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How to prevent an email RFP disaster

Christopher Marriott
How to prevent an email RFP disaster Christopher Marriott

I have sat on both sides of the table in a lot of enterprise email RFPs over the years. Sometimes it has been representing an ESP. More recently I've been helping marketers through the process of selecting a new ESP. Some of what I've seen over time has surprised me, so this month I'm going to share tips for both ESPs and marketers on how to improve the RFP process -- and possibly, if you are an ESP, how to improve your chances of a win in your next pitch for an enterprise client.

Tip No. 1 for marketers: Plan your meeting agendas carefully

It's important that you remember you are going to have to sit through final presentations for several ESPs. Keep this in mind when drawing up agendas for the in-person meetings. For example, while it might seem like a great idea to hear about things like "How email is evolving" or "The impact of mobile on email marketing," there are plenty of places you can get this information. Devoting a significant part of the in-person presentations to topics like this means that you are going to have to sit through four or more presentations on the same topic. You can trust me that by the third meeting you are going to dread this section. Why? Because all of the ESPs are going to tell you pretty much the exact same thing on broad industry topics like these. You're not going to hear anything that will help you determine who might be the best partner.

A better approach is to figure out what it is about your current partner that has brought you to this point. Are there pain points in the process that could perhaps be made to disappear if you changed ESPs? Are there steps that could be automated to reduce time and cost? Use cases are a great way to get fresh thinking, even from the incumbent. Asking the ESPs to use the in-person meeting to respond to specific use cases lets you see how they approach problems, how they think, and who the really smart people on their teams are. Even if you're doing the RFP only because procurement mandates you do one every three or four years, that doesn't mean you should simply settle for a cheaper ESP. Switching is going to be brutal; don't kid yourself. It's only worth it if you get a better solution along with some cost savings. Asking their opinions on social media isn't going to get you there.

Tip No. 2 for marketers: The search process is going to take longer than you think -- every time!

I have never participated in an RFP where the original timetable was met. Not one. RFPs are very time consuming, and they should be because the stakes are so high. So don't be surprised when end of February becomes early April. The longer time frame isn't indicative of a breakdown in the process. It merely reflects the fact that you are going to have so many people involved with so many moving parts that, even with the best intentions, meeting dates are going to take longer to get scheduled.

If you go into an RFP with this attitude, then you'll be able to time it while taking into account peak sending periods for your product or service and not find yourself having to migrate to a new vendor right before that time hits. This way, if you're a retailer you don't get stuck migrating in November, if you're a cruise line you're not doing it in February, and if you're a summer vacation spot, you're not migrating in May. So by all means put together a timetable for the RFP. You have to start somewhere. But bear in mind it's an aspirational timetable.

And if you still are going into the process insisting that you will stick to your original timetable, at least negotiate a month-to-month deal with your current vendor so you're not stuck when your date slips (and it's going to). You'll get a much better deal if you're not doing it 30 days before your current contract expires. At the beginning of the search, your vendor still thinks they are in the running. Later in the process, if it looks like you're not going to pick them, they won't be so flexible.

Tip No. 1 for ESPs: Show me people I want to work with

There are so many things happening at the in-person meeting, whether they are the finals or earlier in the process. You need to get your documents in order. You need to show senior management support for the opportunity. And while you are focusing on these things you might neglect the impression your team is going to make on the potential client. A new business meeting is equal parts content and chemistry. The best script in the world can be demolished by poor acting on Broadway. It's no different in a new business meeting. You're meeting with people who are in serial meetings over a period of days, and unless you are first, they're already sick of them. (Being first comes with its own problems.)

Start with the question: Is your senior management boring? Chances are good the answer is "yes." (Of course, when I ran the ESP at Acxiom that wasn't the case!) Maybe not all of them are dull, and you can afford one or two of these types to show senior management involvement. Leave the rest home and balance out your team with smart and fun people. If you find yourself in a presentation without a female on your team, that's a major fail as well. Seriously, what kind of signal do you think you are sending to the women sitting across the table from you at your prospect? I never went into an RFP meeting without at least two of the smartest women I had working for me. Toss in an engaging head of sales (who brings food every time), and a funny f-bomb dropping creative director and now you have a team that looks interesting, appears like it might be a good group to work with, and lightens up an otherwise tedious meeting. Who cares if creative isn't on the table? Once they met my guy, it often found its way there.

One more thing. If I have to ask you, "Are any of the people here folks who would be assigned to our account?" and I get a blank look for an answer, that's another fail. Bring an account director with experience in my client's industry and tell us he/she will be the leader of the team. I know you might try to change that later if you win, but make me believe at that moment this is the person. If you remember chemistry is as important as content, you'll be fine.

Tip No. 2 for ESPs: Repeat after me: It's an RFP for email marketing

The clients all get it. They know you've invested in social and mobile tools because that's what every other ESP has done. And you are desperately trying to find a way to leverage these capabilities to provide some distance between you and the other ESPs. But there are a couple of problems with an approach that relies heavily on emphasizing these other capabilities:

  • Everyone has something in these areas now. Everyone is talking about "omni-channel." Nothing you can say will make you stand out from the others in a meaningful way. It all becomes a blur. And that's OK because...

  • It's an email pitch! You're meeting with the email team! The client-side folks who are in the social and mobile areas (outside of SMS) are not going to be in the room. They have their own vendors already. Yeah, it's too bad clients are still siloed, but they are. So unless you've invited the CMO who should care about your total offering, the people who invited you want to hear about email. Your social widget isn't going to seal the deal for you.

Don't get me wrong. If you have something that you can really demonstrate that adds value to an email marketing program's performance, go ahead and show it. But tie it to a real client success story. If you can't, no one is going to be that impressed.

There are lots of other things that both marketers and ESPs can do to create better end results for the RFP process. It's a lot of work for everyone, so if we can set better expectations upfront, everyone wins in the end -- though one ESP wins bigger than the others!

Chris Marriott is the vice president of services and principal consultant at The Relevancy Group.

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