What is the difference between CRM and ERP? Where does an AMS fit into the picture? Is there a difference between a trade association and a professional association? Discover answers to these and other burning technical questions in our evolving Association Management Software Glossary. Let’s clear the air and help you and your business navigate the confusing, ever-changing world of AMS and CRM lingo, buzzwords, and hype.

AMS Glossary


An industry-specific solution built to run associations. What does the acronym stand for? Association Management Software. … Wait, no: Association Management System. … Uh. Hmmm. Is it software or a system? Trust us when we say you won’t get 100% agreement on either term. In the old days, it was almost always software, but association needs have changed along with the way we think about the tools they need to operate smoothly.

At Cobalt, we like to describe an AMS as a hybrid of a CRM and an ERP system. The AMS runs your day-to-day operations like an ERP does, but includes the customer relationship components found in a CRM. Over the years, AMS offerings have increased the depth of their CRM functionality. At the same time, other vendors are now the go-to solution for many of the accounting, website content management, learning management, and other association needs. This means that AMS software/system/solution providers have taken the opportunity to focus their efforts on better core functions of an AMS and association needs: customer relationship management, membership, and events.


Short for Customer Relationship Management, CRM is the software that businesses and organizations use to store, organize, and access all of the useful information they have about their customers and prospects. It turns out that defining what belongs in a CRM system and what doesn’t is messier than Pollock’s studio floor.

Many vendors and association organizations today use the term CRM and AMS interchangeably for some interesting reasons. If you can cut through the peripheral questions and debates, it is clear that sales pipelines and a company’s bottom line, (or member recruitment efforts and an association’s growth) all depend on a reliable, flexible CRM.

The core functions of a CRM that most people can agree on include marketing, customer service, and sales automation. In the CRM space, there are two major players with class-of-their-own research and development (R&D) budgets and the functionality to show for it: Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Salesforce.

At Cobalt, we made the decision many years ago to build our AMS and other solutions on top of Microsoft Dynamics 365. We felt that it provided a solid and extensible platform. It was also clear that Microsoft was making the CRM market a priority, so we knew that the investment in R&D would be there long term. The tight integration our tools have with the Microsoft products our clients already use has been a massive benefit to our customers. Ideally, what today’s organizations need is a solid CRM core with the flexibility to integrate sophisticated, smaller subsystems, which can be customized to meet particular needs.


Short for Enterprise Resource Planning. Along with other terms like CRM and AMS, ERP is software and a system for managing particular subsets of day-to-day business (or association/organization) functions. Which functions does Enterprise Resource Planning include, exactly? Well, much like the question who the GOAT captain of the USS Enterprise might be, there is a considerable debate. However, most people would likely say that core functions for ERP systems will include the ability to manage operations, supply chain details, operational issues, and financials.

It used to be that the lines between ERP and CRM were much more precise. Large companies shelled out big dollars for separate systems and small- to medium-sized businesses were perpetually forced to choose one or the other because of their more modest budgets. Of course, integrations were difficult and expensive making it nearly impossible for all but the largest organizations to afford.

Today, businesses and organizations have more options than they once did. Over the past few years, the integrations have become less burdensome and more cost-effective. In fact, Microsoft has moved its traditional ERP offerings (AX and NAV) under the Dynamics 365 umbrella (now Dynamics 365 for Finance & Operations and Dynamics 365 Business Central) and have made it much easier to integrate with Dynamics 365 for Customer Engagement (the new official and really long name for CRM).

Professional Association / Professional Society

These organizations, like trade associations, are typically tied to a specific industry or profession. Lots of things in life are worth saying over and over again, and this is one of them: ultimately, professional associations or societies are made up of individuals, not companies.

Advocacy and lobbying are often part of what professional associations or societies do, but they also place a heavy emphasis on education and networking (most offer some form of a job board). Many times they also provide certifications relevant to their industry. A great example of this is one of Cobalt’s customers, the Society for Human Resource Management. In addition to offering traditional association programs (membership, events, advocacy, etc.), SHRM has two levels of certification for HR professionals, setting the standard for the industry.

Trade Association

Most people lump all associations into this one category, which means, as far as terms go, it’s even more misunderstood than your average teenager’s feelings. In reality, a trade association is made up of organizations in the same industry. The dues paid by the organizations flow down to their employees (Companies don’t attend conferences, right? People do.).

Traditionally, the primary purpose of trade associations has been to promote and advocate on behalf of their industry and members. This is why you will typically see a significant policy and lobbying component at trade associations. Another key element of some of the larger trade associations is to conduct research relevant to the industry.


A useful summary of sorted, organized data your systems have collected that you will use to make decisions and improvements. What a report is hasn’t changed that much—but what has changed, drastically—is where they come from and how you can get your hands on one.

At Cobalt, we continue to find that many of our customers are working day-to-day with an old idea about “running reports.” It used to be that a professional had two options for getting a report. The first was to navigate to some specialized area of their system and “run” one. The second involved asking one of the “IT” folks to create a report they could send over.

Either avenue produced a static document which users had to print or save somewhere. If you were fortunate, you might get an Excel spreadsheet that allowed you to do some analysis of the underlying data.

Things today should be much more fluid and empower each business user directly. You should be able to pull data directly out of the system without having to ask someone else, and you should have access to powerful dashboards and tools like Microsoft Power BI or Tableau. At Cobalt, we’ve tried to embed this type of business intelligence on as many screens as practical to give business users immediate access to the metrics and data they need. No more “running” reports.


1. Vampiric, revenue-sucking, nickel-and-dime-me-for-every-tiny-thing crooks of the business world. They are chiefly known for a lack of transparency about pricing, mushy language about goods and services, and a distinctive, stinky odor under all that marketing cologne.

2. A trusted partner and advisor that understands what you are trying to do and has done the same thing hundreds of times with other organizations. People you can lean on for genuine service, tested experience, and dependable guidance that will benefit your organization.

There may well be fewer of the first variety than some C-Suite professionals believe, but what matters most, in the end, is finding vendors that are firmly in the second camp.

Get Our Ultimate Guide

Many associations are stuck with AMS or CRM solutions that aren’t working the way their staff and members need them to, but making a change is time-consuming, expensive, and complicated.

Cobalt has walked hundreds of client partners through the process. We’ve developed our Definitive E-Book Guide to Choosing a New AMS/CRM, and it’s free. We’ve packed it with best practices, step-by-step lists, and the most valuable insights we’ve gleaned after more than 20 years of experience in the association space. Get yours today.