Most executives rightfully consider their employees to be their most important asset. Yet there’s another group of individuals that plays a critical role in your organization’s success, particularly with communications and fundraising: the skilled professionals who work for your technology vendors. Your engagement platforms help you deliver the right messages to your stakeholders at the right moments. Supportive vendors help you use these systems to amplify your team’s capabilities and free up valuable staff time.

 If you’re considering a new email platform, CRM system, or fundraising solution, no doubt you want a trusted partner who will go the extra mile. Yet any vendor can talk a good game in an RFP response or a sales presentation. How do you know who will actually be a relatively seamless match with your organization and its unique needs? 

Look beyond mere technical requirements

In prior blog posts, we’ve stressed the importance of creating strong use cases, turning them into technical requirements, and getting proposals from multiple vendors. If you’ve taken these steps, great news! You’re already well ahead of the curve when it comes to strategically selecting a new technology partner.

Yet selecting a vendor is a bit like online dating: No one relies solely on a well-written profile. One learns a great deal from the give-and-take of conversation with potential suitors. That’s why we believe software demonstrations are a vital part of any selection process. By talking with vendors, you start to grasp not only the practical features of software you’re considering, but the intangibles that determine whether a long-term business partnership is likely to be healthy or turbulent: their business values, how well they understand your mission, and how genuinely vested their team is in unlocking the full potential of the system you choose.

At the same time, the task of assessing fit is tricky. Over the years we’ve seen partners dazzled by the magic of great sales presentations, only to grow disenchanted by imperfect services that had seemed all-powerful on the surface. We want you to avoid this fate.

Things to look for when talking with vendor teams

Good vendor teams are platform champions who strengthen and optimize your staff’s use of technology. They enable powerful systems automation, and add nuance and richness to the use cases that fuel system enhancements. So, when deciding among multiple vendor teams in a selection process, make sure to account for these considerations:

Speaking the same business language. Over time, it grows tiresome having to translate your organization’s needs over and over to a business partner that’s accustomed to a different language and vocabulary. Listen carefully in sales calls to the words that vendors use to describe their solutions, and how they characterize your nonprofit’s work. Also, take note of which other organizations are relying on a vendor’s service. You’ll benefit from having the support of professionals who intuitively understand your needs.

Size and reputation of the vendor. We all want partners who proactively build value, and share ideas and opportunities that we hadn’t considered ourselves. This is one reason why, if you’re a larger nonprofit, it can be helpful to consider the unique benefits of partnering with a small business, rather than a software giant. When your account is very important to a vendor’s business success, you’re more likely to have regular access and interactions with top executives, and see key resources committed to your account. In contrast, many nonprofit clients risk getting lost in the shuffle with name-brand companies whose profits come from corporations. The latter situation can lower your ROI—an interesting irony, given that many nonprofit managers tend to view bigger players as a “safer” business choice.

 Ease and efficiency of implementation. As we’ve stressed before, it’s critical to have salespeople move beyond checklists of theoretical capabilities. Your team deserves as much detail as possible on how many hours of effort it will take for your staff to implement specific features that drive your business forward. If key functionalities will require the involvement of a team of outside developers, and your budget isn’t flexible enough for this, it may be a sign to look for alternatives that are easier to use.

Alignment in business values. For some mission-driven organizations, it’s important that vendors and partners share the same progressive values. If so, take special note of the nonprofits that are spotlighted in sales materials and case studies, and the client names offered as references. Are their values and missions aligned with yours? On a practical level, are these organizations similar in size and likely to have needs that resemble yours? Finally, do your own due diligence – talk with like-minded colleagues at other organizations, and search publicly available information to assess ethical standards and potential reputational risk.

Recall the importance of account management

Salespeople are hired and compensated because they showcase their employer and its services in the most favorable light. Meanwhile, the long-term success of your vendor relationship depends far more heavily on your connection with the proposed account manager or operations leader. Was this individual invited to your sales meeting? If so, it’s a sign of the vendor’s commitment to you as a new client, and their confidence in the value and ease that its service delivers. If not, you can consider asking for a follow-up meeting with this individual. This conversation gives you the chance to ask detailed questions about functionality, implementing your highest-priority use cases, and onboarding for new clients. It can also offer additional clues on cultural and operational fit.

Give yourself more time than you think you need

You’ve met with all the vendors, and you’re excited to move forward. Wonderful! Still, we suggest a due pause between sales demonstrations and final vendor selection. This frees up time and space for self-reflection. Have your priorities changed as a result of what you learned from conversations? Was there one vendor whose presentation got hearts racing, but might not be the reasoned choice after further consideration?

Consider your decision process

Think about how your organization makes its decisions on new platforms. Is it usually down to a few key stakeholders who need adequate convincing, or is a formal RFP process needed to ensure due diligence and accountability? Either way, you’ll want to identify your key internal stakeholders and consult with them regularly. What problems are they trying to solve, and where does the organization see themselves partnering with? It’s important to understand how your organization and staff understands the process, to make a fair assessment of needs and goals.

Recognize the intangibles

Implementing a new platform for your organization is a transformational process. It requires self-reflection and collaboration across staff and departments. The process will highlight blind spots and opportunities for growth, while anxieties will be present. By uncovering these and acting on them when needed, your journey becomes much smoother.

Remember: It’s not just the platform, it’s the people behind it

You’ve invested a lot of effort in identifying technical needs, and finding companies who can boost your outreach capabilities without breaking the budget. This is so important. Yet, as we’ve discussed, the skilled professionals who design and support implementation of this technology are extremely important to your long-term effectiveness using the system that you choose. By keeping the above considerations in mind during your selection process, you will be well on the way to selecting a vendor that’s an excellent cultural and operational fit for your team.