How to beat Yes-men during your email marketing RFP

Choosing a new email service provider (ESP) is no walk in the park.

A well-managed RFP process gives email marketers the very best chance of making the right choice. But a poorly shaped RFP is hardly any better than asking a random email marketer who they “like”.

The best selections are based on objective criteria, but you have to craft your questions and process so they uncovering the important differences.

Or you will end up saying:
“We don’t know how to choose! Every ESP can do everything!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered the phone and heard those words. On the other side is a frustrated email marketer several months into his or her RFP process.

Those calls usually result in an engagement for our team to guide the selection. But for you, it doesn’t need to get to that point.

If you think every ESP looks alike, it’s because:
* you aren’t asking the right questions during your RFP process.
* you aren’t asking for enough information.
Probably both.

There are huge differences between enterprise ESPs.

Differences that — based on your requirements — can make one your ideal partner, and another ESP a terrible choice.

Some enterprise ESPs can handle and ingest large amounts of data from numerous sources in real-time. There are other ESPs where the data never needs to leave the system. The better solution is the one that fits with your situation.

Even more significantly, some enterprise ESPs act mostly as software companies, whereas others call themselves marketing services providers. While they could both offer services, their organisational focus influences what you can expect from them.

You want to find the man behind the email marketing curtain. And to do that, you need to shape your RFP so those differences are not just revealed, but the impact on your business becomes clear.

Do away with the Yes/No RFP questions in your email RFP

A big mistake many email marketers make in the RFP process is creating an RFP questionnaire that focuses on “Yes or No” questions. “Can your platform do XYZ?”

If your procurement team is driving the process, your RFP is bound to have YES/NO type of questions. Procurement people LOVE simplicity and box checking when gathering requirements, because they:
1) don’t really understand what the marketer needs, and
2) the differences they focus on are primarily around pricing.

(I’ve also worked with some fabulous procurement teams over the years— generalizing here to make a point).

If you give an ESP salesperson the option of simply replying “Yes or No”, most of them are going to tell you what they need to tell you:. Which is Yes.

The Yes tick box has a magical attraction to the salesperson. Ticking Yes only has benefits for sales. It improves the chance to advance and – has zero negative consequences.

yes man no man sales man

What the yes-box looks like to a typical sales person.

To make it worse, not every Yes means the same. You could ask three vendors if they can provide email send-time optimization. All three answer Yes.
Vendor #1 does it only at the campaign level, not at the subscriber level.
Vendor #2 does it at the subscriber level via native platform funtionality (no additional cost).
Vendor #3 can do it via a 3rd party integration that is an added cost.

Stopping at Yes doesn’t reveal those very significant differences. If your questions aren’t detailed enough, niether are the answers you are going to get.

Now how are we going to compare if everybody seems to do everything?

In short: If you ask Yes/No questions, you are going to get a lot of “Yeses” and ticked boxes. And you know what happens then? All the enterprise ESPs look and sound alike. And you end up saying: “We don’t know how to choose! Every ESP can do everything!”

Most of the time vendor RFP responses are nothing more than shelf-ware.

Meaning they are more likely to end up on a shelf in your office than they are being read cover to cover. When you can’t make a detailed step-by-step comparison, why would anyone take the time to read them?

How to Dig deeper into what the vendor can do for you

There’s a simple way to avoid this situation, but it takes more work from the email marketer. The first step to take is to dig deeper around every question. We never let the vendors get away with a simple “yes”—not if they want to advance to the next round of the RFPs we manage. How does that work in practice? We score and compare vendors head-to-head against the current provider.

Clients only want to migrate to a platform they represents a step-change improvement over their current provider. By responding with a simple Yes, there is no way to determine if that vendor does something better than the others. Top scores come from explaining how the solution exceeds expectations, rather than merely meets it. That needs more than a Yes.

We don’t stop with “Can your platform do XYZ?”

The types of follow-up questions we ask that go deeper are:
“is that functionality native to the platform, or provided via third-party?”,
“is that functionality out-of-the-box, or does it need custom development?”,
“how many integrations have you done with company ABC?”.

We also ask how they do it.

Only when you dig a layer or two deeper, you begin to see real differences between the platforms. Think back to that send-time optimization example we gave earlier.

And because you are asking the questions, these differences likely matter a whole lot to you. It does take more work on your part because now you have to actually read and compare the vendor responses.

Beating the “Yes, looks good” presentation

Left to their own devices, most ESPs will present the things in their platform’s that they think show the best. But for each vendor, that will be different feature and functionality.

So after 3-4 presentations you will know that each does one thing really well. But you still won’t have any idea which platform actually addresses your needs.

In the vendor presentation to your team, make them focus on how they can address and solve your use cases.

Managing your email marketing RFP right

The key point to take away is that going through an RFP process is no guarantee you will make the right decision for your company. A poorly managed RFP is hardly better than doing no RFP at all, plus it’s a lot more work for you!

RFPs remain the best path to making the right choice, but they have to be managed properly. Bringing in a consultant for your RFP is recommended. It will pay for itself many times over in getting a good deal from the selected vendor, and in ensuring that you don’t find yourself heading back to another RFP in a few years because you made a poor choice.

About Chris Marriott

President & Founder of Email Connect. A 25-year veteran of digital marketing, including well over a decade in email marketing, Chris is a recognized expert in the process of connecting leading brands with the right marketing technology partners and platforms.
Prior to founding Email Connect as a consultancy focused exclusively on the ESP/CRM vendor selection process, Chris served as a tenured executive at Acxiom, leading and building its Global Digital and Email Agency Services team into one of the industry’s top services providers.
Chris is also the co-host with Paul Shriner of "Email Geeks at Home Drinking Coffee", a weekly podcast devoted to featuring guests from business, sports and the arts who have great and inspiring stories to share--which sometimes includes email marketing!
Additionally, he is a regular columnist on email marketing and the RFP process and is an advisor to several emerging marketing technology companies including AudiencePoint and CertainSource.

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