Lessons from both sides of the email vendor RFP

Full disclosure: With eight years of email consulting under my belt, I have experienced several ESP RFP (Email Service Provider Requests for Proposal) exercises.  While wearing my agency hat, I was asked to write about those experiences for this site.  Recently, I took a position with an ESP, which makes my advice suspect at best.

As I look at the process from both agency as ESP sides, I see opportunities as well as flaws.  You be the judge.

Receiving an Request for Proposal

I’ve never known anyone – in any industry – who loves being on the receiving end of an RFP.  It tends to be a mountain of work to deliver an impersonal document, which is typically judged on price alone, doing a disservice to both issuer and responder.  Vendors with the luxury of a healthy pipeline will forego them altogether.

Changing perspectives

It’s surprising how moving to the vendor side for just a few weeks has changed my perspective on RFPs.  I used to advise my clients to firmly demand a lot of specifics about costs and team.  While this is still a good idea, there are caveats.

Reducing CPM costs and the want for more

Let’s talk cost – and how to get it as low as possible.  First understand that your costs will not be covered in the CPM (cost per thousand) price.  As email marketers have found through the years, the services needed from an ESP range far beyond importing a list, sending it out and receiving response data in return.  This is what the CPM is intended to cover – use of the software.  I have never worked with a client, however, that didn’t want more, much more, from their ESP.

Emailers may need help with complex technical integrations, strategy, analytics, design, coding, best practices, industry insight, deliverability remediation and/or training.

Add-on email marketing services

ESPs want to give you the best possible price, but they also want to make sure they’re covered for all these add-on services.  The goal is to eliminate surprises on both sides, which leave clients feeling like they’re being nickel-and-dimed and ESPs caught between customer satisfaction and profitability.

The more specific your RFP, the better a responder can accurately estimate costs for the effort required.  Consider each of the areas above and spell out the help you’ll need in each area.  Include your colleagues in the effort, particularly the IT department.  This of course is in addition to describing the size of your list, your programs and campaigns, the email staff and your goals for the future.  If it sounds like a lot of work, it is.  But specificity allows the ESPs to sharpen their pencils, rather than making assumptions.

They may ultimately include the costs of additional services in your CPM, but any “surprises” will require additional services and costs.  A lower CPM for one vendor at the outset may mean they didn’t include all the services you need.

The dedicated bench sitting team

Now let’s talk team.  I’ve always advocated having a dedicated team handling your account and meeting them as part of the RFP interviews.  Oh, how naïve I was just those few weeks ago.  I should have learned from my agency experience, when I looked back at the the pitch document after months on the business and saw no one I had even heard of.  Having people “on the bench,” just waiting for new business to call them into active duty, is a luxury few businesses can afford.  Moreover, including service staff on prospecting visits takes them away from serving current customers.

Get to know you partner

It is important to get to know your prospective partner.  Once you’ve narrowed down the list to a few contenders, spend time getting to know them and see if you like the way they do business.  A conference call with their IT people and yours is a good idea, to discuss data integration – what’s out-of-the-box and what’s custom.  It is also critical that those on your team who will be working with the application have an opportunity to evaluate the user interface.

A good fit and no surprises

These impressions, combined with the ESP’s response to your very specific RFP, should lead you to a good fit and a pricing structure with few surprises.

About Melinda_kreuger

Melinda Krueger is a digital marketing veteran – starting with direct, moving to interactive, specializing in email and now charting a course for mobile marketing. Working with the best agencies in the business, she has helped Harley-Davidson, Miller Brewing, Sears/Kmart, CDW and many others build their interactive marketing programs. As the Email Diva, Melinda answered questions on all aspects of the practice. As a regular columnist for ClickZ, she will cast this same critical eye on the mobile interaction.