’s the right time to make a change.
Maybe the pain of sticking with what you’ve got seems better than the pain of making a change. That makes a lot of sense, and we see it over and over again. If you’re still wondering if the time is right for a change, read our Stay or Go: Why Change Your Association Management Software post.
Here are four other key diagnostic questions to ask:
- Is your current AMS browser-based? (It should be.)
- Is your vendor still issuing updates? (If not, that’s a bad sign.)
- Does your staff frequently have to craft workarounds for limitations in your AMS? (Not good.)
- Can you integrate with other systems? (Hint – If your AMS doesn’t have an API you’re in trouble.)
If these considerations feel like the big factors for your organization, we tackle each of these questions in more detail in a brief article you might find helpful. A while back we interviewed Wes Trochlil, President of Effective Database Management. Wes has his own deep well of consulting experience with member organizations over the last 25 years. He shared six questions that an organization should ask before switching their AMS that can help you determine if a change now is really worth the time and money.
We see this all the time, though: an organization knows, beyond a doubt, that they need a new AMS, that their current system is failing their staff and members miserably, but they put it off, sometimes for years. If that’s where you’re at, or you’re ready to see what a good process for a new implementation looks like, let’s get started!
It is so easy to take this step lightly, or short-change it. Especially if this is a project that’s been on hold for a long time, really smart, savvy organizations sometimes rush through their assessment and end up disappointed.
There’s always at least two ways to fall off a horse, though, right? Sometimes companies spend tens of thousands of dollars to hire a consultant that will guide them through this process. To make their client feel they are getting their money’s worth, the consultant delivers a specification wish list that covers every possible use case or scenario. It is thorough, and enormous, and a real threat to that organization getting paired up with the right software vendor.
The problem really becomes clear in the selection phase, so I’ll discuss it in greater detail shortly, but for now we can say that too little assessment effort or too much effort put into an exhaustive RFP at this stage are both things you want to avoid. Here’s a solid plan to help you really nail assessment.
How to Designate a Point Person for the Search
This project needs a point person and a small task force to support them. Don’t skip past the choice of the point person lightly. Some organizations just default to letting the IT director lead the charge, and that does seem like a reasonable choice. They aren’t always the best choice for this role, though.
There are a few key skills or qualities the point person should have, but the most important one, by far, is the ability to build consensus. Getting people on board for adopting this new system is critical.
If you have a candidate in mind for this lead role, ask yourself:
- Do people rally around this person?
- Do co-workers from different departments and members like this person?
- Will they be a strong asset in helping people adopt a new system?
Sometimes the best candidate for this role is an unlikely staff member. While your choice might not make sense to everyone immediately, if you choose a real consensus-building individual for this role, it will make a huge difference in collecting reliable input from stakeholders and winning them over for a smoother adoption during implementation.
Here’s a short list of other skills your point person would ideally have:
- At least a basic working knowledge of the current AMS and technology involved
- Strong analytical skills for comparing features and platforms
- Excellent organizational skills
- They always meet deadlines
- Strong listening skills
- Empathetic and kind
We’re trying to paint a theoretical picture of the ideal point person here — who comes to mind? Are there at least a few possible candidates you can put on a short list to consider?
Build a Task Force
Your point person might be a powerhouse, but they are going to need a task force to support them and represent the needs of all the major stakeholders. You can’t carry out this process by consensus, but with the right dedicated team leading the way, you can find a great fit for your organization.
The ideal task force would pull up to half a dozen staff members together with the point person to conduct the assessment and research phases of this search. Of course, it’s probably best to select a point person first and work with them to hand-pick the task force team, but here are some keys to remember in that selection process:
- Make sure different departments are represented in the task force.
- Only fill positions in the task force with staff that are open to change.
- Complement your point person’s skill set with these selections — if they are a great people person, but aren’t very organized, get someone on the task force who can handle the details.
- Try and include staff with a range of experience in your organization. Choose some veterans who remember where you’ve been, as well as some newer folks that aren’t biased by that history.
- Choose winsome individuals. There will always be push back and resistance to change from at least some of your staff. The more your entire task force is equipped to naturally create buy-in and enthusiasm within their circles of influence, the better this project will go.
- Select members who are comfortable challenging the status-quo. This is a big one. Each of the members of this task force should be primed and ready to reject the answer: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” That kind of mindset just isn’t helpful in this process. It can all too easily lead your company to pay a lot of money and spend a lot of time to have a new vendor basically build a different looking version of the same system you have now. That’s a huge waste.
Listen to your staff
Membership staff, events staff, accounting staff — they all depend on your AMS, everyday. More than any other stakeholders, they will need to live and work with whatever software you choose in the end. It would be best to listen long and well to what they have to say.
You need a solid answer to one central question:
“Next year, when you’re sitting down to use our new AMS, what does it need to do to help you succeed and serve our members better?”
That’s a great question to ask, but it might be a really hard question to answer, at least right away. If your staff has been using an outdated system, they probably don’t know what’s possible with new technology and processes. They might focus mostly on what they can’t do right now, or what their pet frustrations are with recent projects.
Your AMS shouldn’t do everything for you — it’s not a Swiss army knife — but some staff in member organizations still have those expectations. This has been one of the most significant shifts in AMS technology in recent years, and there can be a lot of resistance or hesitation to relying on multiple vendors for support, or for moving the CRM offsite and adopting a cloud-based system.
Also, every organization has employees that hate change — that want to cling to the way they’ve found to get their work done with a death grip.
Those folks are going to have allergic reactions to this question and this whole process, for that matter.
All of these potential roadblocks are okay. So long as you continue to express a sincere desire to help them work well and succeed, and press them to think hard about how and why they do each thing they do with your current AMS — you should be able to get a reliable answer to that question.
We published some ideas for engaging your staff in these conversations. We released it around New Year’s Day, so it has some evergreen encouragement to stick to your resolution for finding a new AMS this year. At the end of assessing your staff’s needs, you should have quantitative and qualitative data about specific features and processes that you will eventually be able to compare with vendor feature sets. We think capturing that information in a customized project charter is a great plan. We’ll get to those in a minute, but not before we talk about another group you need to consider in your assessment.
What do your members think?
It is so important that your staff be happy with your new AMS, but if you keep putting off an upgrade, you really stand to lose members.
Your website probably has several components that your members interact with directly when they pay for or renew memberships, purchase services, or register for events. Your old CRM or AMS has technology and limitations that the latest consumer apps far outstrip and outshine. Your members may not fully articulate this for themselves, but that clunky or buggy tech is hurting your organization’s image, ethos, and perceived relevance, big time.
As you’re assessing what your new AMS will need, find a way to survey your members. Email surveys, focus groups, phone interviews with select members — make a plan to conduct as comprehensive a survey as you can afford. Summarize their input. Try and prioritize their needs and wants.
If you can take your staff’s needs in one hand and your members’ needs in the other, you should be able to compile a detailed and dependable list of what’s most important for your new AMS to have and do. That’s good assessment you can put to use in the next phase of this project.
Set an initial budget for your AMS implementation
One of the last things you’ll need to do before launching into the research phase of this process is determining at least a ballpark budget for your new AMS implementation. In our experience with clients, they may have some idea of what they can or want to spend for a new system, but when they see what’s possible, they find additional resources for their implementation.
These projects really can range from a few thousand dollars for organizations with smaller staffs and no legacy systems that require massive data migrations to upwards of a million dollars. In the most complex scenarios an organization will need extensive customization, complicated data migration and integration, and involve multiple systems that serve hundreds of staff and hundreds of thousands of members.
You really can find some solution for every budget, but trying to put a realistic number with the essential needs you’ve identified in the assessment phase gives you a good place to start looking.
The right time for an RFP … is coming soon.
Do you need an RFP to submit to vendors? In all likelihood, yes. Do you need one at this stage of the search? Absolutely not. Earlier I mentioned that an exhaustive RFP early in the game could well ruin your chances of getting connected with the best vendor for your needs. Let me briefly explain what I mean.
What often happens is a huge specifications list is molded into a similarly unwieldy RFP and then blasted to dozens of CRM and AMS vendors.
Companies that pursue this path frequently don’t account for the overhead in responding to their massive RFP. A desperate vendor on new or shaky legs has no other choice but to fill out as many RFPs as they happen to get.
More established, stable vendors who know their market and their software will not spend the time to respond to all, or even most, RFPs that come out of nowhere.
They understand that there is a very low chance of winning that bid. So the vendors that are most likely to offer a superior, trustworthy solution and service are much less likely to show up in your responses.
Not to mention, if you receive 10 proposals that are 50 pages long, that’s 500 pages of juicy, detailed technical reading you’ll have the dubious pleasure of reading through. Your comparison matrix will be equally gigantic and difficult to see at a high level — which is exactly where you need to be thinking at this stage in the process.
Invest the time in your due diligence
What we recommend to organizations at this point is that you let your point person and task force invest some time doing due diligence. Many, if not most, of the questions that might bulk out an exhaustive RFP are already answered on software vendor’s websites.
Take your core features and needs from your assessment and compare them to what is listed on vendor websites. Believe me: a little extra time invested at this point will save your company a lot of time in the search process, and increase the odds that you will connect with a vendor that has the best fit for your organization.
This is also the perfect time to dig down and ask some broad but important questions like:
- Does a vendor you’re considering specialize in your industry?
- What kind of customer support systems do they offer?
- How deeply can they customize their offering?
- What does a timeline for implementation look like?
Many times you can eliminate a potential candidate in this early research and save everyone a lot of time and hassle. Here are five more good questions to ask a potential AMS vendor. Once you’ve narrowed things down a bit, build a list of your top 10-12 candidates.
Request a demo from your top picks
At this point it’s time to get serious about looking under the hood of the candidates that seem most aligned with what you’re looking for. One of the ways to judge the quality of a vendor and the capabilities of their software is to request a demonstration of their product. A solid AMS should be flexible and agile, and a vendor should be able to present a customized demonstration to you in fairly short order. The demo will help you to see how the interface really looks and works, as well as give you a deeper perspective on how it functions in real-time.
A typical demo might last an hour. If you’ve got 10 front-runners at this point, that’s still a big investment in your time, but you will have a much more focused group of candidates with this methodology.
Don’t get bogged down in details or the more obscure functionality of a system. You’re still just trying to ascertain and compare the major elements of any AMS — how it handles registration for events or memberships, and its e-commerce capabilities. Are there major usability red flags? Do you like the interface? You know how you handle your core processes — does their system line up with how you do things, or will it take a major customization just to accommodate your team’s needs?
At this point in the process it’s a very good time to start asking questions about the support each vendor provides. The post go-live support in particular is a critical consideration.
Build a list of questions to ask each vendor and include things like:
- What kind of end user support do you have?
- How long, on average, does it take you to respond to support requests?
- How do you describe your end user training?
- What is the step-by step-process for entering support tickets?
This post deals with these questions in more detail if you want to think more deeply about the issues they raise.
Now, finally, the time for selection has arrived. You should have less than five companies with offerings that really meet your core needs at this point in the process. You already know that their core functionality is in line with what you’re looking for; there aren’t any UX red flags; you’ve seen a glimpse of the AMS in action through their demo; so now is the time to get down to the nitty gritty of detailed specs and functionality.
Many of the basic questions that would have been included in an RFP much earlier in the process can be eliminated, so you can focus on the finer points that will really highlight the differences in these final candidates.
Now is the time to issue an RFP or ask for a formal proposal based on your requirements. Hopefully, you spent some time gathering detailed information about how your staff is using your AMS and how your members are interacting with it. Be sure to revisit that valuable information now, so it is represented in the more comprehensive proposals you are receiving.
Once you have proposals in hand, I would encourage another round of demonstrations.
Ask your top contenders to schedule a reverse demonstration with you. This one step might just be the most critical in this entire selection process for your association. When you take space to plan and execute an effective reverse demo, you give vendors a thorough walkthrough of your real needs and priorities. We have devoted an entire post to preparing for reverse demos because we believe they are so important. It is packed with practical, concrete steps you can take and questions you can ask to ensure you make the most of your time and effort for this step.
After a round of reverse demonstrations, ask vendors to tailor a custom demo of their software for your organization. This is why the reverse demo is so critical—you need to know they truly understand what you do, and what you need, and then they can prove they can meet you where you are. You’ve seen their more generic demo, but at this point in the process, vendors should be willing to put a little more time into something a little more custom. This also gives vendors a chance to show off and to show you how much they want you as a customer.
Check Vendor References
One of the last things in the process of finding a new AMS is checking the references of your top finalists. Don’t be surprised if a vendor is reluctant to hand over reference contact information earlier in the process. Their best and favorite clients don’t want to be inundated with calls from potential clients, but if you’ve come this far in the selection process, a vendor should be willing to let you hear from clients that they serve.
It goes without saying that the best thing to do is prepare your questions in advance. Use this short list as a good place to start crafting your own essential questions:
- What was the implementation process like — were there issues?
- How would you rate this vendor’s customer service?
- How often do you experience outages with your system?
- Were the final costs in line with what the vendor promised or proposed?
Present your final candidate(s) to stakeholders
In the end, you should have one or two finalists you can make a compelling and clear case to your stakeholders for choosing. The critical implementation, training, and adoption phases are right around the corner, so it’s very, very important to present your candidates well, and to listen well to what your staff and members have to say.
Answer questions they have if you’re able, and follow up with the vendor to address any outstanding issues or concerns. You’ll be paving the way to a successful implementation with any effort you spend in this conversation.
For everyone involved, especially your point person and task force members, a tremendous amount of time and energy has been dedicated to this search. Recognize and celebrate that appropriately, and make the unveiling of your final candidates the big deal that it really is for your organization. This methodology will create significant buy-in from your people, and give you peace of mind that outsourcing massive bulk RFPs cannot.
Take special pains to reiterate all the effort that went into assessing your staff and member needs. Highlight the particular ways the new system will make their work easier, more effective, and a better fit for their everyday needs. You will be presenting an AMS to them they might just grow to love.
Once you’ve made your final decision there is still a lot of work to do before your team will be up and running with the new system, but following this game plan will significantly increase the odds that you get matched up with an AMS that will meet your needs. In our archives we’ve written about some of the next steps in the process, like drafting a project charter for a smoother implementation, some best practices for migrating data, and what it takes to successfully launch your new AMS.
As a member organization, you have many options for CRM platforms that might serve your needs. Years ago, Cobalt committed to building an AMS solution that would integrate as seamlessly as possible with one of the CRM leaders in the association space: Microsoft and their Dynamics CRM (now known as Dynamics 365). It was a great choice for us, and our future clients. Microsoft has continued to lead the way in the industry, and their recent investments signify a very stable product with a cutting edge R&D effort in the years to come.
Our Membership Dynamics is an AMS solution built and refined for an organization like yours. Wherever you’re at in the search process, we are here to answer questions, and we would love to give you one of those customized demonstrations we mentioned, when the time is right for you! Contact us today, and let us know how we might be able to help.
Chris Capistran has provided strategic consulting in the association and certification industries for 20 years. He was Cobalt’s first association customer in 1996, spent 10 years managing AMS/CRM implementations after he joined the company, and currently leads their AMS product innovation.