By Richard Westlund
AEs find benefits and limitations in outsourcing association technology.
Software, servers, Wi-Fi, cloud storage, virus protection—it's enough to make even the most tech-savvy AE want to just unplug.
Fortunately, your job description doesn't have to include "IT pro." Today, there's an IT outsourcing option to fit every size association and budget.
"Hiring a full-time person would cost me several times what I pay for outsourced services to keep our technology up and running for our staff and members," says Rob Wigton, executive vice president of the Williamson County Association of REALTORS®, which has 2,600 members in Tennessee. "We outsource the installation of new hardware, data storage, maintenance, setting up new staff with email, and other needs," he says.
Mike Valerino, COO at the Akron Cleveland Association of REALTORS® with 5,500 members in northeast Ohio, isn't ready to put all of his association's tech into the hands of his current outside IT firm. Although the association has outsourced its IT for several years, Valerino spends a significant amount of time coordinating IT requests from staff and members and then following up to make sure the work is done correctly. "It's hard to find a good partner who will take the time to learn how you use IT and provide you with rapid and responsive service," he says. Valerino is considering hiring a full-time IT coordinator to take the IT burden off his shoulders.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of outsourcing IT services. A small association that can't afford a full-time IT professional might choose to outsource, hire a part-timer, or share a staffer with a neighboring association or a local nonprofit with similar needs. A large association with more resources might use a combination of internal and external resources. The 47,000-member Miami Association of REALTORS®, with seven full-service offices in south Florida, has two in-house IT professionals who make sure the connections between the membership system and outside vendors are operating properly.
"We have found that no one IT management vendor can provide everything we need," says Teresa King Kinney, RCE, CAE, CEO. "Instead, we want the flexibility to choose the best systems out there, and that͛s a moving target. So once we finalize a contract with an IT vendor, we work them to customize the product and integrate it with our current services."
Also opting to blend staff skill and managed services, Ryan Castle, CEO of the Cape Cod & Islands Association of REALTORS® in Massachusetts with 2,600 members, outsources server management, computer support, email account management, and other "back-end" IT services to a local firm. Front-end services, such as social media, video conferencing, and the collaboration platform, are managed by the association's millennial-generation staffers.
"Too many people make technology a complicated topic," Castle says. "But if your staff knows how to use software and applications, you can outsource the monitoring, security, backup, and disaster recovery functions. IT companies can handle those functions efficiently and quickly, so your team can focus on that all-important interface with your members."
Why outsource your IT?
Besides cost and convenience, REALTOR® associations outsource their IT services for other benefits. First, technology moves quickly, and it's difficult for associations to keep pace. A staffer might know how to design a website, set up a video conference, or manage voice mail but not understand mobile apps or team collaboration platforms. So, it might be easier to find the right IT skills from an outsourced provider.
As specialists in the IT sector, outside vendors can help association executives select the right equipment and software, and explain the finer points of new IT products. "When we upgraded the sound system in our training room, our vendor gave us advice on what to purchase and then installed it for us," says Jim Haisler, RCE, e-PRO, CEO at the Heartland REALTOR® Organization, Ill. "They also helped us with issues we hadn't considered, like networking our printers for greater efficiency."
Next, consider the disruption to you and your members in the event of a power outage or server crash. Today's managed service providers can offer your applications and data on a cloud architecture. This is not only important for disaster recovery, but it also makes it easy for staffers who work remotely to access the information needed to do their jobs.
"If we need to close our offices for a blizzard, we can continue to work remotely," Valerino says. "Our vendor also provides cloud-based phone and video conferencing that has made it easier for us to collaborate and offer online educational programs to our members."
Another reason is service. If your website server or voice mail system goes down on a Saturday morning, will your IT staffer be able to come into the office, diagnose the problem, and fix it before your members start complaining? An outside firm may be able to resolve the issue as part of a 24/7/365 service plan.
Improved cybersecurity is another potential benefit. Having full-time professionals protecting your network, including installing the latest software patches and releases, can help guard against hackers trying to steal confidential information or ransomware threats that could halt your operations in their tracks.
Choosing an IT firm
If you've decided on outsourcing, a good first step is to prepare a request for proposal that specifies your desired services. (At nar.realtor see RAE's article on how to write an RFP; search for "Right Vendor, Right Price.") You can then contact a local IT firm or one of the major national companies, such as Corserva.com,Synoptek.com, or Mindshift.com that specialize in nonprofits.
"We have found it's a big advantage to hire someone locally," Valerino says. "All firms have the ability to monitor your system remotely, but if you are adding a new service or onboarding new people, it͛s easier to explain things to a person sitting in the room next to you. We also have regular check-in meetings to discuss upcoming projects."
You should check an IT vendor's reputation for service, as well as its client base.
Finally, don't be afraid to ask for advice from other AEs or associations around the country. "Before we make a decision, we reach out to other executives using the system," King Kinney says. "We ask what they like and don't like about a vendor. That's really helped us in making good choices."
Best practices for IT outsourcing
- Research potential vendors
- Get references to narrow the field
- Prepare a request for proposal that specifies your desired services
- Establish expectations for responding to problems
- Negotiate the hourly rate for service calls
- Look for flexibility to handle special projects
- Include an opt-out clause if the vendor͛s response time or quality of work does not meet agreed-upon standards
- Document your current login credentials and passwords before changing vendors