Executive Director's Blog: Advice for Working with Vendors

Advice for Working with Vendors

Although librarians and vendors have shared a symbiotic relationship for as long as libraries have existed, there seems to be an unhealthy and unnecessary level of time and energy spent tussling with and complaining about vendors.  Having worked on both sides of the library/vendor ecosystem, I wanted to try and share some perspectives learnt through experience.  What follows are some best practices for working with vendors. These aren’t earth-shatteringly innovative, but I bring them to your attention because I have found them to be effective in maintaining positive, mutually beneficial relationships with vendors.

Acknowledge your differences.  As a librarian, you have chosen a profession that is committed to core values like equal access to information, intellectual freedom, and furthering education.  What’s more, you most likely work for a not-for-profit institution, which has its own set of similarly idealistic institutional values.  Between your personal values and your institutional values, you have a distinct perspective.  Vendors have their own personal and institutional sets of values that are often in stark contrast to our own.  Vendor representatives often have business or marketing backgrounds.  They were attracted to these disciplines for a reason.  And the businesses they work for have values like effective promotion of products and services and increasing market share.  One of their values - gasp! - is to increase profits and/or the value of their company’s stock.  At this point many of my colleagues say this ought not to be so, that knowledge should not be commoditized, etc.  You’ll get no argument from me on those ideals, but in the meantime...

Don’t let idealism get in the way of progress.  It pains me to see peers spend countless hours and vast reserves of energy repeating some version of “We are in it for the right reasons, but they are in it for the wrong reason: profit.”  While episodic venting can be cathartic, dwelling on the negative aspects of the relationship between vendors and libraries, or any relationship for that matter, can be debilitating.  The daily amount of time and energy each of us has is finite.  If we spend it complaining about the things we cannot change, we have little left to spend pursuing the things we can.

Not only is this bad for our organizations, it can be detrimental to our careers.  I’m reminded of a former co-worker who once told me he was passing over an intelligent, dynamic, dedicated individual for promotion because she “focused too much on the problems, not the solutions.”  Don’t let this be you.  Certainly, if you see an opportunity to make the library/vendor ecosystem better, act on it, but if you hear yourself repeating the same gripes again and again, consider accepting the current reality and applying your time and energy to doing your best with what you’ve got.

Dream big.  Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?  But a common side-effect of getting stuck in a cycle of defeatism is that you become less ambitious. When your general outlook is fatalistic, you are less likely to assume that you can accomplish bold, innovative initiatives.  “Why try?” or “That will never work” are frequent refrains of people who see themselves as victims in an unfair reality.  A colleague of mine has an uncanny radar for spotting these types.  He often describes them as individuals who, if you read between the lines, are constantly saying some form of:  “I’ve tried nothing and am out of ideas.”

On the contrary, I’ve found that most of the successful people I know are those who accept their reality and then focus their efforts toward doing great things within the context of that reality.  It’s not that these individuals don’t dream; they most certainly do.  But their dreams aren’t contingent on the world changing.  Rather, their dreams seek to change the world, if only just a little.  By accepting the limitations, constraints, and challenges that are out of their control, these individuals can focus their energy, ingenuity and passion on developing the best solutions possible through those mechanisms that are within their control.  

Ask yourself:  What can you accomplish with vendors on behalf of your library today?  Spend the majority of your time and energy making the best progress you can within the constraints of your present reality, rather than gnashing your teeth over the ways things ought to be.  The results can be pretty awesome.

Explain how the vendor fits into your story.  Ever been asked to donate your money?  What inclines you to say Yes or No?  Are you more likely to hand over a fiver to a person on the street who says, “Give me money, please,” or to a charity that solicits you by sharing their specific cause and describes how your money will be used?  Knowing where your money is going and what effect it will have is powerful context (and motivation) that influences the decision you make.  Similarly, too few librarians share their specific context when engaging with vendors.  Imagine the conversation from the vendor’s perspective.  They hear:  “Your product costs too much.  Discount it more, please.”  Stripped of context, your request is unlikely to motivate the vendor.  However, what if you explained that a cost reduction would allow your public library to use this product to achieve one of its key strategic goals of supporting local economic development by offering job searching skills workshops?  While this is no guarantee of success, it certainly improves your odds of getting a break.

Too often libraries don’t share important context that has the potential to change the relationship between vendor and library from merely transactional to mutually beneficial.

Find out how you fit into the vendor’s story.  Libraries are so caught up in their own narrative, they rarely spend time asking the vendor what’s happening with them.  We tend to assume vendors are profit-seeking machines without personality or nuance.  This is not the case.  Vendors are collectives of people.  Vendors have unique cultures, goals, priorities, initiatives, value systems and so on.  Investing some time learning what the vendor is focused on will help you know how your library fits (or doesn’t fit) into the vendor’s narrative.  An upstart vendor might be more interested in securing a well-known reference customer than in realizing a huge profit margin.  If that’s the case, you might be able to get in on the ground floor with them in exchange for a testimonial or co-presentation at a conference.  An established vendor might be more concerned about seeing its fledgling new product find its sea legs.  In that case you might be able to negotiate the new product as an add-on in exchange for continuing to buy the vendor’s core product.  These are examples where both parties are accomplishing their goals, the ideal conclusion to any negotiation.

Notice how vendor stories differ from library stories.  While library stories tend to revolve around library core values, vendor stories tend to revolve around vendor values like market share, new product adoption and customer references.  It makes sense that they are different and it’s okay that they are different:  libraries and vendors are different.

Treat vendor representatives with respect.  It’s bad form, not to mention bad for business, to treat a vendor discourteously.  Sure you will disagree on things and yes, you may not care for a particular representative’s style, but there is never a reason to treat a vendor disrespectfully.  First, try to remember how challenging a job the rep has.  The travel; the daily rejection; the pressure of quotas; the internal politics; and the challenge of keeping all those ever-changing products straight.  It’s a high-turnover job for a reason.  Second, treating a rep badly - treating anyone badly - reflects far more on you than them.  Is that the kind of reputation you want to cultivate for yourself, or the kind of behavior you want to model for your team?  Third, burning a bridge is bad for business.  Even if you believe that eviscerating a vendor today will do you no harm, how can you be certain that the vendor won’t acquire a company whose products your institution cannot live without?  Or that the rep won’t change jobs and show up next time representing another vendor?  In either case, you might find yourself regretting your decision.  Finally, it’s important to remember that you are representing your institution when you work with vendors and your duty in that capacity is to look out for the institution's best interests, not use the vendor interaction as a platform for waging personal vendettas.

I encourage you to try out these techniques the next time a vendor rep walks into your library.  Don’t get hung-up on your differences; accept that there are things about the vendor/library ecosystem you cannot change; dream big within the current reality; explain how the vendor could fit into your library’s story and then listen to understand how your library could fit into the vendor’s story; and no matter what, treat the vendor the way you’d like to be treated.

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