By: Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services ProQuest Books
You may think you’ve read all there is to read about how COVID-19 has moved so much of life away from face-to-face experience toward more distant and often online encounters with one another. But how about this? For as long as there have been library budgets, there have been salespeople whose job was to capture their share. At least as frequently as other industries, sales efforts to libraries have taken place in person. Now suddenly that’s gone. What have we lost?
I doubt there’s any mourning among salespeople over rituals like requests for parking advice and maybe a parking pass, and nobody will miss the miserableness on some campuses of the overall experience of parking and then, from the asphalt, the “now let’s go find the library” moment. The “I’m here to see …” exchange at the front desk was occasionally humbling, especially if followed by a wait for someone to come down, instead of permission to “just go on up.”
The greeting, whether it occurred downstairs or up, was often a nice moment, especially for people already friendly from prior visits. On a first visit, the exchange of business cards was a small ice breaker. So was the offer of coffee or water and then the small talk on topics small enough not to get in the way of starting the actual business, but large enough to hold interest for a minute or two.
Now the social components of a library sales visit are on COVID-19 hold. I’ve talked to librarians and to vendor reps from different companies who miss them. “My vendors would take me to lunch sometimes,” one acquisitions librarian told me, “that was nice.” Or, as a vendor salesperson said, “I didn’t get into this business to have ZOOM calls,” while adding “I miss Marriott room service breakfast,” surely not the only rep to enjoy the travel and expense account perks of being on the road, seeing new places, meeting new people, enjoying meals and a drink or two. And, no doubt, not the only acquisitions librarian who misses their part of these arrangements.
On the other hand, a different salesperson described for me a recent online meeting- successfully conducted in 45 minutes- that would have taken two colleagues each a day and a half of hard travel, home and back, to this somewhat distant university. It’s easy to miss the perks of traveling, but difficult to forget the rigors of travel—no need to detail them for any salesperson who’s been at it for any length of time. Although, there was one upside to bad weather, bad meals, bad traffic, delayed flights: misfortunes like these were always good for the small talk.
Not that small talk has disappeared. “You might have said hello to them at a conference,” one vendor said to me, “but this is more human.” Now that we’ve seen the home office decor, the furniture, the bookshelves, the knick-knacks of so many business contacts—while sharing our own—we all know what she means. There’s something disarming about this new window we have into one another’s lives, going through business with someone at home in their kitchen. You see one another’s face on that small camera-framed screen in a way you never did in their office. There’s work, then there’s the rest of life, an easy distinction to make not long ago. Not anymore, they’ve converged. In our work spaces we arrange things to present a certain version of ourselves. The secret’s out, thanks to the pandemic: There’s more to each one of us than that.
In general, though, there’s less small talk and more business. No need for reps to gather their things, nobody has to walk them out, someone might be late to log on for their next meeting. “Selling into a stressful environment,” one salesperson remarked to me, “is a wonderful thing.” That wasn’t a heartless comment in the midst of our pandemic. This is a person I know to be as compassionate as the next. It was an observation on library decision-making. Salespeople, no matter their industry, are universally impatient with how long it takes customers to make up their minds. It’s in the DNA of libraries to be especially consultative and collaborative, to make sure of just the right decision. “The committee hasn’t met yet” has been beginning-of-the-end messaging for uncounted sales proposals from library vendor reps over time.
Now, there may be no committee to meet and if there is one, meetings will be briefer than the ones that used to happen in Conference Room B. Maybe our stressful environment has an upside for libraries too, presenting them with patrons distant from a deserted campus who have urgent needs only a librarian can address, and address without quite so much consultation. Another upside for librarians is that vendors know they must be absolutely prepared for meetings. Any rep who might once have tried to “wing it” on occasion knows those days are over. It’s hard to imagine how you’d do that online in the first place. The vendor’s reward is that decisions they’re looking for may come more quickly. “What might have been a September sale,” one rep said to me, “now it’s a July sale.”
If, that is, the rep has earned it. “We’re varying degrees of needed,” was what I heard from one salesperson, who has found in the pandemic a new opportunity to demonstrate how much she was needed by harried homebound librarians. “It’s my job to help you justify what you’ve done,” was her approach to customers who have little time to construct a brief, but need an argument for colleagues to support a purchase the library’s made, or might make, whether based on price, usage, content, efficiency, or some combination. If, instead, she does that legwork, proves in doing it how fully she understands the library, and follows up with timely support and not another sales pitch, then when the next sales opportunity does arise, she’ll be head of the line.
That’s consultative selling, nothing new, an approach honored by all and practiced by many in the library business. One salesperson I spoke to, a master of the approach with years of success, told me why it’s become more difficult. “Things are so complex now,” he said. “So often you need to get a consensus across departments. That’s harder when you’re not in the room. You can’t read the body language. If you’re there, you can notice if someone has a doubt. Then you can ask the right questions.” Not only is it harder to read the room, there is no room. Maybe you can get everyone on the same call, but maybe you can’t. Maybe it’s a series of calls you need to make, then circle back. “It’s more productive face-to-face,” this veteran believes. By making a visit, he says, that in itself “shows you care enough to have made the effort.” Even so, “I have an advantage now,” he says, “because I know so many people. I can have a phone call with so-and-so. I don’t need a ZOOM meeting.”
What if you’re a young rep, though, and don’t have so many miles behind you? What if you can’t just pick up the phone for a call with so-and-so, since you’ve never met? Doesn’t the all-online sales world give a big advantage to the sales veterans, and beyond that, to any incumbent vendor? What if you’re not only a new rep, but one trying to introduce a new product or service? As one librarian put it, “I’d much rather hear an offer from a rep I have a relationship with. I don’t have the time and bandwidth to ingest all this information.”
But maybe not an absolute advantage to the veteran, according to some librarians. “I can talk to more reps now,” one told me, “even when I might not have made an appointment in the past.” Another librarian talked about an online meeting with a young rep she didn’t know well. “He’d really done his homework,” she reported, still impressed days later. “I learned things about our university I hadn’t known.” So here was a rep who was far from winging it. Let’s hope he got the sale.
Maybe future calls from that same rep will be in the librarian’s office. One day this pandemic will end and when it does that will be a possibility, again. But, not acted on so routinely. I once had a boss who would dress down salespeople if they weren’t making three visits a day. Now you can make three calls in a morning without getting out of your chair. Finance departments have certainly noticed it’s possible to run a sales force without rental car bookings, hotel nights, or airfares. Or enormous conference expenditures—although most reps I spoke to think the loss of conference contact is a major negative. Librarians would probably be just as happy to do without some of the sales visits they used to host. Among the new or next “normals” we’re bound to see in our business, one could turn out to be sales deals set up online, like our young rep did, then closed in person, like the way things go with a dating app. There’s a system that works, although of course there’s no incumbent advantage.
A hybrid sales model like that would hardly be revolutionary. “We estimate that, well before work-from-home directives, most field salespeople were communicating with customers digitally more than half of the time.” That’s from the Harvard Business Review, but we all knew anyhow that library vendor reps have worked online and in person for a generation. But online only? A survey published by McKinsey & Company early in the pandemic found that not quite half of its 3,619 respondents felt “digital sales” to be “Less effective” than efforts conducted in person, the other half roughly split between “More effective” and “About the same.” Of course, a salesperson can be “competent or incompetent either way,” as a colleague of mine remarked, offering another way to look at McKinsey’s question.
“I realized that selling was the greatest career a man could want. ‘Cause what could be more satisfying than to be able to go … into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? … In those days there was personality in it. … There was respect, and comradeship, and gratitude in it. Today it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality.”
Those are Willy Loman’s words, on the verge of losing his job in Arthur Miller’s play, Death of a Salesman. Desperate, Willy offered to stop traveling and work only in New York. “But you’re a road man, Willy, and we do a road business,” his boss answered. Next thing, Willy’s job was gone. Too bad he couldn’t have hung on. Eventually, the road might not have mattered.