5 telltale signs an ESP will rip you off (just by glancing at their website)

emailservice_rip_offSo you’re looking for an ESP (Email Service Provider) and someone tells you about a cool new kid on the block? Or perhaps an old bulletproof mainstay which you’re not yet familiar with? How do you know that ESP is reliable and won’t cost you a arm and a leg?

First stop is their website. Just plug their URL into your browser and off you go straight to a home page with…

1. No client roster, no case studies, no testimonials

“We’re the bee’s knees!”, the ESP proudly claims. Great, got a customer to vouch for you? “We have over 15 years experience!” Super, can you show me a referral to go with it? “Hundreds of businesses enjoy our services!” Can you name a couple? Not even one? Come on, folks, throw me a bone here.

Is this a deal breaker?

Not really (mostly). If the ESP you’re checking out is a startup, it’s only natural they won’t feature a client roster yet. Even if they do, expect some far from impressive local businesses to be included, but you shouldn’t worry too much. It just means they’re starting out.

The key thing here is how upfront they are about it on the site blurb. If you see something like “We’re just getting started, but we’d love to have you along for the ride!”, you’ll probably be fine. Maybe a bit bumpy at first while they work out the inevitable kinks, but you’ll be given help at all times from fresh-minded entrepreneurs eager to prove their merits – which can only be a good thing.

Definitely not a good thing though: a whole lot of boasting without anything to back it up. Be particularly wary of ESPs yapping about multiple years in the business and yet nothing to show for it. No testimonials, no customers and a LinkedIn page with just one or two people (usually CEO, guru, visionary or a combination of all three). That’s a surefire sign you’re being kept in the dark.

“Things are not as clear-cut though. An ESP with no references doesn’t mean I will be screwed over “, you may retort.

And you’d be absolutely right. It just means they’re pretty much begging you to take a chance on them with no real track record. Will you?

2. Masses of big, meaningless words

So the ESP’s site looks and feels great, nice chunky text, excellent use of pics, snappy responsive design everywhere, the works!

But then you look closer. “Data-driven flexibility”, “hyper-integrated digital touch points”, “fully connected communications”…

Hmm, what’s this gibberish all about? Which actual battle-tested tools will this ESP provide to help you succeed? “Scalable business intelligence”, “ultimate brand experience”, “flexible technology framework”… Oh dear.

Is this a deal breaker?

Depends on what you expect. The above is standard corporate-speak for “We can help you, but we won’t tell you how”. Quite often, the only way to find out is either dig deep into the ESP’s full product sheets (good luck finding them) or call their customer service and drill the sales person until you ferret out some kind of answer which isn’t “Don’t worry, I’ve booked a live demo for you. You’ll love it!” – a next-to-impossible feat, by the way.

There’s actually a pretty good reason for the “mystery box” approach. Corporate-sized ESPs get most of their profits from large corporate clients, which means they need to carefully screen business leads. Those slabs of marketing speak laced with big words are meant to both scare unqualified prospects away and entice high-value leads to ring sales up (where another screening process takes place). Doesn’t matter that it all sounds like gobbledygook. As long as they funnel you into the live demo, they’ve done their job.

And that’s when you’ll learn why there’s…

3. No pricing available anywhere

Rule of thumb: if an ESP’s website doesn’t link to a pricing page either straight off the home page or as a can’t-miss-it menu item, their services will cost you an arm and a leg.

Is this a deal breaker?

Do you have an arm and a leg to spare? If so, go right ahead. You’ll be profiled and given a quote, with a sales rep following up on it a couple days later to explain to you all the perks and cool features that go into the price. It’ll be a pretty penny and will probably require an audit on your whole site and server infrastructure, but you usually do get what you pay for, both regarding features and performance.

It’s actually not too dissimilar from taking a hands-on look at a Bentley. You’ll seldom see the price on display at the Bentley car dealer – step right in though and next thing you know a sales manager has just snapped into place alongside you, gauging your interest and suggesting a test drive if your profile tickles their financial fancy. Is the final charm price you’ll be given a fair price? Hardly, but that’s a Bentley we’re talking about. You’re not paying for the parts, you’re paying for the privilege :)

On the other hand, even when there is a pricing page readily available, take heed of extremely low prices, especially if…

4. Basic features are only provided as extras

What the heck, you guys? So you’re telling me I need to pony up for open&click tracking in addition to my monthly fee? And pay extra for a limited number of autoresponders? Which doesn’t even get me segmentation unless I upgrade for another recurring fee?

I have one word for you.


Is this a deal breaker?

Unless you’re just dabbling with email marketing, yes. The tiny roster of features you’re given out of the box may last you for a little while, but what’s missing is so crucial that you’ll have to upgrade sooner rather than later, usually at a cost higher than ESPs which include those features by default.

Another word of caution: if one of those paid upgrades is training, there’s a pretty good chance the ESP’s interface is so daunting you will need a rocket scientist brain just to get to grips with it.

But even that is preferable to…

5. No phone, no postal address

“Crickey, this ESP is right up my alley! Features, pricing, free trial account, it all jives with my expectations”. Awesome! And you’re just about to plunk down the money when you remember to check where those fine folks are located at.

Oops. No mailing address in sight. No city, no postcode, no country.

Well, let’s give them a ring then.

No phone, no mobile, just a vanilla contact form.

Is this a deal breaker?

Yes in virtually all cases. Are you really going to trust a company which seems to have left no trace in the real world? Who are you gonna call if something goes awry? There’s nothing physical here and the Ghostbusters aren’t around anymore.

At least a postal address means that, if all else fails, come hell or high water you can still knock on their door and come in for a chat or have someone do it for you.

The lack of a traceable brick-and-mortar HQ is also par for the course for companies operating on the razor-edge of the law, as it makes it harder for legal action to be pursued. Blog and social network profiles (if any) which haven’t been updated in months should also set your alarm bells ringing.

The only way to be sure? Google them up. If you get next to no hits or if the very first results page includes user complaints, stay the hell away!

Image via NoHoDamon (cc)

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