RFPs and your Procurement team: A must-read survival guide

There’s been a lot written about the best way to go about choosing a new email services provider (ESP) over the years. In fact, on this website alone there must be over 10 such pieces. Much of those focus on common mistakes to avoid and how to achieve the right outcome.

One topic that doesn’t get enough consideration is the role that your procurement team should (and shouldn’t) play in your RFP.  When it comes to RFPs, you might not have a whole lot of choice about whether or not to involve procurement.

Sometimes procurement has a rule that every X number of years you have to RFP. In (semi) Government and enterprise this is very common. If it isn’t a company rule, they’re not going to be able to tell you that you need to start an RFP, but they might need to give approval to start the process.

All of which brings me to this key point: understanding what procurement does well, and doesn’t do well, will be critical to the outcome of your RFP. 

What is procurement?

Procurement itself is the action of obtaining or procuring something. Goods, services, or works from an external source, often involving a competitive bidding process. This includes agreeing to terms and conditions.

The Procurement Department manages the procurement process.
They are the group within a company that is authorized to issue :

  • Invitations to Bid,
  • Requests for Proposal,
  • Requests for Quotation,
  • Issue contracts.

A Procurement Department will also issue purchase orders and negotiate terms.

In a nutshell, the role of procurement is to
1) make sure your process is run correctly,
2) that the services match what you need,
3) and most importantly: that the price is right.

Most procurement departments are more than capable when it comes to making sure the process runs correctly. They manage RFPs all the time. Though most of these RFPs are not for a new marketing technology like an email service provider. And that presents two critical hurdles for them when it comes to knowing the services you need and that the price is right.

Your procurement team doesn’t really know what you need.

How could they? Email marketing platforms are incredibly complex systems. This isn’t like buying printer paper, or janitorial services for the office building.
Those two are mostly price-driven considerations. But when picking a new ESP, price should never be the primary consideration. Platform alignment with your requirements should be #1. 

Your procurement team doesn’t really know what you need (something that sends email?). So they aren’t a good place to start when you are building the requirements document for your RFP.

I’ve seen requirement documents for RFPs that were clearly dusted off versions of an RFP performed 3-5 years previously. You can’t really blame your procurement team for falling back on the one your company used the last time around.

It’s understandably hard for them to know how far platforms have evolved over the years. But when you stick too closely to old RFP requirements, you’ll end up with the ESP that was perfect for you… 5 years ago!

Your Procurement team has no idea what the price of email should be.

Procurement folks are great at comparing prices between vendors, and they are also good at getting a vendor to cut a bid. That is why vendors often pad a bid to cushion the inevitable procurement “haircut”.

If your procurement folks don’t go into the RPF process with a solid understanding of what good pricing looks like, you can’t be sure you’ve got the right price. It’s not their fault. It’s highly likely you don’t even know what you should be paying.

ESPs have a talent for making their pricing models hard to understand. They’ve learned to add different types of fees that allow them to reduce their dependence on CPMs. This will be news to most procurement teams, traditionally focused on the CPM as the key pricing component. 

We see more pricing proposals from ESPs in an average year that any procurement professional is likely to see over the course of his or her career.

We have been able to track pricing trends over the last 10 years, something that no procurement person (or email analyst firm) has access to. And the ESPs know we have this data, which makes a price discussion completely transparent. Who do you think is going to get you a better price?

What is the role of Procurement in your RFP?

There can be a role for procurement in your next ESP RFP. We’ve had some great working relationships in past RFPs with the procurement teams at our clients.

In fact, in a couple of cases, it was procurement who brought us into the process. Here is an overview of different phases, and the role of procurement in your RFP.

Selection PhaseRole of procurementTips / notes
Pre-RFP / RFINo role for procurement unless company policy dictates periodic RFPsIf it’s a company rule, don’t push back
Create the Requirements/RFPProvide boilerplate requirements/questions required in any RFP issued by companyTry to keep the boilerplate to a minimum and validate them. Avoid micro-management
Evaluate the RFP responsesInvolvement level is up to the procurement teamIn a scorecard-driven process it’s always good to include all interested parties willing to go through the responses
Meet and select the finalistsNo role
Sandboxes / trial and select WinnerNo role
Negotiate contract and termsYour Procurement team should take the lead hereSelection team need to stay involved to ensure that your opinions are taken into account

Working with an outside consultant in an RFP process doesn’t mean the procurement team isn’t doing its job. Rather, it’s a way for the procurement team to ensure that they ARE doing their job. A consultant can help guide the client’s email team to the best ESP for its unique requirements. And use the in-depth knowledge of the market pricing to get the right price.

On the other hand, procurement doesn’t agree to the use of outside consultants, they can be very effective at sabotaging your efforts.

A Sad Ending to an RFP

I remember an RFP we were hired to manage a few years back.

Apparently, procurement had not been asked to participate in a different RFP the previous year for a new Content Management System (CMS). They didn’t like that. Needless to say, they made sure they had a seat at the table for the ESP review

It was clear from the first meeting that the woman from procurement was going to make it her job to make the process as miserable as possible for everyone involved. From both her company and us. And she proved really good at it! She demanded to be the one to interface with us.

We’ve never created so many versions of a requirements document before or after. She asked for numerous edits of dubious merit from each new version she received. After that, she declared we needed to convert all the requirements from statements to questions.

This had absolutely no bearing on the document, but it created another delay and a lot more make-work for our team.

Long story short, right around this time the email marketing lead (otherwise known as “the person who hired us”) left the company. Was it related to the RFP process? I don’t know. Once she left the scene, procurement wasted no time in cutting Email Connect loose from the RFP.

At the time the reason given was that they were going to put it on hold. But a short time later, a couple of ESPs reached out to us asking if we were running the RFP for a brand. We weren’t, both vendors remarked how much the RFP looked and sounded like one that we would have created. The story could have ended there, but now that we had a pipeline into the process, we were able to stay informed of the RFP’s progress.

Sadly for the vendors, the RFP dragged on for 12 months under the direction of our former procurement nemesis at the client. It finally sputtered to an inconclusive ending with the incumbent keeping the business. No winners here!

All Stakeholders are in this together, so get them together

All brand stakeholders need to understand that bringing in a consultant to help with an ESP RFP isn’t an either/or proposition in your ESP selection team.

We have seen time and again that the best outcomes happen when we partner with a client’s procurement team for the RFP. We need them, and they need us to for the valuable insight and expertise we bring regarding platforms and pricing.

If you are about to begin your own RFP and you’re getting pushback from your procurement team on bringing in outside help, insist they meet with the consultant.  This can make all the difference in the world.

RFPs where all the stakeholders are aligned are successful RFPs. You don’t want to ignore your procurement team’s advice, you want them on your team.  But you also want them to focus on what they do best, and only what they do best.

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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