Breaking down CRM options for Associations

The Pros and Cons of moving to CRM at your Association

Modern CRMLots of talk about CRM these days – more so than ever it seems. How can associations leverage CRM? Where does an association start? What are the options out there for associations? This article will attempt to review the 4 most common ways that a commercial CRM application (i.e. Microsoft CRM, is utilized at associations and the advantages, risks, costs, and benefits of each.

CRM 101 – Before we jump in, let’s first review what CRM is to provide some context. CRM stands for Customer Relationship Management. In the most traditional sense, CRM helps track the entire customer relationship including sales, marketing, and customer service. Most modern commercial CRM applications have the ability to be easily extended to meet unique needs. Extending CRM is often referred to as “using CRM as a platform”. In the case of associations, this means that they can use CRM to manage membership, committees, chapters, events, speakers, expos, transactions, and more.

The Modern CRM – Better, Faster, Cheaper Unlike traditional Association Management Software (AMS), most industry leading CRM systems are provided by major software companies like Microsoft,, Oracle, and SAP. Microsoft for example spends $9 billion (that’s billion with a “b”) on product research and development.

Better Faster Cheaper

It might be difficult for an AMS vendor to keep up with what the major software companies are doing with CRM. Most modern commercial CRM systems are better, faster, cheaper. An article on written a couple of years ago helps explain the better, faster, cheaper mantra. Association executives are also looking to properly leverage better faster cheaper technology to stay competitive and further their mission. Hence the interest in the modern commercial CRM.

The 4 most common ways associations utilize CRM – CRM has been making its way into associations for many years.  Here are 4 ways CRM applications have worked their way into associations:

Standalone CRM1. Stand-alone CRM – separate from AMS: Whether an association has an AMS or not, in this scenario, the CRM is used as a stand-alone database separate from any AMS database. It is typically used as a traditional CRM. For example, tracking advertising sales for the magazine or tracking sponsorships to the annual meeting. Companies and people in CRM are not shared with the AMS which can create separate silos of data.

Still, the cost and risk can be fairly low if used for a specific task that is outside the AMS. The cost and risk might also be low at the beginning because you can simply abandon the CRM in a short period of time if it no longer meets your needs. In general though, the stand-alone CRM can be risky. What may start out as a few people at the association signing-up online for a CRM to tackle a specific sales oriented task, often ends up becoming much more as additional people gain access to the CRM and more critical data is stored in CRM.

Adding CRM users and premium features can start to add up, but the bigger costs are when the CRM stores and manages key association data outside the main AMS. When an association has some key data in CRM and some in the AMS, it often creates lots of extra manual work – especially for data error corrections and reporting. With data corrections, it is difficult to know which duplicate record is the right one. Which email address is the one we should use? From which database? On the reporting side, things get complicated quickly.  What often ends up happening is the creation of an advanced data warehouse or the creation of a grand Excel file to bring in the two data sets. Then there is lots of manual manipulation and Excel file tweaking. It can be difficult to trust the data in these reports.

Because the modern CRM systems are so easy and provide so many benefits, they quickly start to take over many data management needs at an association. What starts as an innocent online CRM trial can quickly get out of control. Be careful with a stand-alone CRM. Use it for the powerful new functionality but keep it limited to a specific purpose – maybe something that the AMS just can’t do.

CRM connected to AMS2. CRM Connected to AMS: In this case, an association has CRM and they have an AMS and the two systems are integrated together to share and synchronize key data. It is sometimes a “fix” for the above mentioned stand-alone CRM situation. This scenario also may arise when an association wants to leverage a modern CRM but they still have the AMS connected to their website for the member experience online. For example, association staff enjoy using CRM because it seems easier to use and it is right inside Outlook, but the IT department is stuck with how to get CRM connected to the association’s website for online event registration. Hence, the blend of CRM and AMS.

The reality is that this situation can have several challenges. Usually not all the data is shared. For example, the company name and address might be shared between the CRM and AMS but not every note, activity, phone call, email and transaction. For some data, you still have to go back and forth between two separate systems.

The technical integration and synchronization between the CRM and AMS can sometimes be difficult to create and touchy to maintain. In addition, a growing majority of CRM systems are in the public cloud such as or Microsoft CRM Online. Most public cloud CRM systems do not provide direct access to the database – only access via web services (and sometimes at an extra cost).

Connecting your CRM to your AMS can provide the powerful new benefits of a modern CRM while still utilizing the association specific features of the AMS. Be careful though. Plan for all potential costs such as the cost of integration, the ongoing support, and the annual software maintenance fees for both systems.

3. CRM as an AMS – with no 3rd party product add-on. In this scenario, an association has decided to retire the AMS and move all the data and business processes to CRM. The CRM is used as a platform and the association’s needs are fulfilled without a 3rd party add-on or any custom code. An association can innovate using CRM whether on their own or with the help of an experienced consultant.

With the right strategic planning and consulting, an association can build just the right amount of AMS functionality they need right within their modern CRM. The association pays just for the modern CRM without the additional cost and annual fees of add-on products. Most importantly, an association can have a better, faster, cheaper way to manage members. It is a good option for some associations; however, there are some major drawbacks. There is the lack of a web portal for online member self-service connected to CRM.  There is also the lack of AMS specific accounting features.

Portal – As powerful as CRM can be, there is no easy way to extend CRM for an online member self-service portal without advanced configuration using the platform SDK (software development kit). That means, if you want to have event registration online with the transaction and payment going automatically into CRM from the web, it will require either a custom solution or an add-on product from an independent software vendor (ISV). 

Financials – Having solid association specific financial features can sometimes be challenging to extend in CRM.  There is no out of the box credit card integration for CRM. There are a handful of 3rd party add-on products for credit card integration, but those may or may not fit into how you have built your transactions/invoices.  Also, it can be difficult to extend CRM to be a complete Accounts Receivable sub-ledger to your accounting system. This includes having the same General Ledger  account numbers and tracking general ledger detail for each transaction, payment, and refund.

The advantage to a CRM with no 3rd party add-on is that you are not contractually tied to any one particular vendor, you just have a modern CRM – most likely from a major software company (i.e. Microsoft, that has a channel of partners. This option works especially well when an association just wants to roll out CRM as an AMS for the internal association staff.  

Word of warning – good planning is essential. If an association knows they will eventually need member online self-service functionality or credit card integration, it is strongly recommended to plan that out in advance. If an association moves forward with this option on their own and configures their own meetings module in their new modern CRM and then later wants to add an ISV product for event registration online, all the work they did with CRM might not be compatible. Not only do they have to start all over again with the ISV’s event management module, the association has to move all the event data. If an association knows they will need the ISV product, it is better to start with the ISV company in the first place and use their product that is most likely pre-configured for the functionality needed. 

Other than the ISV solutions, the only other realistic option is to go custom. Find a consulting firm that can customize what you need directly on your own modern CRM – however it may be set up. You can go down this path, create the AMS features you need in CRM, and have a firm then build a custom portal for you. Again, planning is vital to keep cost and risk in check.

4. CRM as an AMS – with a 3rd party product add-on. With this option, an association gets all the full features of CRM with all the typical AMS functionality. This includes the all-important member self-service portal, credit card integration, and accounting functionality.  These solutions are from firms and ISV’s that serve the association market. They have created an all-in-one AMS system built on a commercial CRM platform.

An association buys the modern CRM and also buys the add-on product. It is usually sold as one complete package or product or hosted service. These add-on products vary in functionality from light AMS features to full AMS systems in CRM.  Doing a little homework and planning on vendors and their products can help.

Cost – This option can be more expensive than rolling out just CRM, but in the long run, if it has the features you need, it can be more cost effective. It may even have additional features that can be leveraged that the association didn’t initially consider.

Vendors – This option can lock you into a relationship with one vendor and their 3rd party add-on for CRM.  This is only an issue if the vendor doesn’t meet your expectations – so do your homework to compare user design, features, vendor reliability, deployment options (hosted or on-premise), and all related costs.

Conclusions – First off, if an association has a traditional AMS system they like and it is working for them, don’t change anything – stick with what you have. A good time to start to look at CRM options is when the traditional AMS becomes outdated, hard to use, or forces the association to stay on older technology like older versions of Outlook, Office or Windows.  Forced to stay on older technology makes it difficult to remain competitive for your members and effects the development of your core mission.

Annual Costs vs. Benefits – Associations can look at their current AMS from a cost/value point of view. Are they getting the value and benefit from all the money invested annually? You can also look at it from a competitive point of view. Do my competitors have a technological advantage? When evaluating a change, an association should not only consider the actual dollars for a new CRM but also the related benefits and return on investment.

Skype setting in CRMBenefits such as a more efficient staff, happier staff, happier members, easier and better analytics, enhanced member insight, no new hardware costs if hosted, social media monitoring (such as Netbreeze) for deeper member engagement, automated workflow, built-in disaster recovery if hosted, integrated products (such as Skype, Office, Outlook, SharePoint, Yammer), data aggregators (like InsideView), newer technology, and on and on,..

Basically leveraging better, faster, cheaper technology.


Not sure where or how to start?  Contact me for guidance and suggestions.



About WillSlade

Sharing my ideas and opinions related to technology - in particular Microsoft Dynamics CRM.
This entry was posted in AMS, Association Management Software, CRM, SystemSelection, xRM and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Breaking down CRM options for Associations

  1. Pingback: CRM Confusion: The Double Definition of CRM | will.i.crm

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