Margin for Error
Margin for Error (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve now been dealing with sales representatives in a variety of settings for about 22 years, both supporting reps as a bibliographer for a large academic book jobber and, on the other side, as a library staff member and professional librarian working in acquisitions, collection development, licensing, electronic resource management, and administrative positions. In general, I’ve found working with sales staff to be one of the great pleasures of my job; the vast majority of reps are skilled and smart and well-informed and helpful, and I cherish my professional association with them, some of whom have become my close friends.

Like all of us, however (librarians very much included), sales reps have a tendency to make mistakes, and over the years I’ve come to see patterns in those mistakes. Here are some of the more common ones. I offer this list as a heads-up to journal and book publishers, vendors, and others who sell products and services to research libraries.

1. Bragging to us about company growth

When your sales reps tell us about all the new customers coming on board, I get the impression they think we’re going to be impressed and reassured to hear that the company is doing well, and that we’ll feel better about our relationship with the company because we’re part of an impressive and growing customer population. But when you tell us about all your new customers, what we hear is that there is now growing competition for the time and attention of your support staff. When my rep tells me that Harvard and the University of California system have joined my library in the customer population for a product or service to which I subscribe, it doesn’t make me feel proud of the company I’m in — it makes me feel uncertain about whether my business is still as important to you as it was before those 500-pound gorillas joined the party, and (even more importantly) it leaves me wondering whether you are hiring additional back-office staff to handle what will surely be a significant increase in demand for their support. When you say “Look at our growth!” I hear “It’s now going to take even longer for us to respond to your emails!” Takeaway point: Never talk about customer-base growth without also talking about support-staff growth.

2. Telling the company story

I genuinely hate to tell you this, but we don’t care. No one cares. It doesn’t matter to us that your company was founded in 1850 and has been in the same family for generations or that it started out in a garage in Milwaukee in 1972 and has since expanded to do business in 40 countries around the world. We’re not going to make any purchasing decision based on your company’s history, because we’re not investing in your company. We’re doing two things: first, we’re buying a product from your company (and if we had any doubt you could provide it reliably we wouldn’t be talking to you in the first place); and second, we’re counting on a certain level of service quality (on which your company’s history has relatively little bearing). If you’re a vendor or aggregator competing directly with others who sell the same content as you do, then what I find much more helpful and relevant than history are statistics and references. What are your fulfillment rates? How much have your prices or service fees risen over the past ten years? Whom do you do business with now, and can we call them to find out what their experience with you has been? The answers we get to those questions are just as likely to be satisfactory coming from a 10-year-old company as from a 100-year-old one. (I can think of one exception to this rule: if your company has been passed around between five different private-equity firms over the past four years, then please do let us know that.) Takeaway point: Don’t sell us your company. Sell us your product or service, and let us get back to our jobs.

3. Selling the brand

This is particularly pointless if you’re a publisher, because you have no direct competitors. You may think you do, but (as I explained in an earlier SK posting) what you really have competition for is authors, who can get comparable services from other publishers; you have no real competition for subscribers, because we can’t get your content from anyone else and — more importantly — we don’t make purchase or subscription decisions based on your brand strength as a publisher. No faculty member ever asks us why we don’t subscribe to more Wiley journals or urges us to put more Routledge monographs in the collection. Conversely, if a faculty member says “We must have access to Journal X,” we almost never respond by saying “That’s not a great publisher; how about if we subscribe to a similar journal from a better publisher instead?” We generally make subscription decisions on a title-by-title basis, not a publisher basis, and in these days of extreme fiscal constraint we almost always do it in direct response to faculty demand. It does you no good to convince us of the strength of your publishing brand. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make those arguments in other venues, but in the context of a sales call with the people who actually pay the subscription bills, those arguments do you very little good. Takeaway point: In a research library, relevance and specific local needs trump brand strength every time.

4. Acting as if staff time has no value

This mistake is almost always inadvertent, but can be both frustrating and deeply offensive to your customers. Too often sales reps come to the library and ask for meetings with five or 10 or 20 staff members, showing little sensitivity to the tremendous opportunity cost such meetings represent. That opportunity cost grows every year, because our staffs are getting smaller even as our student bodies are getting larger, our gate counts are going up, the structure of our purchasing regimes is changing, and the ways in which we bring services to campus are proliferating. If eight members of my staff attend a one-hour meeting with your sales rep, that’s a full day of work that doesn’t get done. This isn’t to say that such meetings are never worth it — sometimes they are. It’s only to say that your sales reps too rarely show a sensitivity to the cost. And when the first 15 minutes of the meeting are wasted on company history and other irrelevancies rather than useful information, the problem is compounded. Takeaway point: Library staff time is precious. When you fail to treat it that way, you show disrespect to your customer.

5. Responding to affordability statements with value arguments

This, too, is an issue I’ve addressed in earlier SK postings, so I won’t belabor it here, except to point out again that the value of a product is relevant only if purchasing the product is within the realm of possibility. For the last several years I have been fielding pitches from a particuarly aggressive sales rep who very much wants to sell my library a backfile database at a price of roughly $150,000. When we tell him that we don’t have $150,000 available for such a purchase, the response is always a long explanation of how important and valuable the database is. We couldn’t agree more. But the value proposition doesn’t make $150,000 magically appear in our budget. There was a time, in the not-too-distant past, when we had the option of canceling marginal journal subscriptions and cutting our book budgets in order to make space for high-value, high-cost purchases, but for most of us, those days are over. All we have left are core subscriptions, and our book budgets have been gutted. And on top of that, our time is under increasing pressure — so we don’t have time for irrelevant conversations about the value of unaffordable products. Takeaway point: Value and affordability have nothing to do with each other, and price trumps value every time.

6. Making promises the company can’t keep

There’s an old joke about library systems vendors:

A guy dies and goes to hell. He’s ushered into the great hall of suffering, where he sees people writhing in torment and smells the sulphurous brimstone and feels the scorch of flames on his face. He turns to the imp at his side and says “Wait a minute. This isn’t what I was promised when we made our deal. Where’s the party? Where are the beautiful women and the delicious food? Where’s the music?” The imp replies, “Back then you were a prospect. Now you’re a client.”

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that sales reps are generally dishonest and misleading. In my experience, they are generally honest and straightforward. But there’s a structural problem in the way vendors and publishers (and many other service providers) do business: they send reps into the field and reward them for achieving sales goals, but rarely send back-office support staff—the ones who have a real, ground-level understanding of what is and isn’t possible, and who will field questions and complaints from the customer after the sale has been made — with them. Sales reps have a built-in incentive to make promises first and ask questions later; support staff have a built-in incentive to make sure that any promises made are reality-based. Sending support staff on the road with sales reps is expensive, but the payoff can be tremendous—and the consequences of not doing so can be dire. Takeaway point: Better to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa.

Once again, I want to reiterate my deep respect for sales reps and for the important work they do. In my next posting, I’ll outline some common mistakes made by librarians and library staff in dealing with reps.

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Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. He has worked previously as a bibliographer for YBP, Inc., as Head Acquisitions Librarian for the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, as Director of Resource Acquisition at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as Associate Dean for Collections & Scholarly Communication at the University of Utah.


28 Thoughts on "Six Mistakes Your Sales Reps Are Making"

I’ve run into numbers 4 and 5 quite a few times already, and I’ve only been dealing with vendor reps for about 3 years. In fact, I often see them as a sort of combination, as pitching a product the library simply can’t afford is not a good way to spend anyone’s time.

Regarding Point #4 – Why do vendors frequently expect library staff to help them develop their latest product by being beta testers etc. without any reimbursement?

Actually, in my experience this isn’t something vendors “expect” of library staff, but rather something they offer us in the hope that we’ll be interested. In my library, we take advantage of such offers when we expect the product or service to be of particular interest to our patrons and when we want the chance to help shape it before it goes to market in its final configuration. I also find that participating in the beta testing sometimes means significant savings. We helped a science publisher try out an early version of its patron-driven ebook acquisition model, and as a result our patrons ended up with (permanent) access to far more content than we could have afforded to buy them under normal circumstances. YMMV, of course, but I think the fact that publishers and vendors approach libraries to participate in beta testing is, in principle, a good thing.

Good clear info for the library and pub markets
As an aside, very brief history sprinkled here and there not a bad thing
A mention of orgs or people involved over time could offer insight into whether the company will be easy or difficult to deal with.
I agree that throughout publishing, generally the buyer/reader
is more concerned with author than publisher.
Service and what the company offers down the line is what you are buying to support the products you must have. Reps tend to let their companies know when a pricepoint or product is off the mark. Some companies respond and change, some ignore it as negativity on the rep’s part, some think the customer is missing an opp. Listening is important.

I want to echo Rick’s shout out to the support staff back in the office in #6. The quality of your support staff means more to me than any promises your smooth-talking sales person will ever make or any fancy dinner you might invite me to. Please send these folks out to visit your customers; whether it be on field trips or at smaller conferences like NASIG or Charleston. In many cases these “critical to my library’s success” support staff are THE reason I’m doing business with your company instead of your competitor.

Well said Rick! Numbers one,two and six ring especially true for me. I used to work in publishing sales many years ago and know the pressures associated with meeting your quotas and closing the sales, but with complex products and services, honestly and realistic promises/commitments must be first priority in any sales call. Also my advice to a sales rep would be to focus on what is unique about your company’s offerings. I used to and still ask book vendors the question; “What is it that you can offer me that the other company cannot?” When they give silly, shallow responses like “our excellent customer service” I smile and the interview is effectively over. Some quite honestly will say; “Not much!” Also, for the record, inviting me to receptions at annual conferneces does nothing to insure my patronage. This sort of event impresses the gullible and socially needy, but not the seasoned professional. Thanks for a very good posting.

Great post, Rick. One quibble about #3: I sometimes make collection development decisions based on the status and reputation of the publisher. Patron demand for content in specific resources still rules, true, but in reviewing slips for other materials for the collection, I’ll be more likely to purchase an imprint from Oxford or Cambridge UPs, Routledge, Ashgate, etc. than a publisher with whom I am not familiar, and WAY more likely to purchase from them than to spend money on books printed by vanity presses. In this way, the publisher’s reputation acts as a sort of legitimation that reinforces established social constructs that govern scholarly communication and research. Professors reviewing term papers and theses rely on these constructs as well, checking the publisher of sources cited as an indicator of the quality of an article or book chapter with which they aren’t familiar. And it works both ways: publishers who have worked hard to build confidence in their brand will be heavily invested in protecting that brand from being diluted by publishing poor or un-influential scholarship. Hence the status of the publisher’s brand is an important selling point. One challenger to the hegemony of the elite publishers, however, comes due to the democratizing influence of the Internet, which allows content creators to bypass those structures and do their own dissemination and promotion, often at much lower costs than the big guys. The removal of additional editorial oversight, peer review, and professional focused marketing skill results in more difficult decisions for librarians who cannot rely on the established indicators of quality when making purchasing decisions. Nevertheless, this destabilization of the market has those who benefit most from the academic legitimation system worried, so they perhaps push the selling of their brand a bit too fervently.

But maybe I’m looking at the issue too minutely: doesn’t the future lie in ubiquitous content availability, either brought to us through DDA programs or through the purchase of big deal packages? In the case of DDA, we relinquish our decision-making to the patrons, who may or may not use the brand of the publisher to make decisions about which sources to consult in their research. Conversely, in the big deal packages, we librarians may rely even more heavily on the reputation of the publishers and/or journal titles included in the aggregation because we don’t have the time to check on every single title offered to determine it’s potential usefulness for our local patron needs. Either way, I guess, the publishers have huge incentive to promote their brand; their futures rely on their reputation.

I sometimes make collection development decisions based on the status and reputation of the publisher. Patron demand for content in specific resources still rules, true, but in reviewing slips for other materials for the collection, I’ll be more likely to purchase an imprint from Oxford or Cambridge UPs, Routledge, Ashgate, etc. than a publisher with whom I am not familiar, and WAY more likely to purchase from them than to spend money on books printed by vanity presses.

That’s true, and I didn’t mean to imply that publisher brand is never relevant at all. It certainly matters more if, say, a librarian is looking at a list of ten monographic titles and trying to decide which five of them to purchase. But you’re also right that this kind of selection is declining in most research libraries. And it’s also true that most of our budget (again, in most research libraries) is being spent on journal subscriptions and online databases, not on individual monographs–and publisher branding really means very little in that space. (Except in very unusual circumstances involving scam or vanity presses.)

Doesn’t the future lie in ubiquitous content availability, either brought to us through DDA programs or through the purchase of big deal packages?

Certainly I would argue that a growing share of the future action lies in these areas–especially in patron-driven models.

I’m glad you agree with Steve up to a point because I do also, with respect to monographs. In fact, one of the challenges and risks a university press takes in moving into a new field for that press is that no track record exists by which to judge the success of that publisher’s program in its initial years. This also creates inertia in the other direction too, as a press pays a cost in abandoning a field where a press has built up a reputation over many years. The effect on approval-plan ordering can be significant. At Penn State, for instance, our art history had a well-deserved reputation for quality, and this ensured wide adoption via approval plans for our books in this field. By contrast, when I first started there in 1989 to build a list in social science, where the press had historically been very weak, my best strategy was to piggyback on another publisher’s reputation by co-publishing with the highly regarded UK academic publisher Polity Press. That gave us a short cut to building momentum and recognition that would have taken years longer to do by just acquiring books on our own. I often wonder how much university presses take these costs and benefits into account when they go through staffing changes that affect the publishing programs they have.

Well-observed piece, Rick. By and large, my consulting work with academic publishers has entailed moving on product design and marketing to the beginning of the product development path. Product people have the mission to engage librarians as institutional peers in advancing knowledge. So why not do this marketing work before the product is already in the can? This change of approach has paid off big for my clients. Lately I’ve been focusing on the role of sales as in the development of better offerings. Salespeople engage librarians as customers, not as peers. Different proposition, different relationship. But it’s the sales team that is the workaday interface with librarians. THAT’S WHY we teach sales organizations that they, of all the publishing company’s staff, have the best opportunity – and should have the primary responsibility – to advocate for the customer. The sales process we teach begins with LISTENING. Not with pitching. Your customers will tell you how to sell them, if only you ask the right questions and push the insights you gain upwards into the product organization. Then, once your product managers and marketers are absorbing these insights into their product strategy, and using their expertise not merely to pander to stated demand, but to advance the state of the art beyond it, the sales team will have stuff that’s designed to sell. Librarians and educators, that should make your sales rep more welcome and more personable.

Rick – I guess Mistake #7 would be arguing any of these points with the person holding the purse strings??!! Seriously, good post. I’d love to offer another version of this at some point entitled, “Six Mistakes Your Collection Management Staff Are Making”. Just let me know …

Hi, Bruce — that topic is exactly what I’m planning for my next post. Feel free to send me any ideas!

It amazes me that publisher’s reps continue to argue with me–the purchaser. There is a publisher who’s rep regularly calls to argue with me about how “we need to buy bla bla bla. because all universities at our level get this.” Or even better “faculty have requested access from the publisher” I have is number blocked.

To quote Jamie Lee Curtis in “A Fish Named Wanda” is this a good strategy?

If I may add a puckish comment about #4, one surprise when Penn State Press became an administrative unit of the library and I started attending library meetings was how many meetings library staff had compared with the number we had at the press. Granted, the library was a great deal larger than the press, so the press’s staff was able to handle many things more informally one on one. Still, it was shocking to find out how much time was devoted to staff meetings in the library. So I can understand why there might be more resentment than usual to a publishing vendor’s request for yet one more meeting to add to the many already scheduled.

Re #4 – Some times consuming customer time can be a sales strategy. DEC used to send multiple teams of engineers out to do elaborate requirements analyses on what computer you needed to buy. Each team conducted multiple interviews with multiple senior officials at the customer site. Eventually customer were so worn down by the process that just bought what DEC recommended so that they could get back to tending to all of their other responsibilities. Of course DEC was bought by Compaq which was bought be HP which is now itself a takeover target so it is pretty clear where that strategy leads.

Good and useful post I haven’t seen anything similar before. Agreeing with points 1, 5 and 6. But strange enough that all these six “mistakes” had never been mentioned during numerous sales trainings I had attended over the past 25 years or so.

Thanks for posting this it is excellent reading. It is very helpful of you to provide such detail that we can use to appraise our own professional performance. I have enjoyed working in academic publishing sales for many years and have found friends and long term professional acquaitances among the many customers I have met. However professional development needs to be ongoing and i will share your post with colleagues. thanks again for your article.

Good But Examples were from only library section, i feel these must be more generic or more no. of examples….!

Very interesting article, thank you. I liked the specific reasons why something was a mistake and the examples given. Although this relates to libraries and publishing it has a wider application to most sales.

I like the point where you speak about budgets and the inability to draw blood from a stone. Having worked on the sales side, I remember thinking “this person is not lying to me and, having read news sources about this institution, I probably could have guessed. Best to let this go for now but make an agreement to stay in touch periodically so my company can help when need and budget come back.” Upper management does not like to hear this, though. Other points are interesting and probably most applicable to research institution purchases. At other Academic/K12 levels, things like brand, overlapping content, and who else purchases from a company could make the difference between a sale or no sale. Good to hear what a purchaser thinks, though, because some of it is counter to what sales training and books teach.

looking forward to hearing also more on the librarians…! I cannot agree more with all of the posts!

If I were buying I would want to know a lot of what is in this article. A company cannot hire more support staff? Nonsense.

At great length and with a certain degree of smug self satisfaction you are saying, Rick: Reps are superfluous. Stay away!

I assume in some other article you have summarised what they should do – act as a sounding board for your complaints perhaps?

(Ps: I have long since moved on from that bit of the publishing industry and have not sold a sub since my first job in Canada in 1967, so I can be breezily blunt rather than cheesily supportive, and I am of course in no danger of being fired by a supine sales manager)

At great length and with a certain degree of smug self satisfaction you are saying, Rick: Reps are superfluous. Stay away!

Well, no–that’s not what I’m saying at all. You might want to read the piece again, in particular the very important introductory paragraph. In the meantime, congratulations on extricating yourself from the subscription sales sector, where I imagine you must have been quite miserable, what with all those complaining customers and the craven sales managers who prostrated themselves before the altar of good service.

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