The Exhibit Hall: Opportunities to Advance The Law Librarian and Vendor Relationship

Chuck Lowry is an enterprise sales representative for Fastcase.  He speaks only for himself and not for his long-suffering employer.  He may be reached at clowry@fastcase.com.

Although I do not remember which were my first AALL or SLA annual meetings, I know they were a long time ago.  One of the rude shocks of my life, in fact, was to get, unsolicited and unexpected, a twenty-year pin in the mail from AALL.  The lines that came to mind at once were from T. S. Eliot:

 I grow old…  I grow old…I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. 

I’m not leaving for the beach for a while; I thought nevertheless that I would offer a few thoughts that I have refined from a couple decades of trade show observations.  These are in no particular order and are offered as my personal experience.  If the FTC were monitoring this blog, I would be forced to say, “Your results may vary.”  

AALL AND SLA ARE NOT TYPICAL “TRADE SHOWS.”

Much higher percentages of conference attendees spend important amounts of time in the exhibit hall at the law librarian conferences than at other conferences or trade shows I have attended.  This leads to a subtle but important difference in approach that is shared by the vendors and conference attendees.  While vendors will always have their commercial aims firmly in mind, AALL and SLA exhibit halls really are as much about information gathering as about sales.  We are in a very mobile milieu, and it serves the interests of both librarians and vendors for as many conference attendees to have as much information as can be gathered about as wide a range of products and services as possible.  If we have learned anything in the last few years, it should be that finances, technology and organizational structures are not forever.  Librarians should not hesitate to learn what they can; vendors should not hesitate to share what they can.  Law librarian conferences for vendors represent a very valuable opportunity to speak to a large, interested and attentive audience of past, present and future customers. 

SMILES AND NODS DO NOT CONSTITUTE A COMMITMENT FOR A DEMO OR A SALE

It is a long three days on the floor of the exhibit hall.  If you are utterly uninterested in a particular company whose booth you are passing, you need not provide manifest expression of your lack of interest by scowling, looking away or increasing your pace.  If the vendor smiles or says, “Hi, how are you?” as you pass, you can smile and be pleasant.  There has been much made of the “irreconcilable differences” between librarians and information vendors over the past couple years, but to the extent that they exist, they are professional, not personal.  Publishers and librarians all pretty much got into this business for the same reason: we loved information, mastering it, organizing it, sharing it. 

JUST BECAUSE YOU USE A PARTICULAR VENDOR’S PRODUCT OR SERVICE, THAT VENDOR’S COMPETITORS ARE NOT YOUR ENEMIES.

It is true that vendors compete with one another.  There is no reason on earth for librarians to be drawn into that competition.  If three or four vendors offer a particular product that your library needs, that fact that you have chosen one vendor need not preclude your maintaining informational contact.  Vendors revise, reposition, maintain and reprice their products in certain ways constantly, and what is perfect for you now may not be as good a fit next year, and there is no reason therefore not to understand what may be available to you.  Conferences are an excellent venue for this sort of “keeping up with the field” exercise.  Conference contacts are less formal and carry smaller expectations than in-office appointments.  You are there and the vendor is there, so there is no reason not to have a look at what the vendor has been doing, without the formality, drama or expectation of a scheduled appointment.

 HONESTY REALLY IS THE BEST POLICY.

Do not think that you need to tell the vendor that you are actively in the market for the vendor’s product or service when you are not.  Virtually every vendor, for a variety of reasons, will respond to any sincere expression of interest with all the information it is possible to give.  A sale need not be imminent to insure a courteous and capable response.  This is especially true at SLA and AALL, where vendors realize that they are among a community in which information is, almost literally, currency.  You need not dress up your curiosity with commercial accoutrements.  It is enough that you are interested in a product or service and want to hear more about it.

NOT EVERY EXHIBIT HALL ENCOUNTER WILL BE PICTURE PERFECT.

Sometimes the wireless will be slow and unreliable.  Sometimes the conference chair will loudly be giving away some of the one hundred thirty-eight iPads offered as prize drawings.  Some products just are not going to have a fair hearing in the four minutes of the typical exhibit hall encounter.  Don’t rule out a product just because any of these circumstances might have popped up.  Consider it an initial encounter.  Every vendor paying attention to business realizes that follow-up is crucial.  Don’t foreclose the possibility of an in-depth examination of a product that can make your research operation more efficient and more effective just because conditions were not right in the exhibit hall.  That is what follow-up is for. 

Is this all I have learned?  No, but these are the thoughts that will let librarians and vendors pack the most utility into their exhibit hall encounters.  They come from my experience, but things—especially in our industry—are constantly changing, and new patterns may well emerge.  As we opened with T. S. Eliot, let us close with T. S. Eliot, encouraging in us the flexibility required to take advantage of new situations and new relationships: 

There is, it seems to us, At best, only a limited value In the knowledge derived from experience. The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies, For the pattern is new in every moment…

 I look forward to seeing many of you in Boston or Chicago.

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