The RFP. The Request for Proposal. The standard and most-often used way to begin the process of finding an email service provider, either to replace an existing one or for the first time. It’s the ESP RFP, and it’s a process that’s dreaded by many on both the client side and the ESP side. Yet, despite the dread, the RFP process continues to be the norm.
And the RFP process does have its place. Although it can be time-consuming, costly and sometimes ineffective, the RFP can do some good. It can also do some bad. And it can even be ugly.
If an email service provider comparison is on your radar screen in 2015 and you’re planning an RFP, first let’s talk about the benefits and challenges of doing so. I’m not saying don’t do it. I’m only saying be aware of the good, bad and ugly, so you’re expectations are in line with what an RFP can really do for you.
The Good Part of the RFP
Your team’s own clarity might be the best thing to come out of the RFP process. Formulating your request for proposals requires you to look at your email marketing program and goals, to consider what you really need vs. what you really want, or to perhaps find out what seemed like an ESP issue was actually an internal one.
In addition, the process presents an opportunity for everyone to have their say and for you to make sure you have internal buy in on the whole idea of a switch. By requesting input from each of the different departments that might be involved, you’re both alerting these other departments that a change is in the works, and ensuring they know they have a place at the table.
It also forces you to standardize your criteria and ask every potential vendor for the same information. This can help prevent you from being distracted by the fancy features and keep you focused on your core needs, by comparing how well those needs can be met by each email service provider, and not the latest enhancement that isn’t on your “needs” list.
On the flip side, the RFP can make some changes to your marketing program possible, changes that move your team (and your marketing) beyond your status quo by making possible inquiries into enhancements such as marketing automation, cross-channel marketing, or integration between systems that have stood as silos for too long.
Essentially, the RFP process works just fine if you’re very clear on what it is you need and why you’re switching (if you are), and if you’re disciplined enough to stick with those features you have to have. It also helps to know how to optimize the RFP process, in order to get more of the “good” out of it.
The Bad Part of the RFP
On the other hand, the RFP does have a potential downside, distracting you from what really matters. For one thing, it can put your focus on price when that should be the least of your concerns, at least initially. You also risk getting caught up in the RFP process itself, with the meetings and drafts and math, and forgetting why you’re making the switch in the first place.
The RFP might lead to spending too much time reinventing the wheel. It could be you don’t need an RFP sent out to a dozen ESPs. It could be you simply need to ask around and come up with three names, for example, or talk to a consultant instead.
It’s also time consuming, sucking up staff resources and taking people away from other key projects.
Finally, an RFP can’t help you measure what really matters: service. Most companies switch ESPs because of service issues — or maybe I should say lack-of-service-issues. It can be hard to measure an email service provider’s true customer attitude and response times, however, when you’re in the rose-colored glasses stage of prospecting, when everyone is on their best behavior.
The Ugly Part of the RFP
Really, there’s only one ugly side to the RFP: thinking an ESP switch will solve your problems. Oftentimes, companies go through the whole intensive process to end up with a new ESP—and end up with the same old problems, as well, because the problems were internal from the start. The reality is, sometimes you simply don’t need to switch because the ESP isn’t to blame.
Do you have to risk the bad and ugly along with the good if you decide to go the RFP route? Not necessarily: There are ways to optimize the RFP process, and there are ways around the RFP too, such as going straight to a short list, hiring a consultant to do the search for you, or jumpstarting your search with an online tool that narrows down your choices for you. And there’s always the possibility that you don’t need a new ESP after all.