If you had to describe the difference between a customer relationship management (CRM) system and association management software (AMS), what would you say?

Seriously—don’t feel bad if you’re not exactly sure. It’s not an easy question to answer for a lot of people, even experts that have used both for years. This might not seem like a big deal, but not understanding the difference could lead to some serious headaches for your organization.

A big part of the reason the lines are blurry is because some companies and more and more people in the association space are just using the terms interchangeably. There’s something of a historical explanation and a salesmanship ploy for this that I’ll get to shortly, but let’s try and cut straight to a helpful distinction between the two terms and the functionality they represent.

  • A CRM is software that has been designed to manage customer relationships. Its primary or core functionality is designed for sales automation, customer service, and marketing efforts. These core modules and systems also provide a foundation for building additional lines of business functions which do typically include those handled by an AMS. Examples of true, robust, mature CRM systems include Microsoft Dynamics 365 and Salesforce.
  • An AMS is software that has been designed to manage the particular needs of running an association. Its primary or core functionality is designed for member management; payments of dues and donations; course or meeting registrations; eCommerce; committee and chapter management; and all the other things associations do and need to manage that commercial enterprises do not.

Both systems collect and store data, but the heart of a meaningful distinction is what data they collect, and why.

CRM systems store data that can be used to create stronger customer relationships to increase revenue and grow a business or organization. An AMS stores data that is used to run an association, perform the day-to-day functions of your staff and serve the needs of your members.

CRM systems give you a complete view of everything your organization has done with a customer, and that information can be accessed and utilized by staff in different roles. AMS systems give you streamlined, integrated means for those different roles to actually do the work they need to do that day, like selling exhibits or promoting a membership renewal drive.

CRM systems develop customers. AMS systems serve members and staff.

We’ve written more extensively about the differences between the two in our Why You Should Expect Less From Your Association’s AMS article. Hopefully, these abbreviated descriptions help you see the core distinctions between the design and functions of a CRM and an AMS.

Why You Need To Know the Difference Between a CRM and AMS

Okay, so what? I think the biggest reason to keep the two functions straight is that your association needs, or will need, at least some core CRM functionality. Some of the organizations we connect with that are shopping around for an AMS don’t see the need for a CRM or its functionality. Others see the need and think they are getting dependable CRM functionality with an AMS vendor, when they really aren’t.

There can be a kind of complacency or dependence on the status quo that settles in for associations which goes something like: “Our membership numbers are more or less stable. They might be up or down a few percentage points year to year, but we can point to some explanations for that, like what’s happening in our economy and people’s disposable income …”

Especially with well-established associations, it’s so easy to just assume that the historical strength of your membership and the public support for your mission will continue. I believe that no matter how well-known your organization is, you will need prospecting and customer service systems.

You may not need or think you need it today, but at some point, you’ll be fighting for market share like everyone else.

There are some compelling reasons you should treat your association like a business, at least from an infrastructure and operations management standpoint.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this line of thinking, which is why more and more AMS vendors are touting and/or working to develop at least some basic CRM functionality in their offering. What has quickly happened is that many AMS providers now claim they provide CRM functionality, or they downplay the differences in their pitch and marketing materials to obscure the distinctions and make it seem like their software can do both things.

It makes a lot of sense to me why companies that don’t have true CRM capabilities would blur those lines. I’ve been working in the association space for over 20 years, and I believe this gives me a unique historical perspective on this shift. Years ago, when we committed to building a product based on Microsoft Dynamics, we had the CRM functionality that associations need, but not the robust, tailor-fit modules that associations need to function every day. We had a lot of catch up and development work to do.

For years now, Cobalt has been able to offer a true and sophisticated AMS that is built on, and integrated seamlessly with, one of the best CRM platforms in the world. So from our perspective, we can see what this struggle is like from the other side—many AMS providers aren’t built on Microsoft Dynamics 365 or Salesforce, and they are trying to play catch up in their development to build their own proprietary CRM system.

That’s a tall order, when you’re competing with the R&D budgets of Microsoft or the huge amounts of development and refinement work the big players have already polished. True integration between modules—or the lack of it—doesn’t become painfully clear until you’re trying to pull data for a task and run into a wall that needs a custom workaround. That’s why I think it’s so important to understand the real differences between the two systems and know what to ask in the vetting and consideration phase of shopping for a new platform.

What You Should Be Looking Out For With a New CRM / AMS Vendor

Finding and implementing a new system for your organization is a big undertaking, and of course you want to feel confident that you’re going to end up with the tools you need for your staff and your members at the end of the day. Let me just leave you with a couple of practical ways to put this information about distinguishing between a CRM and AMS to good use for your organization.

  1. When you’re having a conversation with a prospective vendor or going through the demo phase of shopping for a new system, if they are promising they can handle your CRM needs but aren’t pushing you for particulars on your processes and needs, I think that’s a red flag. If they have an AMS and claim to have CRM functionality, that’s something they should be really proud to showcase and show how it will serve your particular needs. If they aren’t, you should be asking why not. Their CRM functionality might not be all that robust, user-friendly, or integrated.

  2. Is a vendor giving you a really low price and promising AMS and CRM functionality? Ask them how that’s possible. We’re seeing that some vendors are trying to attract customers with a low adoption price that doesn’t actually cover full CRM functionality. It’s a version of the hidden fees game that other tech and service industries sometimes go through. Press your prospective vendor for greater clarity on what their low price covers in terms of functionality, and you’ll soon discover the layers of additional pricing for the functionality you need.

  3. If the vendor you are talking to has proprietary CRM modules, spend extra time looking at the feature sets and interface and test-driving the usability. Your staff will need these tools to work well and seamlessly with their other software, and those integrations and workflow issues will make all the difference in efficiency, your staff’s overall happiness and satisfaction, and, ultimately, your association’s ability to serve your members well. Compare what you find with the big players in the CRM field. You can do free trials of all the commercial CRM platforms, so you can test drive the basics to get a sense of the baseline even before you contact a potential partner.

A Guide to Get You There

Understanding the differences between an AMS and CRM are just one part of the puzzle when it comes to finding the right platform. Cobalt has worked with hundreds of associations like yours who are looking for the right fit for software that will serve them well. Our team has worked hard to pull together the most helpful best practices, ways to avoid process pitfalls, and insights from our collective experience and expertise in one packed resource.

Get help to think strategically and systematically through the research, selection, and presentation process.

Get a Complete Copy of the 2023 AMS Buying Guide

Take a free PDF of this guide for your team or future reference today. It has 50 insider questions for your association staff and AMS vendor prospects. Use it as a roadmap from assessment to selecting the best association management software for your team.

Send Me a Copy Now
Association Management Software 2023 Buying Guide cover image. It includes a large version of Cobalt's logo, the AMS Buying Guide title, and photograph of Cobalt's Washington, D.C. lobby.