Quid Pro Quo: Librarians and Vendors

I joked with a colleague recently that I need to get over my issue with vendors giving me sales pitches during phone calls and meetings. We had a good laugh since a major responsibility of my job as Assistant Director is to meet with vendors and learn about products that will enhance the patron experience at my library. As the point of contact I’m going to be the person the vendor calls and I’m going to be the person to whom the vendor pitches stuff.

The point was that sometimes it would be nice to have a quiet day so you could get back to the other vendors who have contacted you or maybe actually implement some of the tech you acquired from a vendor—he says as he looks wistfully at a pile of equipment in his office that should out in the public’s hands.

Just last month my fellow blogger Bill Dueber talked about the importance of negotiating with vendors in his post “There’s a Reason There’s a Specialized Degree.” Because I work hand in hand with vendors on an almost daily basis there’s a number of things I try to do to hold up my end of the bargain. There’s an article from 2010 on LIS Careers that talks about the Librarian/Vendor relationship. While not everything is relevant, it does have some good information in it (some of which I’ve pulled into this post).

  • Pay bills on time
  • Reply to calls/emails in a timely manner
  • Be clear about timelines
  • Say no if the answer’s no
  • Be congenial

I find it helps if I think of the vendors as my patrons. How would I treat a member of the public? Would I wait weeks before answering a reference question that came in via email? We’re all busy so not responding the same day to a vendor is probably ok but going more than a day or two is not a good idea. If I don’t want the vendor emailing me every other day I need to communicate. And if things are really busy or something’s come up I need to be clear with the vendor that I won’t be able to look at a new product until next week or second quarter, whichever the case may be.

I can’t speak for other libraries, but our board approves bills so we basically do a big swath of payments once a month. The more time it takes me to sign off on a bill and hand it over to finance, the longer it’ll take for that bill to get processed. Trust me, the last thing you want is for your computer reservation license to expire so you end up scrambling fifteen minutes before you open the doors trying to get a new license installed.

If I’m doing my part, then there are some things I expect in return from vendors (this list will look similar):

  • Send bills in a timely manner
  • Don’t send email/call every other day
  • Take no for an answer
  • Don’t trash competitors

It’s very frustrating to me when a vendor keeps pushing a product after I’ve said no. I know the vendor’s job is to find customers but sometimes it can be beneficial to lay off the sales pitch and save it for another visit. Only once have I actually had to interrupt a vendor several times during a phone call to tell them that I no longer will be doing business with them and do not want them to call me any more.

It’s one thing to say that your product does something no one else’s does or to claim that your product works better than a competitor. That’s business. But I’ve sat in vendor demos where the person spent so much time trashing another company that I had no idea what their product did. Also, sometimes I use similar products from different companies because they’re different and I can reach more patrons with a wider variety of services. This is particularly true with technology. We provide desktops, laptops, and WiFi for our customers because different people like to use different types of computers. It’s not always economically feasible to provide such a variety for every service, but we try to do it when we can.

I also have a number of things I’ll put on a wish list for vendors.

  • Look over meeting agendas and minutes
  • Check our website for services we’re offering
  • Provide a demo that you can leave behind
  • Try to not show up unannounced; at least call first

It shocks me when vendors ask what our budget is on a project, especially something for which we’ve done an RFP. This might pertain more to public libraries, but everything we do is public record. You can find the budget meetings on the city website and see exactly how much was approved. That attention to detail goes a long way towards showing me how you’ll handle our relationship.

Maybe we use iPads in our programming. Maybe we just replaced our selfchecks. Perhaps we already have a 3D printer. Maybe the head of our children’s department took part in an iLead program with the focus on helping parents pick early literacy apps for their children. Our website is, for all intents and purposes, an ever-changing document. As such, we make every effort to keep our services up to date and tout what our staff is doing. This can help you frame your sales pitch to us. You might not want to downplay iPads when we’ve been having success with them.

Where technology’s concerned, being able to leave a demo device with me is huge. It’s not always possible, but any amount of time I get where I can see how it would fit into our workflow helps us say yes or no. Sometimes I have a question that only comes up because I’ve spent some time using a device.

If you’re seeing a customer in Milwaukee, my library is not that far away and it makes sense that you can drop in and see how things are going. Totally fine. If you can, call first. The number of times I’ve missed a vendor because I didn’t know they were coming are more numerous than I’d like. But I can’t be available if I don’t know I should.

I get it. Companies are getting bigger through acquisitions, people’s sales areas are changing, the volume of customers goes up and up, and there’s still the same number of hours in the day. But there are vendors who do the things I mention above, and they’ll get my attention first.

What are some of the things you would like to see vendors do?

2 thoughts on “Quid Pro Quo: Librarians and Vendors

  1. Great post! What would I like to see vendors do? Listen. Libraries are not generic in terms of needs, resources and audiences. If you’re a savvy Sales rep, you understand how to tweak your products to serve a variety of libraries. Before launching into a canned presentation, take time to ask questions about our operation and goals. Explore solutions to my problems and be honest if your products can’t currently address them. Finally, seek to understand the needs your product can’t meet and take them back to product managers for consideration. Products that evolve based on library input are likely to be stronger in the market and demonstrate a vendor’s listening ear.

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