In all the years that I have interacted with libraries and librarians, the one constant has been and always continues to be the “relationship” between the vendor and the information professional. I recently came across a chapter in a book written by Ronald A. Gagnon. It is titled “Library/Vendor Relationships from a Public Library Perspective.” He states, “Relationships are critical to the success of all library projects. While relationships with constituents and funding authorities are easy to understand and important to address, the role of a library’s relationship with its vendors should not be underestimated.” Although this was written in 2006, Mr. Gagnon’s observation is still very relevant today and will continue to be as long as vendors call on libraries.
When my father came to this country from war torn Europe in 1939, he got a job as a salesperson. Relocating to a new country at his age prompted him to take whatever employment that was available at the time. At first, he worked for a furrier, but over the ensuing years, he held a variety of sales positions in different industries.
Watching him do his job as a young boy, I was fascinated with the process of his selling and interacting with customers and prospects as he did on the phone. Although he travelled to see customers and prospects, much of his work was done over the phone. He had a home/office so he did a considerable amount of work from home which allowed me to occasionally listen in to those conversations. Sometimes, when he wasn’t home, I took messages from customers for him. I felt quite important doing that role for him. His demeanor on the phone was always the same. He developed strong business relationships with his clients.
Sometimes, he attended trade shows. I remember that a few times he took me for a day or two with him to the trade shows as long as attendance at those shows did not interfere with my schooling. I remember being overwhelmed in cities like Boston and Philadelphia where I had never been before. I will always be grateful to him and my mom for giving me the opportunity to travel and learn about other locations than just the block in Queens, NY where I lived.
One day, I asked him about this mystical world of sales that he seemingly operated so effortlessly through. I was no more than 12 years old at the time and I will never forget what he said to me. He said, “Mike you need to understand that the secret to successful sales is in the relationship. I don’t care if you are selling pencils or Cadillacs. If people like and trust you, they will buy from you and success will be yours.”
Yikes! You mean if they like me, I’ll be successful? He smiled knowingly, as only a parent can do and said it’s not as easy as you may think. He suggested that a career in sales would be a tough business for me and that perhaps I might try a profession that was less risky. As it turns out, some twenty years later after that conversation, I began a sales career that lasted 40 years. In all that time, my father’s words were always in the back of my mind. If they like you, they’ll buy from you. Hmm… Ironically, my first boss believed in that premise which probably explains the success that the two of us had.
Quite frankly, when I began my sales career, success was not immediately forthcoming. The first year was pretty rough. My first major sales breakthrough came in November of that first year, ten months after I started. I was lucky to have a boss who was very supportive of my efforts and owners of the company who supported every idea that we both devised to bring more sales through the door.
As is the case in any business, there are no shortcuts to success. Hard work, attention to details and a willingness to listen to the customer are all aspects of a successful sales organization. We used to say, “The customer is always right; and if they are not right, we need to work to make them right.” That’s a tough concept, especially with all the Type A personalities that make up the majority of sales organizations throughout the world. Sometimes, making the other person right, translates to making oneself less than correct. Maybe that concept is fine in our personal lives but not in the vendor/customer relationship. Each side has to feel that the relationship is beneficial for both. Making the other person wrong just to make yourself right is not a way to sow the seeds of success.
The customer has to feel confidence and trust in the salesperson. That trust develops over many years of conversations, visits and fair negotiations. It takes years to develop that mutual trust.
I am concerned to see that many information industry companies today seem to turn over their sales staffs with great frequency. While I understand the need to constantly improve the quality of the people representing the company, time needs to be invested in training and coaching to help the employees to succeed. One of the major complaints that I hear from my library friends in assessing the quality of the salespeople who call on them today is that there always seems to be a new rep every year. How can you develop a relationship with someone if there is a new person every year?
So what can vendors do to ensure that their sales reps are operating at the highest level in creating strong relationships that will ultimately result in more sales for the company and ensure customer satisfaction?
• Know Your Market — If you are selling products to government, corporate and academic libraries, understand that each market is different with their own set of challenges. In today’s complex world of information dissemination of varied databases, don’t expect your reps to be successful with the “one size fits all” solution. Market specialists, who understand the “ins” and “outs” of their particular markets, are worth the investment. A successful sales rep selling in the corporate space probably will not have the same success selling in the academic arena.
• Training — Like any profession, library sales professionals need to be made aware of industry changes and new challenges arising from competitors. Take the reps out of the field for a few days a couple of times a year and refresh their skills and attitudes. The way to “Know Your Market” is to create “Training” programs to help them understand the power of strong relationships with the customer.
• Interaction — Customers and prospects are literally deluged every day with calls from salespeople wanting to sell them something. Some reps are cleverer than others in reaching the proper person at the library, but the bottom line is that you can’t sell anything unless the rep is in front of the right person. A way to ensure that this happens is to have a member of senior management accompany the sales rep on certain meetings. Bringing along a VP or even the President of the company shows the customer how important they are. How powerful is it to say, “At our meeting next week, I’d like to bring along our SVP of Operations to meet you. She would like to share some ideas with you to better serve you and is interested in hearing how you feel we are performing in delivering timely data to you.” That may prompt the customer to bring someone from their organization on the same level which will elevate the meeting to a more dynamic one.
A VP or President or CEO in attendance at one of my sales meetings was always met with great respect because it showed the customer how important they were to me and the company. It all helps to build the bond.
• Advisory Boards — A one-on-one meeting is good and it certainly has its place, but if you can fill a room with clients and/or prospects and get those people to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of your company, then you’ve got the makings of building a strong relationship within your marketplace.
Relationships between vendors and customers are built over many years. The rock group, Canned Heat accomplished a gold record award for their hit “Let’s Work Together” which is a fitting postscript to this article.
Mike is currently the Managing Partner of Gruenberg Consulting, LLC, a firm he founded in January 2012 after a successful career as a senior sales executive in the information industry. His firm is devoted to provide clients with sales staff analysis, market research, executive coaching, trade show preparedness, product placement and best practices advice for improving negotiation skills for librarians and salespeople. His book, “Buying and Selling Information: A Guide for Information Professionals and Salespeople to Build Mutual Success” has become the definitive book on negotiation skills and is available on Amazon, Information Today in print and eBook, Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, Gale (GVRL), MyiLibrary, ebrary, EBSCO, Blio, and Chegg. www.gruenbergconsulting.com