My experience in selecting an Email Service Provider

This post is written by Kate Barrett, an email marketing deliverability and best practice specialist with a real passion for the industry. She did some ESP selections in the past and is so kind to share her experiences in this blog.

Having worked in the email industry for over 6 years, it is interesting to look back over work done and evaluate the differences in approach from way back then to now.

Two different Email service provider selections

Over the years I have worked closely with multiple ESP’s (including spending almost 2 years actually working one). And I have been involved in 2 selections to choose the right system for the company I was with at the time.  Choosing which providers to speak to initially, the pitch meetings, negotiations, final decision and then building the longer term relationship. The different aspects of this process can be confusing but also fun!

With the first selection, we were sending 150K per month. The selection team was: my assistant, myself presenting options and MD getting involved at end of process. It took around 6 weeks. In my team: myself and two members of staff; Assistant and Designer

The second selection was 1,5 years later, ending 300K per month. The selection team was: me, the head of IT (to discuss technical implementation with Microsoft dynamics system) and my Director.  Took around 3 months due to technicalities involved of merging with CRM.  My team: me and the social media assistant.

Learning from email marketing and dealing with ESPs

In life and in business you get out of each experience what you put in, so it is important to make the most of every opportunity you get and to learn from it; and I have certainly learnt a lot since the beginning when it comes to email marketing and dealing with ESP.  With some bad experiences and some good,  what I have taken away from my journey so far is a passion for the industry.

When it comes to choosing an ESP 2 vital questions; How do you know you’re getting:
A. The best deal
B. The right tools for the job? (most importantly)

Interesting to note the differences between pitches in regards to written proposals and the detail different sales people/.companies put into this.  One for example was extremely detailed and broke down all the options clearly and was around 3 / 4 pages long, whereas another was just jotted down in an email and was no more than a couple of paragraphs – not a helpful way to present the options and pricing available for the system.

Show no fear, the first pitch is here

I remember the first time I went through the pitching process, not really knowing where to look, but drawing on my previous knowledge, contacts and research (always important to do your research!). I plowed ahead and decided on my top 3 providers to pitch for our business.  They all came to our offices, smartly dressed, laptops in hand ready to show me their systems.

The sales process and building the relationship is key even at this stage and getting what I like to call ‘a good feeling’ from the person pitching to you is really important. It’s the first line of contact with a potential new supplier and this can tell a lot about the kind of company you will be working with.

Know what you need and challenge the salesperson

A key point with going through your first selection is to show no fear!  Do not let them take advantage of you – do your research.  Know what you are looking for from an ESP and ensure they can provide this and more!

Both times I went through the process, I followed this advice and was able to challenge what the sales person was pitching in terms of how the system worked.  Especially when going through the second selection process I was involved in as I had more experience by this point and knew exactly what I expected from a good ESP.

For example suggesting functionality on reporting systems that was missing for one and challenging the sales persons knowledge of how a send could be scheduled in another (on this occasion they failed the test and could not schedule the messages in the way I knew was needed!).

Asking deeper questions
There are not any questions that I would have asked then that I wouldn’t ask now, as every question is valid. However in the second selection process, my questioning was a lot deeper.  For example, in the first round, I would have been inclined to ask top level questions about the functionality available in the system, whereas in the second round, I questioned how these elements worked and the developments planned for these as well as suggesting improvements that would be helpful.

Already building a long term relationship

Don’t forget that you will want to build a long term relationship with them. By keep switching suppliers every time your contract comes up for renewal you will always be starting again with building your IP reputation as usually you can’t take this with you when you change providers. So be sure to be succinct in your choice and clearly lay out all the options side by side before making your final decision.

Immediate turn-off for working with an ESP

In my second go at choosing an ESP a couple of years later, that ‘good feeling’ really came into play.  One of the suppliers chosen really did not seem to have their heart in the pitch at all!  After making the effort to travel to their offices for the presentation (they did not come to us), they did not promptly reply to emails or phone calls and seem to drop off the face of the earth – not very professional, especially from a big ESP!

An immediate turn off on working with their company – if the sales person couldn’t even be bothered, what would the eventual service have been like?!  Plus, in all honesty, their system was badly laid out and struck me as much harder to use than any of the other systems I had encountered and used previously.

Personally excited about working together

However, another Email marketing company SP was so friendly and enthusiastic it really got me excited on a personal and professional level!  We struck up a great relationship that is still in place today after bonding over a cheeky cigarette (naughty I know!) halfway through the presentation!  In fact, this was the only pitch lead by a woman (backed up by two men)!  Not that that makes a difference in any way, but I thought it was interesting to note!

A bad SERVICE example from an email SERVICE provider

Always investigate level of service and system reliability – the ESP may quote various service level percentages that sound good on the surface but are they really true?  One bad experience I had was with an email system was down every other day. We could not access the system, but even worse our broadcasts were not going out (critical to time sensitive campaigns such as special offers!) – they denied this for many weeks and blamed our website.

After investigating from our side, it was most certainly not our systems. The ESP did finally admit fault after trying to blame a 3rd party provider they were working with!  On a couple of occasions when this happened with time sensitive campaigns it was possible to reschedule the time sensitive campaigns and send them out the next day, however there were occasions where these campaigns were not sent on time and had to be cancelled, effectively losing the company possible sales.

In these cases, I challenged the ESP for compensation based on our expected response from the campaign and gained this in the form of a free extension to our contract to cover the expected losses.  Always get references from other clients and find out their honest experiences of working with that provider.

Changes through the years

Over time I have seen the systems being offered change in various ways including massively improved reporting systems, the addition of social media & SMS tools and tracking to integrate your campaigns effectively, as well as a better technology to allow for dynamic content and triggered real time campaigns. Deliverability has also come even more to the forefront as content has taken a back seat to IP reputation and more ESPs feature in house teams solely focused on this critical aspect of email marketing.

I have also noticed an increased emphasis from ESPs on client training and knowledge, giving us the power back and improving the industry – vital to the build the success of legitimate email marketing and prevent being tarred with the same brush as spammers.  Most importantly though is that ESPs are and must listen to their clients’ needs and wants and work hard to cater for these – such as the improvements in reporting systems I’ve seen and worked with suppliers to produce.

More knowledge means better expectations

In my experiences with selection processes as my knowledge has grown, the questions I ask and the level of service I deem acceptable has risen.  It is important to always go through the system and its features fully before employing the company and to know what you plan to do over the next 12 months and how you will use certain features you require.

I would always advise building a close relationship with a provider to get the most out of the system and for your money.

About Kate Barrett


Email marketing deliverability and best practice specialist with a real passion for the industry. Also experienced in all other digital channels with over 6 years experience. You can find Kate's blog on http://katebarrettonline.blogspot.com

  • Jeff Barnes

    As a former ESP one of the key things we always did was really probe deeply into what a prospect was looking for in a solution. That way we could discuss and present our service with specific reference to their needs. Too many prospects just wanted us to rattle through the functionality with little of no regard to whether any of it was actually relevant. Let’s face it most ESPs are very similar in what they can do, the trick is whether they know what you want to do!