What is an AMS system? Wait — what does AMS even stand for? Is the M for membership or management? Is the S for system or software? If we are comparing AMS vs CRM vs ERP systems, what are the differences? And most importantly: which one does your association need? Even career association executives sometimes have trouble answering these questions because the AMS CRM line is blurrier than ever.

Cobalt has been focused on the association industry since 1996 and we still hear the debate over whether associations are better off with a CRM system or a traditional AMS system. In this article, we have boiled down two things:

  1. A clear overview of the differences between an association management software (AMS) system, a customer resource management (CRM) system, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.
  2. Good questions associations can ask as they are choosing the right software system for their business processes, staff, and members.

AMS vs CRM vs ERP Definitions

Let’s start with clear definitions of the most relevant terms.

What is an AMS system?

An association management system (AMS) is software designed to run an association by providing functionality for processing membership applications and collecting dues, running events, soliciting donations, and managing committees, chapters, etc. AMS is also sometimes used to refer to “association management software” or even “association management solution.” These systems also typically include some level of accounting/bookkeeping functionality. Some AMS examples include Cobalt, WildApricot, MemberClicks, Aptify, and iMis.

What is a CRM system?

Customer resource management (CRM) software is designed to manage customer relationships by primarily providing functionality for salesforce automation, customer service, and marketing. These systems also provide a platform for building additional lines of business functions including all of those typically done by an AMS system. Some examples include Microsoft Dynamics 365, Salesforce, and SugarCRM.

What is an ERP System?

An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is software that collects and manages data for day-to-day business processes with an emphasis on finances, commerce, supply chain, inventory, operations, manufacturing, human resources, and other logistical departments of a business. Modern ERP systems integrate with other specialized software to enable rapid logistical adjustments and forecast planning for core financial business processes. Some examples of ERP systems include Acumatica, Oracle, and SAP Business One.

Why Associations Need an AMS System or CRM Software

As the needs and expectations of your members change, your association’s staff will always have a general sense of the general trends. But to truly thrive, keep ahead of renewals, reach new member prospects, and (favorably) impress your constituents, your team needs insight into the specifics of today’s trends (and what is likely coming next). That means you need a great deal of data — relevant, reliable, secure data — and the tools to make sense of it. Collecting and interpreting data about your members and anyone who might have an impact in your industry are two of the essential functions of an AMS system or CRM platform.

When the right software is tailored to your association’s business processes, goals, and core initiatives, your leadership team should be empowered with the insights and business intelligence for confident decision making. And every member of your staff should be empowered to do their work more efficiently, with significantly less frustration and errors as critical processes are automated or optimized.

Key Differences between an AMS and a CRM System

Since AMS systems and CRM systems are both built to store data, the key difference between the two is the core purpose and focus of the system.

Traditionally, the primary focus of an AMS is to store data for the purpose of running the association and performing the day-to-day functions of the organization. For example, if the primary functions of your association are membership and events, you want a system that is designed to efficiently manage the processes associated with membership applications and dues renewals as well as event setup and registrations.

CRM systems were originally designed to create better customer relationships with a focus on creating opportunities for organizations to grow. Statistics have shown that a 5% increase in customer (member) retention can increase a company’s profitability by 75% and that 80% of your company’s future revenue will come from just 20% of your existing customers. In our example above where the focus is on membership and events, a CRM system would allow you to gather and analyze data related to your members and conference attendees so you can better serve or market to them in the future.

How a CRM system creates better customer relationships is by implementing the CRM Cycle which has 3 steps: Configure, Collect & Analyze, and Capitalize.

The three steps in this infographic describe the ideal process for getting the most benefits from your CRM and its data insights. The first step is properly configuring your CRM. The second step is collecting and analyzing the data from your customers or members. The third step is capitalizing on what you learn, changing your key processes, and feeding that new data back into your CRM to start the cycle over again.

Most traditional AMS systems handle data collection and include basic reporting capabilities that are typically built around operational needs (e.g. conference registration attendee lists, badges, meal preferences, etc.). Step 2 in the CRM Cycle necessitates the ability to efficiently find and analyze the customer/constituent data that you have spent valuable staff time collecting. This is why CRM systems have robust search, business intelligence, and analytics functions built into them.

These search and export functions take many different forms based on a user’s skills, preference, function, and role at the organization. For example, Microsoft Dynamics 365 includes basic search functions and views into your data to meet basic data needs, but it also includes the ability to easily construct more complex queries that can be exported to Excel for further analysis. Dynamics 365 also includes the ability to create robust dashboards for quick insights.

This leads into the final stage of the CRM Cycle: Capitalize. Now that you’ve collected and analyzed the data, it’s time to take action and change some of your key processes or interactions with your members. This action can take many forms. If the data tells you that certain programs are more popular or profitable than others, you might shift resources to increase the reach of the more successful offerings. Maybe your data indicates that members in a certain geographic area are more engaged than others, prompting you to consider this when choosing the location of your next annual meeting. In this way you begin seeing the true power of the data you’ve collected.


Cobalt Engagement Dynamics Dashboard

Is a CRM System or an AMS System a Better Fit for Your Association?

For the organizations that we talk to (which typically have a staff of 10 to 250) the ability for a CRM system to knock Step 2 out of the park when compared to most AMS systems is the key differentiator. You can collect the data with both systems, but you cannot get to Step 3 without being able to analyze your data. This is the primary reason we believe that CRM systems can be a better fit for most associations.

This is also the reason we built our AMS system, Cobalt’s Engagement Dynamics, on top of the Microsoft Dynamics 365 CRM platform. The integration of our refined tools for associations with the strength of Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform as the driving engine for your core software stack is a tremendous asset for organizations.

Questions for Associations Evaluating AMS Systems and CRM Solutions

Our team at Cobalt has been involved in hundreds of conversations with associations trying to find the right-fit software for their needs.

If you are actively shopping for an AMS system or new CRM system take a copy of our AMS/CRM Buying Guide with you today. We packed it with insider tips and best practices that will help you at every stage of the vetting and vendor selection process: A Definitive Guide to Choosing a New AMS/CRM for Your Association. Spending just a little time with that resource will help you generate some great questions to ask as you are making your decision.

We’ve also boiled down five questions to ask a potential association management software vendor. Read more about these critical questions in that post:

  • Does this AMS system or CRM have the modules you need?
  • Is the AMS flexible and extendable?
  • What does the post go-live support look like after adopting the AMS?
  • What are the AMS system reporting capabilities?
  • Is there good CRM or AMS vendor fit with your association?

Keep Learning about the Value of AMS Systems

Whether you are a part of a well-established association that needs a new AMS system or you are doing research about a new CRM solution, we have more resources for you. Each of these is based on Cobalt’s deep experience in connecting associations with the vital information they need to make confident choices about their next AMS or CRM system and partner.

Wondering about the current cost of implementing a new AMS?
Read our post: How Much Does an Association Management System Implementation Cost?
And while you are here, check out these related resources:

AMS vs CRM for Associations: Which is Best?

Is Your AMS Really a CRM?

Stay or Go: Why Change Your Association Management Software?

Explore Engagement Dynamics from Cobalt

Would you like to see an affordable, top-tier AMS system in action? Schedule a product showcase with our team today. We will walk you through the core value that Cobalt’s Engagement Dynamics delivers every day for associations like yours. We will also make time to answer your AMS system and CRM solution questions, outline clear next steps with our team if you want to keep exploring Engagement Dynamics, and provide you with our best resources.