Tips on Buying Software for Your PAC
The following is a suggested outline of steps to take when choosing an outside vendor for your government relations needs.
Step One: Your Goals
The first step is to outline the goals and expectations for your organization’s partnership with an outside vendor. Below are some thoughts and ideas on why and how to use a vendor:
- Messaging and letter writing campaigns: What are the vendor’s web-based options for you? Do they have a database of elected officials? Do you need an email distribution system?
- Compliance/reporting: Make sure that the vendor has tools to help you comply with FEC mandated electronic PAC reporting. Do you need a system that can adapt to new laws and regulations that might come out over the life of your contract?
- Website management: Do you want your vendor to house all online information on a separate site or would you prefer that all of the information be housed internally?
- Expansion or upgrade of your current capabilities: Set realistic expectations for growth for your government relations department. If you have an existing vendor, what services do you need that you are not able to get from your current vendor? If you are currently keeping everything internal, work with your IT department to find out what they can and can’t do, as well as to determine what it takes to convert the data to an outside vendor.
Step Two: Your System
Understanding how to use your current system, what your capabilities are, and whether they are internal or with your existing vendor is key to understanding how an outside source can help you reach your organization’s objective. Below are some items to keep in mind when reviewing your system:
- Team education on your current systems: Before your GR team will be able to understand how an outside vendor can serve your organization’s needs, they will need to be educated as to what your current systems can do. Set up a training session with your current vendor or your internal IT department to go over existing features.
- Security: Much of the data that will be passing between your organization and the vendor will be personal information about your members/employees. Discuss the current security procedures with your IT team/vendor to make sure that these concerns are covered in any conversion.
- Compatibility issues: Not all operating systems use the same platform. Get up to speed on your current system requirements.
- Export issues: If you are currently using a vendor and are thinking about switching, check to see what information is yours and what is the proprietary information of your current vendor.
- Justifying the need for an outside vendor: Make sure you are able to show how an outside vendor can better serve your organization. Identify need areas of your PAC and grassroots programs that are not being served by your current provider or by your internal system.
- Has there been a problem in the past getting your PAC reporting requirements done on time?
- Do you have problems trying to locate and use an up-to-date federal and state legislator system for your letter writing campaigns?
- Is your current Web site, and the features provided on the site, substandard and difficult to maintain?
- Are you spending too much time on administrative functions (such as Web updating, PAC finance tracking, contact list updates) that could be easily taken over by an outside source?
Step Three: Your Internal Pitch
When securing a commitment from your organization to bring in an outside vendor, keep in mind the following items to help you gain buy-in:
- Realistic timeframe for implementation: Most transitions of this nature do not happen overnight. System conversions, budgeting, implementation, and training all take time and resources. Keep this in mind when proposing a timeframe for conversion.
- Start a discussion on cost and budgeting: Recognize that hiring an outside vendor for your government relations program is, in most cases, something that will require budget allocations. And, while pricing and features will be negotiated between your organization and the vendor of your choice, the overall cost will be an investment.
- Secure a general commitment for the proposal. Secure internal authority or include someone who has the authority on your team.
Step Four: Your Market Research
Now it’s time to start looking at what’s out there. A good practice is to keep your questions consistent across the vendor interviews. It is also a good idea to go into your meeting with a potential vendor with scenarios where you would be using their product and have them walk you through their product. Below are a number of different aspects of a vendor/client relationship that organizations seek.
- Product variations: Each vendor has unique features that may fit better with your organization’s goals. To get a better sense of which vendors offer which products, check out the Council’s Vendor Marketplace.
- Customer service: The key to a successful relationship with any provider is the level of service provided by the vendor. When talking with a potential vendor, ask them for a list of current clients that you can contact to discuss how well the vendor’s product works for them.
- Cost: Pricing out or getting a quote from your vendors will help you put a dollar amount next to your implementation timeline. When discussing the cost of the product, ask for a breakdown of charges for each feature included in your potential package, as well as a price list for any post-purchase items (customer service, add-ons, consulting, etc.)
- Maintenance and Usability: Discuss training options with the vendors and find out how they incorporate updates to their technology in their product design. Will they charge you for upgrades or are they considered a part of your initial purchase? If current features are altered, will they train your staff how to use these new features?
Step Five: Your Decision
Now your organization is ready to choose its vendor. Below are a couple of steps to cover before making the decision:
- Evaluate all offers: Now that you have previewed each product using the same set of criteria, it should be easier to compare and contrast some of the features and products offered by the vendors.
- Gain approval and commitment from your organization: Back in step 3, you gained a general commitment to use an outside vendor, but you were unable to give specifics on time, cost, system requirements, and service. Now that you have answered those questions, fill in those blanks and make the final internal proposal to your organization.
- Circle back once more with your internal team: Now that you have chosen your vendor, review the aspects of that vendor’s product with your team and identify areas to keep an eye on during the conversion, such as data housing, system requirements, and service points of contact.
- Have a back up plan! Even though you have found a vendor that seems to fit best with your goals, make sure that you identify who else would be a good, if not perfect, fit for your organization. If contract negotiations with your vendor of choice take a turn for the worst, or you are not going to receive all the services and products that you were expecting, having a back up plan will leave you with options and leverage.
Step Six: Your Contract
When writing the contract with your chosen vendor, keep in mind that communication, again, is key. The more aware the vendor is of your goals and overall outlook, the better able they will be to tailor their product to your needs.
- Negotiate to have the features that you want included in your deal. Use the goals that your team identified in step one as a guide to the features that you negotiate into your contract. Also, use the notes that you took in step four to help you sort though pricing and service levels.
- Go over any conversion issues that your team might encounter. Use your notes in step two to cover the areas of concern identified by your internal team. Discuss data housing and system requirements as well as create a schedule for updates between your system and the vendor’s.
Step Seven: Your Relationship with the Vendor
Now that you have signed the contract with your vendor, communication with their service team is just as crucial.
- Communication is a two-way street. Most, if not all, vendors have service teams set up to help you troubleshoot any problems that might arise. Additionally, identify one person on your team that will be your primary point of contact between your organization and the vendor. It would fall on this person to quickly identify and notify the vendor of any problems you encounter.
- Training is good! Allow your vendor to train your personnel on their product and schedule regular training sessions to keep you and your team on top of the new features your vendor provides.
- Re-evaluate the Relationship: When going through your annual re-evaluation, look at all factors of your relationship including cost, service, compatibility, and flexibility.