Buying technology is a shopping experience like no other. It's extremely difficult to compare products and services between vendors. When buying a new TV, one goes to Best Buy or Walmart to see numerous brands of 50-inch TVs right there in front of you, all tuned to the same station making it relatively easy to compare the specs and bells and whistles of each. This will never happen when buying technology for your association. In an attempt to prove my point, I designed an unscientific experiment based on two hypotheses:
1. Many associations know they need new technology, yet have have no idea what they need nor how to buy it.
2. Although with the best of intentions, many vendors' primary goal is to demonstrate and convince an association what that association needs is what that vendor is selling.
To confirm my theory, I converted the tradeshow floor of the ASAE Technology Conference & Expo into my laboratory. Often overlooked is how the technology vendor views the association buyer. I asked numerous vendors a simple question, "Do associations know what they need and want when it comes to buying technology?" I had no idea to whom I was talking (a salesperson, the CEO, a tech guy, etc.) nor what kind of technology the company sold (AMS, web design, cloud services, etc.).
The majority of the exhibitors with whom I spoke responded with a definitive, unequivocal, "No," often with a smile or chuckle. This is not to mean that your association does not know what it has previously bought; what it is considering buying; how it wants to use new technology; or what it needs in terms of technology.
Why does this problem exist in the first place? Associations should know what they need and want. The best answer came from a former program manager of an association with over 150,000 members who is now employed by a technology company. I figured an association of this size better have some serious technology in place and know how to use it. I was told the problem is vacillation between departments, i.e. IT, membership, marketing, etc. Each department has its own job to do yet finds itself having to work out the technology issues in the trenches. Some staff thought they knew everything, while others did not.
Back to the original question: what is an association to do when buying technology? My five recommendations:
1. Each major department lists what it believes the association needs and wants the technology to do for the association and its members. Yes, do keep your members high on your list. Although it sounds simple, it is not. People have difficulty differentiating between what the association needs (its basic requirements, the must-haves) and wants (the inessential and perceived value touted by the tech vendor, the wish list of bells and whistles) from technology. Beware that your staff does not allow itself to transform wants into "needless" needs. Each person makes a list of wants and needs. All overly frivolous wants should be eliminated.
2. It is imperative that an association begin with the application of a minor modification of two adages: "An educated consumer is the best customer" and "All good things come to those who ask." Talk to other associations. Ask for the successes, the horror stories, the things done correctly, and the mistakes - and what those (impulse) errors cost in terms of dollars and time. Get educated! But where, how, and by whom? From all those vendors who vie for your business. Bypass the salesperson as the educator, but rather enlist one of the vendor's top tech people. Warning: the vendor prefers to keep the tech guru in the back room and will instead suggest a project manager to bridge the process. Reject the offer! Rather than going into a long discourse as to why, conduct your own experiment: Ask any person who does tech work, be it a friend, colleague, or stranger, "So you're the person who has to get creative to fulfill all of those somewhat unrealistic promises that the salesperson makes to the client?" The response you will hear the majority of the time will be, "Pretty much," "Yep," "That's me," "You got it!"
3. After you have talked to several associations, interview three potential vendors and let each know that you are doing so. It's a competition. The salesperson will focus on building a relationship with you and your association. That person realizes that you to have to like him or her as a person before you like the company and its product or service. Yes, building a relationship is important yet ask the tech person the hard questions, "Will it really do all that?" "How will this make our lives and those of our members, easier?" "Will you be the person holding our hand and when will you let go?" "What are two other options to accomplish our objectives?" Sure, he will think you are crazy, but consider the cost you will incur if you make a mistake and select the wrong vendor with the wrong product or service.
4. After the three proposals come in, give each company a copy of the two other proposals withholding the price, cost, or fees page. This is called "negotiation judo," throwing the seller off balance and tipping the scale in the buyer's favor. Tell each that you are a "transparent" association. The concept of radical transparency is one of the newer negotiation strategies of corporate and nonprofit organizations. Ask each vendor why this company recommended this and yours did not. Yes, put them on the hot seat. Tell them they do not have to answer this question on the spot. Tell them to come back with why your association should give them your business. Listen carefully to the "spin" of each bidder.
5. Even after your association has decided on a vendor, and you think you are finally through, you are not. Technology is not cheap, so here is your next judo move: Tell the selected vendor that after reviewing the three proposals, you really like their recommendations and what they have to offer (the salesperson can't wait to tell the boss), and that you would like to buy their wares (Yesss! as the salesperson is now mentally computing his commission), but you have one more question. Since all good things come to those who ask, your last question is, "When is your sale?" Yes, when will this package go on sale? Macy's has monthly sales; the supermarket has weekly sales; and car dealerships regularly mark down its prices. "When is your sale?" is a legitimate, yet unexpected question. You can expect about a 10 percent discount...after which you pick up the phone, call me and say, "Thank you, Elliott."
Jaffa writes “The Tradeshow Floor” for Association TRENDS, as well as other columns. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-931-0040.