The Most Common Issues with AMS Systems (and How You Can Fix Them!)

Staring at your computer screen, you take a deep breath as your finger hovers over your mouse, mentally preparing for a grueling hour of laborious and frustrating work.


If this is the feeling you get when opening up your association management software (AMS), we probably don’t have to tell you that your organization might have a serious problem—but we will anyway.

AMS pain pointsUnfortunately, for many organizations, a scenario like the one above is the reality for employees working in their membership software system every day. Software can be annoying but tolerable (remember the little paperclip “helper” from Microsoft Word?), but if it starts to actually stand in the way of progress for an organization and steal time from employees, it might be time to assess your options for implementing a new AMS.

Before going shopping for a new system, it would be beneficial to take stock of your current one and assess just how bad the damage is.

In this post, we’ll go in-depth into some of the most common pain points among association management software systems and how they affect your organization, employees, and members.

By understanding common pain points of membership systems, you can find workarounds or choose to address the problems head-on with a variety of solutions.

Related reading: The Ultimate Guide to Implementing Membership Software

Your system is not configurable

For those of you new to the Aptify blog, please understand that we discuss the differences between configuration and customization a lot. And for good reason.

Let’s back up for a second.

Most of us who use membership software daily are not technical people—we don’t necessarily know how to code the systems that we use every day. But we do understand the features we need and how they benefit the organization.

So when you ask a software person: Hey—is it possible to create this feature?

The answer is always: Yes, it’s possible.

The reason is that everything is possible with software—a talented developer can make magic happen by creating the feature you need out of thin air.

But here’s the problem with customizing a computer system on an ad hoc basis:

Computer code is not magic, unfortunately, and the feature your developer created may interfere with another feature one of your coworkers needs, and this is just one example.

There are several other problems with customizing software:

  • Changes must be hard-coded by a developer and could take months to test and implement
  • If your organization changes direction, the new feature may not be necessary anymore or have to be customized again
  • Customizations might box you into a workflow that is not optimal

OK, so customizations may not be the right answer for you—so what is?

The key to getting the features that you need without having to hard-code every new detail is to use a configurable system. A configurable system will let you add sophisticated rules without hard-coding them, and allow you update them at any time on a product-by-product basis.

Configurable membership softwareImagine you’re a mechanic at a race track and it starts to rain:

If your race car is configurable, you simply unscrew the lug nuts (which are a standard size) and put on the tires designed to perform in the rain.

If your race car is customized, you need to go to the rubber factory and have somebody make some rain tires for you, then hire a welder to create a way to attach them to your race car.

OK, OK—we get that example may not be apples to apples for association management software, but we like to keep things interesting!

The configuration vs. customization debate is not just for your present needs—it’s also a huge deal when planning for the future.

An easy way to ascertain if your system is configurable or customized is to ask yourself—do I need an application developer to solve my problem for me?

Configurable systems do not require technical expertise—most employees, provided they have the proper access level, should be able to create the feature they need (like added form fields) in minutes with a drag-and-drop visual editor.

There’s a reason customization and configuration are listed first in this post—they’re the most common pain point at associations. For further reading, check out our eBook: Configuration vs. Customization.

Your system doesn’t allow you to view big data in one place

Ah big data… Our members create heaps of it with their spending patterns, volunteer efforts, online (and offline) registrations, the emails they open, and even the pages of our websites they visit.

But what do we do with that data?

AMS frustrationsIf the data your members generate is sitting in a database somewhere encoded with computer jargon (the equivalent of collecting dust in an attic) it’s not really helping anybody.

At the same time, if you have reams of data flying at you every day, clogging your inbox and taking up several computer screens, that type of overload isn’t necessarily helpful either.

No, the key to getting useful, practical, and actionable direction from your member data is to have a balance of the two situations described above—all presented in a way that’s accessible to the people who need it, regardless of their technical ability.

First, you need to start off with a goal. For example, let’s say you would like to increase the average donation during your fundraising campaigns. Perfect.

Then, you need to take a look at the data generated from your top donors. You notice that the people who donate the largest amounts are also the most engaged with your email content.

Lastly, you see that the most engagement (clicks, opens etc.) happens only after you send two emails.

Based on this data, you can recommend certain email tactics and cadence to your marketing team to help you achieve your goal.

THAT’S how data is supposed to support your decision-making abilities, but it only happens if:

  1. You’re tracking the (right) data
  2. The data quality is high
  3. The data is accessible and presented in a useful way

In addition to member engagement, your system needs to offer ways to connect financial data in clever ways to guide your actions.

For instance, pretty much every membership software system should have the ability to track revenue data like member dues, program fees, online sales, etc. But many member software services do not offer the ability to connect that data to expenses like payroll or other types of overhead which is often held in third-party applications like Quickbooks or Xero. Without understanding both sides of the equation, you may not be able to accurately describe the ROI of of your membership campaigns!

For more info on how to take action on the data your members create, download our free eBook: Big Data, Big Decisions.

Your vendor doesn’t value your relationship

When it comes to a software-as-a-service (SaaS) company, there’s a reason “service” is in the title—you’re likely going to need things like onboarding, training, and customer support. If the success (or failure) of your association is riding on the ability to use technology to acquire, serve, and retain your membership, you need a software vendor who’s going to partner with you in the manner you need.

There are so many differences in associations and their unique needs, there’s really no such thing as a “one size fits all” approach—see the section above on configuration.

You need a partner who’s going to listen to your needs and find creative ways to use technology to improve your process and streamline your workflows. Communication, trust, honesty and establishing realistic expectations from the first meeting is important to the success of your relationship with your provider.

Oh, and the fact that they will pick up the phone if there’s ever an issue with your data!

Your system doesn’t support the upgrade you need

At some point, every association needs an upgrade in their primary technology stack. But this isn’t a sales pitch for new software; we’re just trying to prepare you for the inevitable.

So why do you need an upgrade?

Well, the first reason is that the technology you’re using may be facing a sunset. Take Adobe Flash, for example—it’s taking its sweet time, but HTML5 basically made that technology obsolete, even though thousands of websites and applications were using it. There’s simply a better way to embed video now and as a result, Flash is no longer needed.

If you’ve had your system for 10+ years (as many of the clients we’ve worked with have!) there’s a good possibility the technological framework it’s built on may no longer be an efficient way to transfer and record data. Plus, if you’re looking to integrate third party apps into your workflow, it’s going to be a lot harder with outdated tech.

OK fine, so you need an upgrade. Do you go back to the original vendor and ask for a lot of custom development to bring it up to speed? Or do you just invest in a whole new system?

This depends on a lot of factors, and the choice is ultimately up to you. But you’re not alone, as many organizations have faced this same problem—here’s how the Alliance of American Museums handled their decision.

Your software isn’t built for the future of your organization

Most associations operate within some sort of niche—geographically, topically, politically—you get the point. For the most part, so does an AMS—the software is typically built with a certain use case in mind.

While that’s usually a good thing, it can be trouble if your organization shifts paths or evolves. For example, if your association started as a local group but has evolved into a national (or international) movement, you may need a host of different features in order to properly serve your members. You may need a lot more video conferencing capabilities to keep up with your members connectivity needs, or a different financial system for complying with the tax laws of different states.

Another issue we’ve seen some associations run into is growth, believe it or not. Yes, growth (in terms of membership or employees) is supposed to be a good thing, but not if your technology infrastructure can’t keep up!

As we mentioned earlier, adding a bunch of software patches in the form of customizations is a slippery slope to stand on—if the customizations don’t interfere outright with what’s working currently, they may impact features that you need in the future.

We may be biased, but there is plenty of merit to not modifying the core code base. Just ask Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, who pioneered the concept of adding on top of his website platform with child themes and plugins instead of altering the core WordPress website files. And just look at the success WordPress has enjoyed! There’s a reason WordPress accounts for over 25% of all the websites on the Internet.

This goes back to the configuration vs. customization debate, which we’ve written about extensively in the past. When thinking about the future of your organization, however, we recommend taking some time to research the advantages of a configurable AMS as opposed to something that needs constant and endless customizations.

So what do you think—did we miss any of the most common pain points among association management software? Do you have any that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below!

And if you’re looking to start the research process for implementing a new AMS, you don’t want to miss our recent eBook: The Ultimate Guide to Implementing Membership Software. In this eBook, you’ll learn how to keep your implementation on time and on budget, how to build a timeline, how to put together the right team, and a lot more.

Implementing Membership Software

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