A month ago, I posted a piece entitled, “Six Mistakes Your Sales Reps Are Making,” outlining what I believe are some of the more common errors that reps make in their dealings with library staff. At the end of that posting, I promised to follow up with a similar list of common mistakes made by library staff in their dealings with vendor and publisher reps.
To prepare this second piece, since my experience on the vendor side of this relationship is much more limited than my experience on the library side, I polled a bunch of my friends and colleagues who work for publishers, subscription agents, database vendors, and other sellers of content and services to libraries. I received a tremendous(!) amount of very helpful input, the sources of which — for obvious reasons — I promised I would keep confidential. So I want to start by thanking the anonymous many who contributed significantly to the content of this posting. Since many of my informants contributed similar ideas, I’ve boiled the responses down and put them in my own words (so there’s no use in doing a wordprint analysis to see if your sales rep was among the respondents). I’ve also limited myself to those responses that had most specifically to do with librarian-rep interactions; I received many interesting and potentially useful comments on library philosophy and practice more generally, but for the most part decided that those are outside the scope of this particular piece.
What follows, then, is a combination of things boiled down into six points — the most commonly reported and (in my estimation) most important mistakes that library staff are making in their dealings with sales reps. And for the record, I will admit right up front that I’ve been guilty of each of them at some point — some of them, I’m embarrassed to say, more than once.
1. Rudeness/unprofessionalism. Let’s begin with the most egregious and patently unacceptable of the mistakes listed here — rude and unprofessional behavior. Examples include: treating a sales rep or customer service staffer with discourtesy or derision; treating the rep like one’s personal therapist; unilaterally inviting a spouse or friend to a meal hosted by the rep; or failing to show up for appointments on time (or at all). None of us, of course, is perfect — but I have to confess that as a member of the library profession, I found myself ashamed by some of the behavior that was described to me in confidence by my vendor-side informants. Apart from the fact that unprofessional behavior is never acceptable, I think sometimes we on the library side forget that when it comes to courtesy and professionalism, we have an advantage: as customers, we can very often get away with behavior that would get a sales rep fired. We should keep that advantage in mind and let our awareness of it temper our responses when frustrated or irritated. This is not to say, of course, that we should fail to be direct and clear when communicating frustration or irritation or working to solve problems — only that we should be very careful not to confuse clarity and directness with rudeness and abuse.
2. Squandering one’s time with the rep. Wasting the rep’s time by forgetting a meeting or spending it on personal complaints falls under the category of rudeness and unprofessionalism, but squandering the time one has with the rep is a different matter. This is about failing to take into account the extremely limited opportunities that one has to work in-person with the sales rep, and consequently spending that time on activities that could and should have taken place before the meeting, or on conversations that could just as easily take place by email, or on issues that would be better addressed with a member of customer service staff. Another common manifestation of this problem is taking up meeting time with conversations or arguments that are of purely internal significance. Meetings with the sales rep are not the time to argue about internal workflows, budget allocations, collection development strategies, personality conflicts, and management style. It’s unprofessional to have family quarrels in front of a guest — but more importantly, to do so is to waste a scarce resource: face time with your rep. (See also “Failure to prepare for meetings,” below.)
3. Knee-jerk adversarialism and distrust. Many of my vendor-side informants bemoaned what they feel is a knee-jerk adversarialism on the part of many librarians and their staff. Now, some library-side readers will roll their eyes (“Of course our relationship is adversarial; you want our money, and we want what’s best for our patrons”), but the reps have a point. As rhetorically convenient as it might be to cast the library-vendor relationship as one of white hats vs. black hats, it should be obvious to any reflective person that the reality is far more complex than that. There is a broad spectrum of public-mindedness among publishers and vendors (just as there is a broad spectrum of patron-centeredness among librarians), and most reps come to the library with a genuine desire to provide good and useful service to your patrons. Do they want to get paid? Of course they do, and so do we. When working with sales reps, it’s wise to start from an assumption of honesty and good faith, and move forward from there. If you find that assumption being proved wrong, then ask for a new rep — but in the meantime, treat the relationship like the partnership it should be.
4. Failure to prepare for meetings. Before you meet with your sales rep, prepare an agenda. Send it to the rep ahead of time, and invite him or her to contribute to it. Know what will be discussed, prepare any documentation that will be needed in order for the meeting to be productive, and know what you hope to accomplish by the end of the meeting (as well as how you’ll know whether it was accomplished). If the rep provides spreadsheets, analyses, or specs ahead of time, you and your staff should read them beforehand so you’re not wasting time in the meeting trying to absorb the information they contain. Well before the meeting, figure out which staff members need to be present in order for the meeting to be productive and useful — as well as which staff members do not need to be there. As librarians, it can be tempting to see a sales visit as a mere interruption, or (more positively) as a break from work. In reality, it’s an opportunity — and a relatively rare one — to get certain kinds of work done.
5. Failure to prepare the ground for product consideration. One of the surest ways to waste both your time and that of your sales rep is to instigate trial access for a product that you know perfectly well you will never purchase, or for which it is not clear that there is real demand. Trials and pilot programs create work on both sides of the sales equation, and it’s important that the investment not be wasted. To be clear, this absolutely does not mean that every trial or pilot should result in a purchase. A successful trial is one that results in a good purchasing decision, and the decision may be either positive or negative. But a trial is unlikely to be successful in that sense if the ground for it has been poorly prepared, if those whose input is required have not been given adequate notice, if the availability of trial access isn’t effectively publicized, or if the analysis of the trial’s outcomes is casual or ill-conceived or colored by personal prejudice. And it should (but sadly can’t) go without saying that once the trial is completed, the rep needs to be informed promptly of the library’s decision.
6. Putting political library concerns above patron needs. I’ve saved for last the “mistake” that I know is likely to be the most controversial, but I think it must be said. Because the issue is so complicated, this will be a topic for a full post at a later date, but for now I’ll just say that it has long seemed to me (and comments from my vendor-side informants seem to confirm it) that too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service. By “politics,” I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured. Again, I realize that this is a very complicated, even fraught, issue, and I also realize that one’s beliefs about how scholarly communication ought to be shared will inevitably have some effect on the purchasing decisions one makes on behalf of the library and its constituents. The question isn’t whether politics ought to enter into such decisions. The question is one of balance. More specifically, the question is: To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)? I will write more about this soon, but for now I’ll simply say that it seems clear to me that, in too many cases, we are making that sacrifice in an ill-advised way.