by Charles J. Lowry, enterprise sales representative for Fastcase
The poet Dante took great relish in describing the sign over the entrance to the underworld. There is a part of that sign that all vendors secretly fear is in the hearts of librarians as they contemplate the exhibit hall:
Per me si va ne la citta dolente,
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.
“Through me you enter into the grieving city; through me you enter into unending sorrow; through me you enter to be among a forsaken nation.” What I hope to do over the next few paragraphs is to offer a couple thoughts that might enable both librarians and vendors to appreciate the opportunities and challenges of the exhibit hall. These thoughts are based on years of experience, but it is my experience only. I make no claim to speak for all vendors or for any particular vendor, including my employer.
Let us begin by offering a couple things for librarians to consider:
First, a smile, a nod or a brief greeting will not and cannot be construed as an expression of interest or a commitment to buy. There is no need to walk past a booth with eyes averted. One of the great things about these conferences is that normal patterns of behavior are relaxed. You need not know someone to say hello.
Second, there is no need to exaggerate your interest in a product before you can ask how it works, what it does, what it offers. Honestly, most vendors really do love the products they represent, and they are happy to discuss them with you and show them to you even when a sale is not imminent. It is no secret that the sales cycle for legal information products is a long one, and it is more often the case than not that knowledge precedes interest. The exhibit hall, too, is an excellent opportunity for librarians to see things up close that they may have heard about. Circumstances change, needs change, philosophies change, jobs change, and what is only a blip on your radar screen today may be something you must carefully consider tomorrow. The exhibit hall is an excellent place to solidify and expand your background knowledge of available resources. In short, feel free to engage even when you are not shopping; we don’t mind, really!
Third, there are certain things that the exhibit hall is not good for. It is no place, for instance, to negotiate a contract. Sure, you can order thirty books at $160 each and be all set, but questions of rights, access, usage and pricing points in an electronic milieu are not well-served by discussions in a brightly lit, bustling, public place. You can get general ideas about pricing and access, but save the details for a calmer, more focused discussion—and one that is not likely to be interrupted by a prize drawing or the approach of another customer.
Fourth, talk to your colleagues about products, resources and companies, with due regard for the antitrust statutes. The collective wisdom and experience around the SLA and AALL conferences is a constant source of astonishment (yes, and occasional trepidation) to vendors; it ought to be a source of enlightenment and reassurance to librarians. There is hardly another profession more collaborative and forthcoming than librarianship. When you have librarians there who have negotiated contracts, planned and executed budgets, expanded libraries, shrunk libraries, embedded librarians, added resources, cut resources, worked through firm mergers, moved into knowledge management roles, added web or conflicts responsibilities, worked for the managing partner, the CIO, the CKO, the COO, the executive director, with or without a library partner or library committee, it is natural to learn as much as you can from them, even as you contribute to the discussion from your own perspective and experience. The word conference, after all, comes from the Latin conferre, to bring together.
And the exhibitors: how should they (well, yes, we) behave? Here are a couple simple suggestions:
First, prepare for the conference. Know whom you are likely to see, whom you wish to see, whom you may see, and tailor your presentations, demos and talking points accordingly. Don’t premise a demo on Univ. of Texas SW Medical Center v. Nassar, important as it is, for someone whose firm does not have a labor and employment practice. Don’t premise a demo on Alice, important as it is, for someone whose firm does not have a patent practice. It’s nice to show general patterns and functionality; it’s more effective and useful to both vendor and librarian to show immediacy and relevance. Sure, it involves hours and hours of preparation, but you spend hundreds of thousands (or millions—you know who you are!) of dollars to get to your customers and prospects every year. At SLA and AALL, they come to you, literally a couple thousand at a time. The extra work is well worth it, and what your audience will notice.
Second, realize that you will be asked many questions, and if you do not know the answer, do not make it up. Librarians deal with attorneys and with high-power firm directors all day, day after day, and they cannot be fooled. They will remember an obvious exaggeration or misstatement uttered because the vendor did not want to say, “I don’t know.” There is no shame to admitting that you have to talk to IT, to product development, to editorial before you can answer the question. And then follow up. It will remind the librarian of your product, and it will show that you are both responsive and responsible. Don’t get the reputation as the vendor who will say anything to keep the conversation flowing.
Third, social events are social events. Don’t push products at events you are not specifically sponsoring. These are opportunities to discuss the profession, to discuss the vacation, to discuss the children and grandchildren, to discuss the food, weather and hotel, to discuss librarianship and libraries. It is the librarians’ conference; let them lead the conversation. Make friends. Blatant attempts to commercialize chapter receptions, lunches, breakfasts, happy hours will not be well received. Feel free to contribute to the conversation, engage old friend and make new friends. Don’t feel free to ask if you can come in for a demo next Tuesday when you are going to be in Cleveland. That is for the exhibit hall or for the post-conference communication: “Hey, very much enjoyed seeing you at the Rutgers alumni reception at SLA, was hoping we might schedule a chat…” Librarians will appreciate your discretion and will be more willing to talk with you later in recollection of a friendly and unpressurized social encounter.
These are some thoughts based on my particular experience. The key, though, is simpler: show up. The conferences are too valuable not to take advantage of.
Chuck Lowry is an enterprise sales representative for Fastcase. He can be reached at 646.327.8702 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.