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.