About ten or twelve years ago, I had my most frustrating experience ever with a publisher or vendor sales representative.
This rep was a guy who wanted to sell the library a subscription to a historical database of some kind — I honestly can’t remember which one — and he came to the library and made his pitch to me in my role as collection development officer. I told him the product he was selling was a good one, a database that we liked and would like to buy, but that our fiscal situation at the moment simply made it impossible. We didn’t have enough unencumbered and recurring money in our budget to take it on as a new subscription, and there was nothing we could cancel that wasn’t equally important or more important to our users. He pushed me for a while but finally took “no” for an answer.
Or so I thought. In reality, having not gotten to “yes” with me, he decided to go around me. He located some faculty members on campus who worked in disciplines relevant to the database, and pitched the product to them directly, urging them to put pressure on the library. Unsurprisingly, he found a much more receptive audience among those who would benefit directly from access to the database and who wouldn’t have to pay the invoice, and this led him to make a big mistake: a day or so after I had informed him that our library would not be purchasing this database, I got a call from the rep telling me that he would be back at the library that afternoon with several faculty members who were excited about the product, and that he needed me to reserve a room in which he could give them a demo. (Of course, he would need me to arrange A/V support as well.)
After I put plugs in my ears to contain the wisps of smoke that had begun leaking out of them, I met the rep and our faculty members in the presentation room. There I apologized on behalf of the rep to the faculty members whose time he was wasting, explaining to them that I had previously told him a purchase was out of the question at this time. After they left, I took him aside and explained (really quite calmly, I think) why his actions were inappropriate and how they had put me personally and the library as an organization in a bad light, and told him that he was no longer welcome in our library. When I got back to my office I called his boss and requested a new rep. (To the company’s credit, they apologized profusely and assigned us a new one immediately.)
Now, before I go further, I want to say that I’m anticipating multiple comments from publisher and vendor sales reps saying things along the lines of “The guy you’re describing is an outlier; no half-intelligent or competent sales rep would behave that way.” And I’ll acknowledge right up front that I believe this is true; I’ve worked with many, many sales reps over the past 25 years, and in my experience this guy was unique in his boneheadedness. I present his story not as a representative example of what it’s like to work with sales reps; I present it as an extreme example, but one that brings into sharp relief a very important question: should publishers, aggregators, and other content providers pitch their sales messages to the librarians who make final selection decisions, to the end users who will actually make use of the product, or to both of them in some combination?
The answer, I would like to suggest, is complicated. No surprise there, I guess.
The complexity of this issue arises from the awkward but unavoidable fact that when it comes to selling site licenses of content on a campus, the concept of “customer” is muddy. When you sell shoes, you can generally assume that the person who pays for them is also the person who will wear them. On a college campus, however, the entity that pays for the information product is not usually the entity that will make use of it, which puts sales reps in a tough situation. It’s not a unique situation, by any means — lots of reps sell to organizations that have procurement officers who buy things on behalf of others — but it’s still a tough one. How do you sell effectively when the buyer isn’t the user?
I would like to suggest two principles to apply when marketing and selling content to academic libraries.
First: Market to the user; sell to the buyer.
As marketers and sales reps know, there’s a big difference between marketing and selling. The difference may seem subtle at a conceptual level, but it’s significant in real-world practice. There’s nothing wrong at all with directing your marketing efforts towards the researchers, instructors, and students who will ultimately be your product’s end users. By all means, do whatever you can to make them aware of your product, to convince them of its quality and value, and even to encourage them to ask the library to buy it. Send them brochures, send them emails, provide them with easy-to-use request forms that they can send to the library, asking the library to consider a subscription. We in the library have no problem with that — we fully expect to be contacted by students and faculty with requests for new purchases or subscriptions. In fact, we encourage that kind of input, because we want to buy things that our students and faculty want and will use.
However, once you start talking to the person who is charged with buying stuff for the campus and trying to convince him to enact a purchasing decision, you’ve moved out of the realm of marketing and into the realm of sales. It will do you little good to sell to the end users in an institutional context where they are not the buyers.
This brings us to the second principle:
Second: Respect the decisionmaker.
When you’re selling content on a site-licensed basis to an academic institution, the decisionmaker is usually going to be a person or committee in the library. Where such is the case, and when a decision has been made, you probably shouldn’t try to undermine her position by looking for someone else who might be more likely give you the answer you want. If you bypass the buyer and take your sales efforts straight to the end users, you may well succeed at getting them excited about the product, and you may succeed at convincing them to put pressure on the library to buy it. But if the library has already told you that a purchase is out of the question, then taking your sales pitch to the end users is only going to result in frustration for everyone: for the faculty when the library tells them they can’t have the wonderful product you’ve convinced them they should have; for yourself when all of your strenuous efforts yield no result; for the librarian because you tried to undermine her in the job the campus expects her to do.
Of course, if you’re actually selling a product that might be purchased individually by faculty members, or that might be purchased for the campus by an entity other than the library (by the office of research, for example), then of course you should both market and sell directly to those entities — in such cases, those entities are both the end users and the buyers.
Corollary Principle: Respect Our Ambivalence about Trial Access
There’s maybe one more corollary principle I would suggest, and it’s related to the second one above: please be understanding when we in the library are hesitant to set up trial access. Trial access is designed to help us figure out whether our patrons would like and use the product in question. In many cases, however, we already know that the answer to that question is yes. And in some cases, the answer to the question is irrelevant because we’re not going to buy the product — not because we doubt its value or doubt that it will be used, but because we can’t afford it. Unfortunately, the number of high-value products that would get significant use is much greater than the resources available with which to buy them.
What this means is that we’re only likely to be open to the idea of a trial access period if the product in question is one we would be very likely to purchase if it gets heavy use. If there’s a relatively low likelihood of purchase regardless of the product’s popularity, then setting up trial access will do us and our end users more harm than good. You don’t give your child a pony on a 30-day trial basis to see whether she likes it unless you’re fully prepared to keep it if she does.
I don’t pretend that any of the above represents new or unique insight into the vendor-customer relationship, but these principles seem to me important to bear in mind. I would love to hear from readers about other principles that seem important to them as well (or who want to propose corrections to the way I’ve laid them out here).