sign reading "I fell in love here"
PHOTO: Jason Briscoe

In the DNA of marketing technologists, there is a “Jerry Maguire Gene.” It makes us fall for marketing technology vendors who appear to “complete us.” We want to tell them “you had me at hello” because they promise the world in the request for proposal (RFP) process. 

And then they under-deliver.

Picking a vendor based on first impressions is like choosing to marry someone based on a Tinder profile. Marketers (and online daters) are good at looking good. Isn't it suspicious that vendors check every box on their own feature “checklists”?

During my time at New Balance, I managed global photography and related marketing systems. I made some blunders when choosing platforms. From those experiences, I learned a better way to navigate the RFP process. (Disclosure: I did implement Widen’s DAM for New Balance and then joined Widen — a story for another time.)

My advice is to stop looking for a vendor and start looking for a “partner” — a term many marketers abuse. The qualities we seek in a life partner are the same ones we value in technology partners. 

Buckle up, these RFP tips are going to get hot:

1. Keep Love at First Sight for the Movies 

Your eyes lock for the first time when that marketing email crosses your screen. Maybe you downloaded a white paper — just to flirt a bit. You boldly walk across the metaphorical room (pull out your phone) and call a sales adviser: “Hey, I’m Michael. I came across your email and ...” (Irresistible pickup line, I know).

Don’t be charmed. Start examining whether the vendor’s words and actions match. Above all else, screen for integrity.

We do the same with our life partners. How do they treat others? How do they get along with family? What are they passionately for or against? How do they manage money? What are their goals and dreams? What are their ideas of commitment? Do these beliefs match their actions?

We assess integrity through courtship, which is a form of due diligence. Do the same with vendors.

Related Article: Ace the RFP Process Now or Risk Repeating in a Year

2. Get a Second (or Third) Opinion

Don’t evaluate a vendor the way the vendor advises. For example, vendors will offer to connect you with references who, undoubtedly, will say nice things about the company. Instead, look for a brand on the vendor’s website that isn’t listed as a reference. Find that brand’s martech person on LinkedIn and send a note: “Hey, I noticed that you use [vendor] for [something useful]. Would you be willing to chat briefly about your experience?”

These conversations are akin to asking your friends and acquaintances about someone you’re interested in dating seriously. A martech vendor once told me how much a certain customer loved its platform. I contacted that customer on LinkedIn and heard the opposite. If the customers that supposedly “love” the vendor feel neglected, would I be treated any better?

Not every story is factual, but when you hear enough stories, patterns emerge. If all the patterns say a person is trouble, would you sign a marriage contract the next day?

3. Spend Time Together

Marketing technologies are not systems — they are approaches to doing business. To get a sense of a particular vendor’s approach, spend time at one of its user conferences or workshops. Nowhere else can you interact with so many of the vendor’s employees, speak face to face with customers, and see where the platform is evolving. Real dating happens in person (sorry, swipers).

You might argue that user conferences are expensive and take up time. Well, what’s more expensive: spending $100,000 to suffer through a five-month implementation and divorce a year later when all your users have abandoned the system? Or paying for a flight and a hotel room to discover whether that $100,000 will be money well spent? Spend time with your vendor.

Related Article: Buying DX Technology Is Easy. Finding a Solution Is Hard

4. Trust Your Gut

Don’t kid yourself: Vendors won’t change. Your impressions of the vendor will never get better than what you saw during the RFP process. All the dirt comes out once you’re living together. If something seems off, trust your gut. Vendors don’t get better because you’ve paid them. They have integrity and do what they say — or they don’t.

A red flag is a vendor that makes a bunch of colossal promises and never says no. “Of course, we can customize that,” they tell you, “and that and that and that.”

I recently got sucked in by promises like that. The resulting system looked good but broke down repeatedly during testing, a sign that the vendor “wooed” us with custom code but didn’t anticipate how difficult it would be to create and maintain. The more a vendor has to “change” (aka customize) to meet your needs, the more skeptical you should be.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

It’s easy to be star-struck by a hot vendor with an impressive client list — to get enticed by toned financial documentation, chic checklists and that “I’m not your average vendor” sweet talk.

Don’t get sucked in. I have been through multiple painful marketing technology implementations, and I wish I had known all of this beforehand. On the bright side, I am happily married and grateful I made my “relationship” mistakes on software.

To reiterate: Don’t assess vendors the way they want you to. Put integrity above all else, and find a real partner. If a vendor completes you, you won’t know it at hello.