Although every system selection process has its nuances (over the past dozen years I’ve completed nearly a hundred with my clients), there are generally seven steps that I follow for helping associations select a new association management system (AMS).
- Identify Business Objectives – Ask yourself, what business need is driving your need for a new AMS? Is it to improve staff efficiency? Provide better customer service? Develop a deeper understanding of our members and customers through better data usage? Identifying your business objectives is critical, because at the very end of the process, the system you’ve selected will have to be able to address these objectives.
- Conduct a Needs Analysis – This is the step that most people think of when they think of system selection. Functionally, what do we want the new system to be able to do? This should cover both data points (i.e., the type of data we want to collect) as well as functionality (i.e., what the system does with the data when it’s entered, e.g., automatically sends an email when an individual is registered for an event). The needs analysis is a line-by-line listing of functionality that you require (or wish for) in a new AMS.
- Develop a Request for Proposal (RFP) – The RFP is the formal communication document between you and your selected vendors. The RFP reflects what was identified in the needs analysis, and also includes questions about the vendor itself (e.g., how long have they been in business, how many clients do they have, what version of the product are they presenting to you, etc.).
- Identify Potential Vendors – While there are nearly 100 companies that claim to provide membership management software (and over 40 that I personally keep track of), not all of those companies are appropriate for your needs. This means you should NOT send your RFP to every potential vendor you identify. You need to narrow your list to no more than five or six good potential vendors. You can narrow your list by contacting potential vendors by phone or email, explaining your general needs and budget, and asking them if they think you’re a good potential fit. Most vendors will tell you immediately if you are not a good fit, and you’ll save yourself a lot of time weeding out the misfits early.
- Review the RFP Responses – Once you’ve identified your shortlist of potential vendors, the RFP is sent to them, with an appropriate amount of time allowed for reply (typically two to three weeks). When the RFP responses are received, you’ll want to score them based on the responses provided, to set up an initial “apples to apples” comparison. From review of the responses you should be able to narrow down your best choices to two or three products/vendors.
- Conduct Product Demonstrations – After your top two or three vendors have been identified, you’ll schedule product demonstrations, to get a better sense of how the product itself performs. Often product demonstrations are split into two: an introductory demo (two to three hours) to get a sense of the product, the company, and the interface; and a second, more intensive “scripted” demo, where you provide data processing scenarios for the vendor to walk through in their system, so that you can get a sense of how day-to-day operations look.
- Select a system and negotiate the contract – Following product demonstrations (and reference checks), you’ll select the system that best fits your needs. The vendor may have already provided you with a boilerplate contract. You’ll want to be sure to have the vendor update the contract with any changes or promises made during the sales process. In addition, be sure to include the vendor’s response to your RFP as an addendum to the contract.
When making a final decision on a new AMS, as the image below illustrates, your best choice will occur where functionality, price, and intangibles (e.g., vendor reputation, customer service, etc.) intersect.
Selecting a new association management system is wrought with challenges. But if you follow this time-tested process, you’ll greatly minimize the possibility of making a poor system selection.