1. What type of service do you need? While analysts categorize ESPs into full service, self-service and a hybrid service, this can be confusing. What if you want to use a full service vendor now, and then grow a team internally so you can ultimately do it all yourself? I know two ESPs that have been classified by analysts as self-service, who in fact do provide the classic full-service capabilities. On the other hand there is a well-known ESP that is supposed to be full service only, but a large part of its business is in fact self-service.
The success of any partnership is in the willingness and flexibility in matching needs to solutions to today's needs and tomorrow's requirements. So, the technology might fit, and the relevant experience might fit, but is the company flexible enough to support your growth? While I love analyst reports and quote them often, take them with a grain of salt when selecting your list of potential suppliers. Some of the best sources are industry networks. The Email Experience Council (www.emailexperience.org) is one that is emerging, and there are several insider lists that offer a forum for clients to discuss experiences and refer good partners (I've posted these on my blog).
2. How much flexibility do you have with budget and contracting? There is more flexibility than you might think in negotiating contracts, but don't wait till the final selection of your new ESP to discuss terms and options. Many companies have done RFPs only to find themselves stuck in a swirl of contract negotiations because extra charges popped up or SLAs didn't meet IT's requirements. Be sure to disclose any specifics about contracting requirements up front.
3. How much integration do you really need? Everyone wants a symbiotic relationship between data and syndication, but the perfect solution does not exist. Understanding the trade-offs is critical. The RFP process can be a great opportunity to validate your requirements by forcing partners to come up with customized approaches to helping you solve problems, but don't take a PowerPoint presentation as an integration plan.
4. How do you transition from one vendor to another effectively and efficiently? Changing ESPs will inevitably cause you to change some of your processes, train new people and begin to work with new technology and support teams. This could end up being the most expensive aspect of this effort. You have to budget for this transition; don't expect the partner to absorb these fees. Be clear about the details of this change in your RFP and expect your future partner to give you a plan for the transition so it does not affect your operation and delivery performance.
5. What type of partnership do you want? The No. 1 reason I hear why people are changing ESPs is they don't feel they are getting the value they deserve. Both the partner and client should be realistic about this relationship and the keys to success. The clearer your success metrics are, the easier it is to keep a scorecard on performance. And remember, you get what you pay for. So-called "value-added services" are often over-promised and under-delivered.
This process can be simple or painful depending on your budget, resources and company culture. The transition can also be painful, but like an ostrich, you'd do yourself a disserve if you didn't pull your head up out of the sand every year, look around and see what technologies are available and what other companies are doing.
I've posted a longer version of this column on my blog as well as a few links to networking groups in the email space.