Earlier this year, my colleague Chris published an article about how associations are getting the process wrong when they search for new association management software (AMS).
Often times, he wrote, an association won’t perform due diligence prior to blasting out a request for proposal (RFP), even though most vendors publish a wealth of information online that will allow you to get a basic rundown of their offerings. This due diligence will allow you to eliminate most of the vendors that don’t meet the basic requirements you seek — such as offering a responsive member portal or expertise migrating data — and save a lot of wasted time in the process.
But let’s say you’ve performed your due diligence and narrowed the list down to a few candidates. It’s now time to reach out directly to this list and establish direct communication with the vendors. This is when you ask the key questions that will drill down into an AMS provider’s core offerings and determine if they’re the right fit for your association. So what questions should you ask? Here are five:
Does it have the modules you need?
An AMS module is basically a group of functionalities or tasks that an AMS performs. Modules allow you to manage things like memberships, dues, meeting and event registration, continuing education offerings, accounting, and chapters. You want to make sure the potential system is built to handle all the critical functions for your membership-based organization, and you shouldn’t have to waste a lot of money to pay the vendor to build custom modules from scratch. In fact, I would recommend that you only choose a vendor that provides at least 90 percent of the modules you need out of the box with as little customization as possible.
Is it flexible and extendable?
Can you add custom fields into the system? Can you create custom processes and custom workflows? Can you create custom reports and custom dashboards? Can you incorporate third party add-ons? It’s very important to be able to tailor it to your organization’s needs. After all, no two associations are the same, so an AMS is going to need to be somewhat flexible and customizable. And this means that your internal system admin should be able to make most of the customizations; you shouldn’t have to return to the vendor for every tweak to the system.
Not only do you want it to be flexible enough to meet the current needs of your association, but as your business grows and your processes change, the AMS must be able to meet the needs of your changing business.
What does the post go-live support look like?
High quality support is critical, so you want to ask questions around what the ongoing relationship with the vendor will look like after it goes live. Here are a few: What type of end user support do you have? What’s your average response time to support requests? Describe your end user training. What’s the actual process for entering in support tickets? Ask for examples of how the vendor’s support team has worked with customers in the past right after they go live to ensure they have the most effective plan in place to promote user adoption of the new system.
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Another key piece of information is whether the vendor conducts AMS training over the phone/internet or if they perform the training on site. In my experience, information retention is much higher when the person conducting the training is doing so right in front of the trainee instead of on a computer screen.
What’s the AMS’s reporting capabilities?
A recent article from my colleague David expounded on the virtues of Power BI, Microsoft’s business intelligence product, and one of the most important features he highlights in that post is the fact that Power BI’s reporting capabilities are intuitive and accessible for anyone within your organization.
It used to be that any sort of business intelligence or reporting would be generated from within your IT department, but an AMS today is expected to be “IT-enabled, not IT produced.” The software should have robust dashboard and reporting capabilities that can be used by any authorized user.
Is there good vendor fit?
Whichever vendor you pick, you’re stuck with it for a long time. Not only will it handle the implementation, but then there’s the employee training and then post-go-live support. Before you enter such a serious relationship, it’s best to actually know who you’re partnering with.
One of the first questions you should ask is to meet and talk to the team who will actually be working on your account. Often times during the RFP stage you’ll only speak to high level executives who will have very little involvement in your day to day AMS implementation, and so speaking to just them will give you little insight into how the company actually works.
Once you’re on the phone with your potential teammates, there are a number of questions you can ask to better understand their processes: Do you have a clearly defined project management or implementation methodology? What’s expected from the association staff during the entire process? What type of communication does the project team prefer — in-person meetings, skype calls, email? What kind of customer support system do you have in place and what’s the average time it takes to resolve an issue?
There are, of course, plenty of other steps to choosing a vendor. One thing I didn’t even mention was the product demo, which could potentially be the single most important factor in your decision. But so often when I see associations dissatisfied with their AMS vendor, it’s because they didn’t know what questions to ask early on when red flags could be detected. Better to catch those red flags before you sign along the dotted line instead of when it’s much too late to do anything about it.
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