We see it all the time in marketing. A business wants to switch email service providers (ESPs), and so they begin at the seemingly logical—yet dreaded—place: the RFP.

I suspect the dreaded request for proposals is as common as it is because marketers see it as a way to jumpstart the selection process: It's a way to get started when you're not sure how to get started.

I also suspect, though, that RFPs are common simply because they seem to have always been with us. Yet, sometimes, there is a better way than the way people before you did it.

Most organizations using an RFP whittle down a long list of vendors to a short list, and then the real work of comparing and contrasting (and ultimately contracting) begins. But a lot of time and energy is spent just getting to that point.

It is possible, though, to get to the short list stage faster, saving you time and money—by optimizing your RFP process.

I have seen more RFPs than I care to remember, so I have some definite ideas about how to go about doing an RFP right. Based on those experiences, I offer you six tips for optimizing the process and making it go faster, smoother, and easier.

Tip 1: Talk about why you're making the switch

First and foremost, have a conversation about why you're switching ESPs.

Discovering the dissatisfactions and disappointments that led your company to the decision to switch ESPs could have a huge impact on the criteria you put in place for your new one. Was there frustration over poor reporting tools? Or an inability to segment lists? Maybe it was subpar customer service?

Whatever the causes of the need for change, find out what they are, get to know them intimately, and be ready to ask vendors about them.

Tip 2: Do your homework. No, really: Do your homework!

Tackling your homework—i.e., figuring out what you need—will also save you time and effort when doing an RFP. Start by figuring out what your requirements are, and categorize them as follows:

  1. Have to have
  2. Would like to have
  3. Wouldn't it be cool to have!

Once your needs are prioritized, stick to this list!

Those requirements in the "have to have" category are those you can't do without. If an ESPs can't meet all of the requirements in that category, don't even talk to them. Do not be distracted by the cool bells and whistles! You can look at bells and whistles later, but those whiz-bang features are the last thing on your list, quite literally.

Tip 3: Talk to the right size ESPs

Your next homework assignment is figuring out what size or type of ESP you should be considering. There are three: ESPs geared toward small to midsize businesses, mid-market ESPs, and enterprise-level ESPs.

Your fit is not based on your company size; it's based on the size and complexity of your email marketing program. Yours might be a midsize company, but with a massive send volume, complex segmentation, and a need for detailed email analytics. In that case, it could well be that the ESP for you is the enterprise-level one.

You also need to consider projected growth. If you're anticipating rapid growth in the next two years or so, consider moving up to the next size ESP so you don't outgrow your email partner and potentially stifle that growth.

Once you have all that figured out, consider only the ESPs that are of the size you need (or will need). In fact, you can start a short list at this stage.

Tip 4: Start taking names

Now that you have a good idea of your current and future needs and what kind of ESP might fit the bill, start taking names: Ask around to find out who uses which ESP and why.

Ask your industry association and maybe even your vendors and partners. Also figure out which ESPs are used by your competitors. Finally, look at companies comparable to yours in the size and complexity of their email, and find out which ones they use.

Then ask around to find out what people think of their ESPs. What do they like or dislike about them?

Based on all that input, continue forming your list.

Tip 5: Focus on the 20%

You've heard of the 80/20 rule, of course. At ClickMail, we have our own version for comparing email service providers: About 80% of what an ESP does is the same as about 80% of what every other ESP in that category does, so you need to focus on the 20% that's different, because that's where the real comparison will happen.

And what's that 20%? To find out, go back to the results of Tip 1 and 2, where you did your homework and prioritized your needs. Focus on the differentiators as you add ESPs to your list of potential candidates.

Tip 6: Skip the RFP and go straight to the shortlist!

If you followed all of these tips, you could quite possibly get to the short-list stage without even needing to start an RFP—or, at a minimum, send out a shorter RFP to a smaller list and focus just on that 20% that really matters. How's that for saving time?

We are talking about optimizing the process to save time and to focus on what matters, but one caveat about time: Don't rush the process! This is an important decision you'll have to live with, and it will affect the success of your email marketing programs for years to come.

Although you're saving time by doing your homework and legwork, take the time to make the right choice.

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Shopping for an Email Service Provider? Six Tips for Optimizing the RFP Process

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image of Marco Marini

Marco Marini is the CEO of ClickMail Marketing and an expert in email marketing with over a decade of experience in the field.

LinkedIn: Marco Marini