You've made the decision to purchase a new Association Management Software (AMS) system. Now you must select the right system that fits your association's needs and budget size. The selection process is one of the most important steps in the AMS project. Unfortunately, if you select the wrong system, you will be stuck with the consequences for many years. If you heed the advice and recommendations that follow and invest the necessary resources on the front end, you will establish the foundation for a successful AMS implementation and experience.
To select the right system you need:
- Excellent Project Management
- Management Support and Staff Buy-in
- Detailed Understanding of the Association’s Current and Future Needs
- Flexibility with your Current Processes
Soon after you make the decision to purchase a new AMS system, a project manager should be assigned to make sure the association is practicing due diligence in the selection process. This person can be a current staff member who is qualified to handle the project or an outside consultant. If you are unable to dedicate the AMS project to a staff member you should seriously consider hiring an outside consultant to be your association's project manager. The consultant can handle pieces of the project or the entire process from selection through implementation.
The benefits of hiring an outside consultant include:
- Your staff can continue focusing on regular projects and responsibilities - In an attempt to cut costs, you might be tempted to add the AMS project to an existing staff member’s responsibilities. Doing so adds more risk to the overall project. When an individual has too much on their plate, they will gravitate to what they are most familiar with. This means that in many cases, the AMS project will take a back seat and will not receive the attention it deserves. When this happens, the project timeline is delayed and the association incurs higher implementation costs.
- A third party, non biased view will be able to spot inefficiencies within current processes - It’s human nature - people do not like change. While staff may disregard an AMS system because it doesn't do things “the way we have always done it,” an outside consultant will identify inefficiencies in current processes, streamline operations, and help the association implement best practices.
- Less chance for role confusion – An outside consultant will be wearing the project manager hat at all times. When someone internally is assigned this role, staff may be confused with that persons role at any given time “are they acting as membership director or project manager?”
The project manager (consultant) can help the association select the right system or partner with management and staff to manage the entire process from start to finish. The consultant will know the right questions to ask of the staff and the AMS provider. More importantly, the consultant will understand the impact of the AMS provider's answers.
Management Support and Staff Buy-in
In order for the AMS project to be successful, management and staff must be actively engaged and behind the process from the beginning. When management demonstrates through actions that "we are in this together," and answers the question "what's in it for me," staff will become vested in the process.
During the selection process, the project manager will work with a AMS task force consisting of at least one staff member from every department. The task force will eventually become AMS power users who are capable of troubleshooting problems for their department. As the project progresses, the project manager will meet with the task force on a weekly or biweekly basis to get their perspective and address any concerns they might have. Their input is also critical during the needs analysis stage.
Needs Analysis Documentation
Before you’re ready to select an AMS provider, you must know your association’s current and future needs. Again, the natural reaction of staff is to gravitate to what they know best – their current processes and procedures. They may not even realize the limitations they are placing on their thought processes because they’re not asking “what if” questions. It's important to remind staff that one of the reasons for purchasing a new AMS system is so that they can be more efficient and effective in their jobs serving members. The project manager will help staff understand the importance of asking “what if” questions. As they begin to think outside of the box and contribute to the planning process, they will begin to take ownership of the project.
The project manager will document the association’s needs using a variety of tools that may include surveys, questionnaires, and interviews. This process will help the association define “must haves” from the “nice to haves”:
- The “must haves” (critical processes)
- The “nice to haves” (wish list items that would make the user’s jobs easier)
Flexibility in the Association's Processes
For the most part, the association will only be considering established AMS providers - companies that have been in business for many years and have gone through several iterations of their software product. As a result, the processes and features built into their systems are based on industry best practices. Association executives need to be flexible in their current processes and try to adapt, whenever possible, to the AMS system's processes. Doing so will reduce the number of hours and budget for customization. More importantly, the association will experience less upgrade problems later on down the road. Upgrading after significant customization will require significant programming costs every time a new upgrade becomes available.
Customized AMS Systems
There are times (due to an association's size, scope and unique value proposition) that the situation calls for significant customization. In such cases, it is even more critical to have a strong project manager to define the scope of the project and make sure it stays on track. If custom software projects are not properly managed, the stakes are even higher. Associations should never try and reinvent the wheel. If there is a product on the market that can accomplish what you are trying to do, with some minor configuration, use it.
The Selection Process
The selection process in a nutshell consists of the following steps:
- Discovery Phase/Needs Analysis – the consultant (project manager) gets to know your association inside and out. The association's current and future needs are documented using any combination of surveys, interviews, focus groups, meetings, etc.
- Develop and Send RFPs to identified AMS providers – Incorporate the results from the needs analysis into the RFP and outline the association’s requirements for vendor proposals.
- Schedule Demos – Schedule time for an internal AMS task force (at least one individual from each functional area) to sit in on AMS demos.
- Review RFP’s – based on the RFP submissions and feedback from demos, narrow the selection down to the top two AMS providers.
- Schedule Demos for the top two AMS providers – Request that the AMS provider demonstrate processes that mirror your current processes. This is an excellent opportunity to dig deeper into the program’s capabilities as they relate to your association.
- Based on additional Q&A and Demos, select the number one AMS choice and check references – Contact several references and ask the right questions to determine their experience with the software and vendor/reseller.
- Summarize feedback from references - provide an overall recommendation to the management team.
- Request and review vendor contracts and agreements – build in the association's requirements.
- Negotiate the best possible price - As part of the selection process, your consultant will negotiate the best possible price - possibly saving tens of thousands of dollars.
- Schedule the project kickoff meeting - The meeting will include the project manager, association staff, management, and AMS provider and will set the stage for the next phase of the project - implementation.
Prior to making a recommendation for the final AMS vendor, the project manager will examine every detail regarding the AMS provider, including:
- Strength and longevity of the Association Management Software vendor - Is the company financially sound and will they be around in the future?
- Size of installed base - How many other companies are using the system and the length of time they been using it?
- Current Active User Groups - Does the Association Management Software developer proactively solicit feedback for improvement from existing users? Is there a history of incorporating some of that feedback into new versions?
- Range of modules - Is the software scaleable? In other words, is there room for growth? Can the association easily add modules in the future?
- How well does the AMS system integrate with the website and other tools? Is the system capable of integrating with e-commerce and other software products (Internet, registration, MS Office, Blackberry, EXPO CAD, etc.?) Is the e-component an out of the box solution or can it be customized to meet your eCommerce needs?
At this point, all your hard work will have paid off and your association will be ready to begin the AMS implementation with a company your association trusts, a product that fits your associations needs, and buy in from management and staff.
You’re not out of the woods yet. The implementation process is when all the work begins. You need to have a strong project manager throughout the implementation process who will:
- Be the association's eyes and ears
- Document the progress and discussions between the AMS project manager, programmers and database engineers
- Keep everyone focused on the task at hand and guard against scope creep (changes to the scope along the way that delay the project implementation and cause the project to exceed the budget)
- Make sure the association is getting what was promised in the signed contracts and agreements
- Firmly keep the AMS providers attention focused on your association - they have a tendency to get distracted with other prospects once the contract has been signed
- Monitor the hours and expenses submitted by the AMS employees
- Communicate to management any risks or concerns that arise during implementation
- Be the liaison between staff, management and vendor project managers
- Assist in the data migration process
- Manage the process closely from the kickoff to go-live date
- Assist with staff training
Going through the AMS purchase, selection and implementation process can be a stressful and overwhelming experience for most individuals. If you have the right project manager, buy in from management and staff, an understanding of your association's processes, and flexibility in the way your are currently operating, you will select the right system for your association. At the end the the project, the new AMS should:
- Improve the member/customer experience
- Increase membership value - staff will have more time to serve members and members will have access to new online tools
- Cut operating costs
- Reduce workloads
- Make jobs easier and more fun for staff
- Eliminate redundancies
- Facilitate higher income potential
- Provide management with better reporting – fewer surprises – better decision making
- Enhance operations with more automated processes – less work – more consistency