Role of Consulting in AMS Vendor Selection

So, you’ve gotten to the point where you know you need a new Association Management System? What we’ve found through a “few” years of experience helping associations with the AMS vendor selection process is that folks typically know it’s time to make a move, but they don’t know all the pieces involved in making a good selection. 

This big picture is vital to the success of your AMS selection process and ultimately to the long-term success with the vendor and the system. How you collect, analyze, and document your criteria counts, and getting it right involves time, expertise, and some good advice. 

Finding an experienced consultant to take the reins of AMS vendor selection helps you get the ideal solution with all parts fitting together. While your internal staff continues focusing on your members and mission---concentrating on their own jobs---an outside consultant can focus on gathering the right information from staff and potential vendors, leading to the best decision for the association. 

Additionally, an experienced consultant knows what steps are needed in a selection process and will guide you through from start to selection.

Here's the 7-step “matchmaking” process that we use to find an ideal AMS system and vendor for associations and nonprofits. Our AMS consultants at Cimatri use this framework to match clients to the best vendor and system to encourage a healthy partnership in the long term.

Step #1 – Establishing the narrative & goals to begin a new AMS vendor selection

Defining—and understanding--- the goals and expectations for the new AMS partner and system is critical. What are you trying to achieve with a new system? What are the problems you want AMS technology to solve? How would a new system support the mission? And what would your perfect vendor look like?

It’s important to understand the “why" from an elevated, bird's-eye view. Engaging an outside AMS consultant can help you clarify the narrative with expert, yet objective insight. With the right consulting partner, you can identify (and even reframe) the success factors, obstacles, and desired outcomes for your new AMS and its service provider. A consulting partner can also help you with a timeline and budget to set the stage.

Laying out these goals is crucial in the later stages of your vendor management program as well. You can use them to create metrics, evaluate vendor performance, and meet deadlines.

Step #2 – Gathering and analyzing AMS requirements 

Having an outside AMS consultant brings an objective perspective and knowledge of AMS vendors that can help you focus on your most critical needs. This helps you narrow the vendor pool in a logical fashion without getting bogged down by endless requirements lists with no clear priority.

In addition to the high-level functional requirements---what it takes to get tasks done---the important peripheral requirements like integration with other systems, data, performance, reliability, scalability, user experience, and design must also be laid out.

Gathering and understanding all these criteria can be challenging and time-intensive for your internal association staff. Consultants will have a requirements analysis process in place to resolve internal discrepancies and reveal inefficiencies prior to AMS selection. This process includes examining your current technology, processes, and culture to understand your needs and all functional, technical, and implementation requirements.

You get the big picture with the right consultant. They understand and know how to communicate requirements and processes critical to your association. And they know how to craft the narrative and clarify to the vendor what they need to know about your association and how it works. 

Consultants will also take into consideration the softer, non-technical requirements, such as culture, organizational structure, and mission. These are also vital to vendor selection, implementation, and adoption.

A full picture is important to gain buy-in from all AMS users (staff and members) and ensure seamless operations for optimal member engagement using AMS technology.  

requirements gathering during AMS consulting process

Covering all bases in a Master Requirements Matrix  

At Cimatri, our AMS consultants use a Master Requirements Matrix to understand the requirements of every department or functional area to focus efforts and resources when selecting systems and vendors. The Master Requirements Matrix becomes the “living document” of your association’s needs around an AMS and its ecosystem.  Its use continues through AMS implementation and beyond as a checklist of “what did we decide about this requirement, and did we do it?” 

Understanding and documenting the requirements and your association through building the Master Requirements Matrix helps us pre-select a small field of potential partners. Our AMS consultants are closely familiar with available AMS systems and vendors and can narrow the list to meet your needs and budget. (We also use this monster document to compare vendor responses, which we will discuss in a minute). 

How do we gather the requirements for this living document?  Our AMS vendor selection consultants spend time interviewing people in each functional area. Having worked with associations for many years, we understand what is “typical” for associations and nonprofits. This helps us ask the right questions to bridge gaps and move things forward, things like:  How do you handle deferrals?  Do you offer registrations at $0 or complimentary?  How is your member engagement measured now, and how do you want it to be measured?  What information is pushed from the AMS to your website? What needs to integrate with your LMS? What reports do you need? 

Once we’ve gathered your requirements and have a holistic view of the entire technology ecosystem and the needs of stakeholders, then it’s time to put it all together into a written RFP. 

Read More: 10 Things to Consider When Choosing an AMS 

Step #3 – Crafting RFPs

Request for Proposals (RFPs) allow you to convey your requirements and get accurate bids from vendors.

It takes a serious effort on the vendor’s part to put together a thoughtful proposal in response to an association’s RFP. An experienced AMS selection consultant can issue well-crafted, crystal-clear RFP that receive high-quality responses in return. 

The key benefits of working with an outside consultant on an AMS RFP include the ability to: 

  • Tailor RFPs to elicit thorough and accurate proposals. 
  • Write requirements in a clear, complete, and consistent format that are understandable to both you and the vendor.
  • Outline preferred scope and price so vendors know how and what to bid. 
  • Effectively solicit 3 to 5 well suited vendors to avoid RFP overload. 
  • Distinguish functional requirements vs. non-functional requirements vs. processes. 
  • Answer vendor questions about the requirements.
  • Relieve you of the time-consuming task of pulling all this together.

Read More: Right-Size Your Software Selection Projects

Step #4 – Evaluating shortlisted vendors 

Once the RFPs are received from the vendors, it’s time for vendor comparison and analysis. 

Hiring an outside consultant with AMS selection expertise brings these upsides: 

  • They handle the time-consuming aspects of the evaluation process, including performing an initial in-depth financial analysis. 
  • They can advise if the vendors’ solution will fit your AMS needs and budget.
  • They can step you through an objective comparison process based on your criteria and requirements.
  • Finally, they work with you to present a sound and defendable selection of vendors to demo. 

Read More: Vendor Selection vs. Software Selection

Step #5 – Getting the most out of AMS vendor demos 

You now have a couple of AMS favorites that you want to see in action. Making use of a consultant can help you cut through the sales pitch and get details on features and functionality. 

A consultant will craft the agenda for live demos presentations to get the most out of the walkthrough. They will work with the vendors to help you get a personalized AMS software demonstration with real life use cases. They can steer the presentation, if need be, so you can see how the AMS addresses the problems and needs of your organization. 

For example, consultants can give vendors specific use cases in advance so they may come prepared to demonstrate relevant examples. This allows you to see if and how the AMS solution supports your goals from daily user workflows up to high-level executive dashboards. 

Typically, a good live product demo will focus on different functional areas, so the right people see the right things for their job functions. Key business processes will be shown as well as technical topics like integrations with other systems, data auditing, etc. And let’s not forget the conversation about support---

Mapping out AMS vendor requirements  

During this stage of the AMS vendor selection process, the consultant typically conducts the second set of interviews with the final limited set of contenders. These are interviews with the “best best-match” providers.

An experienced AMS advisor thinks about how different groups may be affected by the new system, such as remote workers and accounting. Although these are softer, non-functional requirements, they're still vital to vendor screening and successful adoption down the road.

Bringing all this together gives us the big picture, allowing Cimatri's AMS selection consultants to pre-select a small field of potential partners. Narrowing down the list means no time or resources are wasted reaching out to all players in the sea of AMS vendors.

Then, once all requirements and stakeholder needs are gathered, it’s time to put it all together into a written RFP.

Read More: Right-Size Your Software Selection Projects

Step #6 – Checking AMS vendor references the right way 

Reference checking is an invaluable, yet often neglected aspect of the “due diligence checklist” during vendor assessment. Before you get knee-deep in contract paperwork and final selection, it’s crucial to “see the receipts” and lay bare the good, bad...and what we wish we’d known. 

Obtaining first-hand knowledge and real-life insight into the performance, potential risks, partnership style, opportunities, limitations, values, and needs of potential AMS vendors allows you to predict success and how your client-vendor relationship will unfold. Not only do you want to touch base with past and current clients of vendor candidates on your shortlist, but you also want to hear from insiders in the association industry. 

You will be the one engaging references in a peer-to-peer conversation.  The consultant will make that process easier, however.  The key benefits of a consultant assisting with the reference checking process include the following: 

Objective Vendor Evaluation

Balancing out the AMS vendor’s reference list 

A good AMS consultant knows the association world and the people in it. They can compile the right mix of references, including those not on the vendor’s reference list. Supplementing the list that the clients provided with objective references uncovers the cold, hard truth and potentially some great stories.

Yes, engaging a vendor’s happy clients is helpful. But often, it's even better to track down other clients and partners if they’re out there. Well-rounded references with a range of direct personal and professional experience allow you to see beneath the surface. And if your AMS consultant doesn’t have an unbiased source in mind, they can use their network to find the appropriate person. 

Asking a strong set of questions 

The right AMS consultant will make sure you are armed with a set of questions to ensure high-quality, reliable information. These are invaluable, time-tested questions that you likely wouldn't know to ask otherwise. 

These questions can save you a lot of time, money, and energy down the road. In fact, one of my clients told me that Cimatri's reference check questions were “alone worth a month of consulting fees!”. 

Gauging the feedback you receive 

Consultants are good at evaluating situational reasoning, hard evidence, and anecdotal narratives. They can help you see behind the curtain of responses and gauge source reliability. And they know to help you draw out accurate, credible information so you can make an informed decision.

Read More: 10 Things to Consider When Choosing an AMS 

Step #7 – Reviewing contracts to set you up for success 

Once you’ve made a final selection, it’s contract time. Leveraging a consultant for this step is important. You need an expert to review vendor contracts – you cannot afford to skimp here. 

The benefits of a consultant-led review of contracts and partnership agreements include the following: 

  • Checking scope of service and contract compliance. 
  • Knowing the elements a vendor is likely to include in pricing and how to check the math. 
  • Contractually dictating consistently high levels of quality and service delivery throughout the life of the contract. 
  • Making sure there are contractual security controls, backup plans, disaster recovery, exit clauses, etc. A consultant knows what to check to mitigate risks and sets you up with favorable conditions. 

To clarify, AMS selection consultants are not your lawyers. You’ll still need a legal review of all binding contracts and vendor agreements. Nonetheless, AMS contract consulting services can save you a heap of time and trouble down the road with your AMS vendor relationship. It can go a long way in setting expectations and trust on both sides. 

Benefits of working with AMS consultant during vendor demos

Hiring the right AMS consultant for vendor selection 

Hire an AMS selection consultant with deep ties to the association and nonprofit space to help you choose the best system and vendor partner for your unique goals, needs, culture, and budget. Making the right decision really boils down to industry relationships, knowledge of all options available, and knowing what questions to ask during the requirements and reference checking processes of vendor selection, and having an organized, field-tested process in place to guide you through to a successful selection.

Cimatri‘s AMS consultants know the vendors and products well. We use our insight of the association technology market to jumpstart vendor selection for our clients. The matchmaking begins right off the bat.

Associations usually don’t have the time to get it right but can’t afford to get it wrong!  Our association IT consultants do strategic vendor analysis that most organizations aren't equipped for.

Check out our consulting solutions here or just shoot us a message. 

Our goal is to make AMS vendor selection as easy as possible for you and create a win-win scenario for our clients and the vendor.

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