Customizing Association Software: How to save time, money and avoid headaches

Chances are good that you’re either thinking about customizing your AMS or other off-the-shelf software systems, or perhaps you’re already in too deep and are scrambling to turn back time. If you’re considering doing a software customization in which you’re modifying the source code of your technology, do not, I repeat, do not make any decisions until you understand the immediate and long-term effects.

If you’re already stuck in that rattrap, then there still may be a way for you to repair the damage you’re facing.

Customization is when you modify packaged software such as your Association Management System (AMS) to “meet the needs” of your members or organization. It may sound good on the surface, but you quickly end up in deep water when you start customizing software because this custom code will likely work against you when the next wave of upgrades hits.

This article explains why NOT to customize your association software, alternative solutions to fulfill your membership needs, and what to do if you’re already drowning in the effects of customization.

The High Cost of Customization

An initial customization may cost you in the $50,000 ballpark, depending on scale and complexity. But this is chump change compared to the long-term costs of a single customization.

See, if this customization isn't compatible or on the roadmap for your vendor’s next software release, then you have to pay a developer or the vendor to do it again (aka another $50,000 or more) in order to move to the new version. And this has to be done every single time your vendor upgrades.

If you don’t pay and miss the upgrade, then:

  • Your staff could get bogged down fixing bugs and inefficient processes instead of focusing on more strategic work.
  • You could have problems integrating with the software of your vendor’s partners.
  • You may not get the vendor support you need because you’re not on the upgrade path or because their help desk isn’t familiar with your customized features.
  • You’ll have to pay your vendor to customize your system for each of the upgrades you miss. So, if you defer upgrades for five years and your vendor releases two new versions during that time, then you’ll have to pay for two rounds of customization to get current.

In short, the more custom modifications you have, chances are the more technical debt (i.e. the result of using shortcuts to meet a deadline) you’ll have to address and the more expensive it becomes to do so.

More customizations = technical setbacks = more costly it becomes to fix.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for the ripple effects of customization to end up handcuffing organizations to an outdated piece of association technology that they can’t afford to update...or abandon. Then you’re stuck making more and more customizations to just make things work until the code of your outdated AMS is so heavy that your organization as a whole is pretty much unscalable.

You’ll have to face the effects of such association technology problems head on when you can’t make positive digital advancements, pivot in response to events and opportunities, integrate with new systems, or spend money on member initiatives. This is the so-called opportunity cost of customization, i.e. what you’re not able to accomplish because of it.

Long story short, it’s best to avoid customization at all costs.

But what’s the alternative?

Configure vs. Customize

Software customization means adapting the source code of your systems, which can get expensive and requires a developer. Alternatively, software configuration allows you to:

  • Tailor the processes and functionalities of your system without changing the source code so nothing is “broken” during the next upgrade.
  • Do it yourself (or through the help of your vendor) without needing a developer.
  • Meet the unique needs of your organization and members cost-effectively with accumulating costly maintenance fees, opportunity costs, and “code debt” that you’ll have to address later.

Most packaged, out-of-the-box AMS systems and your other applications already support most of your organization’s needs and processes. You just have to configure them properly and use some “out-of-the-box” thinking that meshes well with the “in-the-box” functionalities of your different systems.

But let’s say for a minute that you’ve already made a bunch of customizations and are now stuck. What can you do to climb your way out of a customization nightmare?

How to Reel Back Existing Customization Issues

  1. Make a list of all the customizations that you’ve made to your software products.
  2. Put a dollar amount to this list. Add up what you spent on each customization in the first place + recurring costs (e.g. costs to keep up with the upgrade cycle or any integrations you may have had to do because of your customized systems ) + missed opportunities. Really understanding the cost of your software customizations will fuel your efforts to scale back.
  3. Brainstorm alternatives for each customization. It may be helpful to get key stakeholders together for a strategy session to get a big-picture view on the purpose of each modification and, if it’s necessary, how it can be achieved through configuration, process adjustments, better system integration, or other alternative approaches.
  4. Include each solution in your project plans. The alternative approaches your team decides on should be integrated into your IT strategy and roadmap. Even if you decide certain software customizations are unnecessary, then indicate any process adjustments and if appropriate, how and when you’ll be upgrading your system.
  5. Actively work on these plans to correct the effects of customization. Implement and monitor any alternative approaches to effectively de-customize your software products.
  6. Ensure you’re not making the same mistakes with any new technology you adopt.

How to Create Custom Experiences Without Customization

You may think that you need to modify your software to create a unique experience for your members. But the truth is, software customization isn’t going to help you engage your members, acquire more members, or keep them around.

There are more effective ways to create personalized and customized experiences that really make your members tick. In fact, you’re probably already capturing the information you need to accomplish this. But are you:

  • Tagging and categorizing that information correctly?
  • Segmenting it into groups based on the characteristics and behaviors of members?
  • Using that segmented information to customize your communications, newsletters, event experiences, and recommendations?

Beyond that, your information and systems need to be integrated enough to personalize your member experiences. It should be easy to tell which events a member went to, which books they’ve purchased, how many times they’ve renewed, or whatever else is important for your membership.

So, you don’t need to customize your systems to create customized member experiences. But you do need to have integrated systems and know how to make your data work for your association to ultimately tailor the experiences of your members.

Looking for help managing your association software? Cimatri can help. Learn more about our Software Assessment and how we can help you tackle your technology problems.

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