Selecting a Marketing Automation System Requires Looking Beyond Features

Currently considering or actively evaluating a marketing automation system to improve your B2B lead generation and lead nurturing process? If so, look beyond the feature comparison charts to make sure you understand solution providers’ customer service orientation, online training/help resources, process for rolling out new features/versions / bug fixes, and whether or not you’ve been impressed with their ability to develop YOU as a prospective customer through automated means, both obvious (e.g., new email offer 3 days after you download a whitepaper from their site) and less obvious (e.g., that call from your Sales contact to see if you would like to talk to some customer references after you visited the “Testimonials” page on their web site yesterday). You’ll find that multiple marketing automation vendors provide the key features you need but, after the contract is signed, your satisfaction with the vendor and business results will largely be determined by the four factors above.

Over the last 10+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to lead evaluation, selection and implementation of a wide range of marketing automation software systems to address a range of business requirements including:

  • Defining and implementing a core CRM for both Sales and Marketing use
  • Evaluating email service providers as part of a cost/benefit analysis for continued investment in an in-house system vs. outsourcing some or all functionality to a 3rd party vendor
  • Adding a marketing demand generation system, and integrating with Salesforce.com, to improve lead scoring, automate core lead nurture campaigns and improve information sales reps have about prospect interest
  • Selecting a learning management (LMS/LCMS) system for internal sales training (initially), customer training and prospect education/lead nurture.

Much has been written about the core best practices for selecting a marketing automation system, particular the importance of On B2B Marketing - Email Marketing Automationmatching business needs to system features and committing the resources necessary to see success. As you dig into system requirements and vendor capabilities, however, you’re likely to find that the key features you truly need are common across systems from multiple vendors. In fact, any “we’re the only system that does X” claims by a given vendor are likely to be short-lived – there’s such an arms race among leading CRM, email marketing, demand generation, etc. vendors that any meaningful feature advantage is likely to be temporary at best.

So, what do you look for in a marketing automation vendor that can help narrow your choice between several viable options? Here are several key “features” I’ve found to have a major impact on both usability and business results.

Customer Support

Automating marketing programs is an ongoing process of testing and refinement – you’re never “done” with marketing automation, and I’m 100% certain you will need help from the vendor along the way. Even with a support contract that looks the same on paper, two different vendors may deliver entirely different customer support experiences:

  1. Vendor 1’s personnel are able to quickly understand your need and either identify a workable solution or honestly confirm that what you want to do is not possible (or will be enabled in a future version of the product).
  2. Vendor 2’s personnel seemingly look to provide a response, any response, as quickly as possible so they can close out the support request.

You want your marketing automation solution provider to respond to support requests like Vendor 1. To see if they do, find and talk with other clients of the solution provider, and not necessarily those given as references. Does the company respond to support requests in a timely manner with useful information that solves the issue? Are their support staff well-trained, understanding both system functionality (and limitations) as well as the business results you’re trying to achieve?

Online Help & Marketing Automation Training

You don’t want to have to contact Customer Support for every little question. A good marketing automation vendor doesn’t want you to do that either, so they invest in both a useful online help system and online training materials covering different aspects of system set-up/usage and more general marketing automation best practices. Before deciding on a vendor, make sure the people on your team who will be responsible for using the system to deliver the intended business results have an opportunity to run through several online training modules, use the internal help system, etc. Also ask existing customers about how useful they’ve found the online help system and available online training. If you don’t get ringing endorsements from both your team and existing customers, keep looking.

Process for Rolling-Out New Features & Bug Fixes

This is a critical area few marketing automation system users think about up front, particularly if they’ve either had no experience with these types of systems and just expect things to “work”, or they’ve only had experience with industry leaders like Salesforce.com, Eloqua, etc. where new feature/functionality roll-outs are typically very smooth. However, all it takes is one botched new feature roll-out resulting in a corrupted database, broken lead scoring, failed automated processes or other nasty issue to drive this one home. When the solution provider updates the core system, adds new features, implements bug fixes, etc., the process should be smooth and transparent for customers. Is this the case? Does the solution provider do a good job communicating about upcoming changes, and quickly address any unintended problems that arise from these roll-outs? Have customers ever found that a key feature/function of their automated programs “breaks” due to a system change they were never made aware of and, if so, how did the solution provider respond?  This is obviously another great area to discuss with the vendors’ existing customers but, in today’s social media age, you’ll get a great perspective on how different vendors handle these issues by taking a look at customer support forums and searching for vendor mentions on Twitter. No company handles every roll-out perfectly, but you want to see a history of clear communication and fast action when problems arise.

Are You Impressed by How the Vendor Develops YOU as a Prospect?

I saved this one for last because it can be a bit “big brother”-ish – whether you realize it or not, every marketing automation vendor is watching, recording and tying-together every move you make as you visit their web site, download their content, receive automated or personalized emails from them and more. Once you start using these systems, you realize just how much information is available to marketers using these systems as they craft automated programs to develop prospects. It’s a LOT. All this technology and information should deliver a near seamless experience to you, as the prospective buyer, that leaves you feeling “Wow, they really get it. They’re persistent in a helpful way – I always feel like I’m learning something new and valuable from each interaction – and definitely not just pushing a product/solution I don’t really need.” Are the dogs eating their own dog food? Are they using their own systems to effectively build the relationship with you? If not, you have to question whether they really understand what marketing automation is all about.