How Does the Information Professional Prepare For A Salespersons’ Visit

What Every Librarian Needs to Know When A Salesperson Visits Your Library

Planning for and Managing a Sales Call

By setting clear goals and expectations for a sales call, information professionals can make the most of the meeting and develop a mutually beneficial relationship with the salesperson.


Library schools, like many other professional studies programs, do their best to try to prepare students for the rigors of the profession. The syllabi of many professional school programs, however, are mostly theoretical in nature and don’t address the experiences students will face when working in their chosen profession.

I recently looked at the courses offered for an MLIS degree at an accredited U.S. school of library and information science. This particular institution, Kent State University in Ohio, expects its graduates to be able to perform the following tasks:

  1. Analyze the changing cultural, educational and societal roles of librarians and information professionals and the place of the library and information in society.
  2. Select, acquire and process information resources for libraries and other information agencies.
  3. Interpret and effectively utilize general and specialized information sources and bibliographic tools.
  4. Organize and describe information materials in a manner that will facilitate and  enhance utilization of resources.
  5. Interpret and apply basic management principles to decision making in librarianship.
  6. Describe advances in technology pertinent to the acquisition, organization and  dissemination of information and apply this knowledge to libraries and      other information agencies.
  7. Analyze, evaluate and conduct research in the field of librarianship and relate findings to the solution of problems in the profession.
  8. Analyze the information needs and use patterns of specific user populations, the role of the library in the information transfer process and the design of information services to meet user needs.

These are all good skills, and they are certainly well understood by everybody who reads this magazine. However, one of the basic duties of an information professional is working with people who provide the data that are used to respond to questions that are asked every day. I suspect there are few, if any, library schools that offer a course titled “Understanding the Salesperson 101.”

Whether you are working in a corporate or nonprofit environment, you will be responsible for ensuring that the money spent on buying library databases is invested wisely. Before any dollars are approved to be spent, you should be familiar with the products that will meet your needs–their capabilities, their ease of use, and, of course, their price. Even more importantly, the organization needs to have confidence that you will conduct a thorough investigation before selecting and buying any product.

The salesperson, meanwhile, has an interest in making sure that the partnership with the information professional fulfills the above-mentioned objectives. In essence, the salesperson and the librarian should have a unique relationship that produces results that are acceptable, reasonable and cost-effective for both parties.

My first job, more than 30 years ago, was selling subscriptions on microfiche of documents filed at the Securities and Exchange Commission by public companies. Not exciting subject matter to me, but apparently it was relevant information for corporations, law firms, universities, and public libraries.

One day, I made a sales call at the corporate library of AT&T. The librarian told me she was teaching a course at the library school that night at Rutgers University, and she asked me to come in and speak about public company information. That evening began a journey that took me to library school classes at Columbia University, C.W. Post College, Rider College, the University of Maryland, and other academic institutions over a 34-year period.

Initially, I spoke about public company information–what was included in the documents and how that information could be used at business libraries–but more often than not, the students asked questions about what they could expect when working with salespeople. Subsequently, the AT&T library person and I developed a program wherein the two of us spoke regularly to library school classes on how the vendor and the information professional can work together.

Preparing for the Sales Call

A sales call to a library is the result of careful planning. Salespeople are taught that time is money and that time wasted is time that can never be brought back. The most successful salespeople are those who use time wisely. So if a sales rep calls your library, you can assume that she has researched your library and concluded that, at the very least, her company has a product that should complement your collection and meet your needs.

The librarian’s responsibility in preparing for the sales call is to schedule a convenient time for the two of you to meet. It is preferable to meet away from the Reference Desk so that the time spent together is uninterrupted. The information professional also needs to be familiar with products that are similar to the one(s) that will be presented.

To make the meeting as productive as possible for both parties, the information professional should ask for an agenda from the salesperson in advance. Say something like this: “Mary, we are very busy at the Information Center and my time is valuable, as is yours. What do you want to discuss with me, since I only have 45 minutes to speak with you on Tuesday at 10:00 a.m. next week?” This way, you are setting the tone, clarifying the objectives, and confirming the time and date. Both of you will benefit if you take this extra step.

Determining Your Needs

A sales call should take no longer than 45 minutes to an hour. The first 5-10 minutes should be devoted to getting to know one another. If the rep has visited with you before, those minutes will be spent reviewing past meetings and just catching up. If the salesperson opens her laptop at the beginning of the meeting, you can bet she’s more interested in getting across her points than listening to you and assessing your needs.

The next half hour should be spent ascertaining what you need to make your library’s holdings more effective. I always liken this part of the call to how a doctor’s visit unfolds. When you go to the doctor, he inevitably asks, “Where does it hurt?” or “What brought you in here today?” You respond by describing the maladies that are responsible for your visit.

Much the same holds true in a library sales call. The salesperson’s responsibility is to find out where you are feeling the “pain” of unsatisfied information retrieval. In this phase of the call, the rep is the “information doctor” and should probe to find out where there is pain, then offer a solution that will stop the pain.

At the conclusion of the meeting, there should be a review of outstanding items for both parties. No sales call should end without a review of the “to do” items tied to specific dates.

Your responsibility at this point in the sales call is to answer the questions honestly. Let the rep know what is working and what isn’t. Sometimes a competitor’s product does a better job, and that feedback will allow the salesperson to go back to the product development people at her company and help them develop a better offering. Conversely, if you love the products from her company, say so. Salespeople like to know when a customer is satisfied.

You also have a responsibility to your library at this point, which is to conduct market surveillance. This is the part where you get to ask the questions. “What’s going on at your company, Ms. Sales Rep? What’s this rumor I heard about your company being active on the acquisition front? I heard …” These are appropriate questions to ask, because it’s important for you to know about the company that is providing data to your library. After all, it’s not just a partnership between you and the sales rep–it’s also a partnership between your library and the rep’s company.

Wrapping Up the Sales Call

The last 5-10 minutes of the sales call is the “wrap-up” portion. The salesperson will review what you said and give a brief demonstration of the product discussed during the assessment portion of the meeting. Watching the demo is your choice, so don’t waste the salesperson’s time if you have no intention of purchasing the product. On the other hand, if there is genuine interest and a trial is warranted, this is the time to clarify all the elements of the trial. You need to understand what product is being trialed, determine the length of time designated for the trial, and arrange for any training that is needed.

This is also the time for price to be introduced into the conversation. If you are enthusiastic about the product, this is the best time to talk about cost. On the other hand, it may also be the right time to postpone that discussion. Over the years, I have seen too many lost sales opportunities because the information professional pushed for a ballpark cost–“Can I just have a 30-day trial to try it out”? or “Just give me a rough idea of what this will cost me”–and the rep felt compelled to answer rather than probe more deeply to determine how serious the potential client really was and better understand the budgetary restrictions of the library.

If you are enthusiastic about the product, then it’s time for the rep to confirm that the product can meet the needs of your library. The salesperson may say, “Based upon your answers, I can offer you this particular database at this cost.” It’s up to the salesperson, based on information you provided earlier in the discussion, to ascertain if that cost is reasonable to you. The rep also needs to know who has the decision-making authority at the library, if the library’s budget can pay for the product sooner rather than later, and the length of the decision-making cycle.

Your responsibility at this point is to inform the rep of the process for making buying decisions at that institution. “Yes, we like your product and I can see a very good use for it, but our fiscal year begins in July and we can only buy your product in August of this year.” Salespeople have heard statements like that before and are trained to follow up with you at the appropriate time. “Mr. Smith and the Library Committee make the final decision as to whether we can buy your product.” That’s also been said before. The salesperson will then ask to see Mr. Smith and as many of the members of the committee as possible.

Talking about price is always a difficult discussion, but one that must be had. Both parties have a tendency to avoid the topic until the last possible moment. It is not an easy discussion, but the price must be understood and agreed to by both parties.

Strengthening the Partnership

The most important thing to remember about price is that you should never make decisions to buy content based on cost alone. As one of my librarian friends recently told me, “Buying information is not like going to the grocery store.” It’s a partnership between you and the sales rep to determine what databases you need and to work out a price that is amenable to both parties.

For a salesperson to efficiently fill your needs, both of you need to be on the same page and, most importantly, on the same team. The reality is that the two of you are working together to get the best possible information sources into your library at the most reasonable cost. You want to put the salesperson in a position where she can help you achieve your objectives. By doing this, you not only help yourself, you also help the sales rep. It can be a classic win-win situation if both parties work together.

One way you can strengthen the relationship is to inform the rep about procedures at your library for working with other departments. For example, if you’ve been shown a business-related database and you are at an academic institution, will you support the rep in calling on the dean of the business school to gain additional demand for the product? If you are the librarian at an investment bank, is it advisable for the rep to also call on the mergers and acquisitions (M&A) group at the bank to find additional funding for the purchase of that database?

In my years of selling information products in both academic and commercial markets, I always tried to enlist other departments to support the library’s purchase of the databases I was presenting. It was a strategy that worked many times for the benefit of the library. So, help the sales rep navigate through your organization. By working together, you both will provide value to your respective organizations.

The checklists below summarize the responsibilities of the information professional and the salesperson. Both roles are remarkably similar and, when executed properly, ensure success for both parties.


Checklist for Information   Professionals

  • Be on time and arrange to meet in a quiet place.
  • Speak with honesty and  conviction.
  • Know all the products that can meet your library’s needs.
  • Express the library’s needs (clarify your objectives).
  • Remember that buying information is not like going to the grocery store.
  • Visit the vendor’s Website before the meeting.
  • Understand the dynamics of a typical sales meeting.
  • Respect the salesperson’s  time.
  • Coach the salesperson on navigating your organization’s decision-making process.

Checklist   for Sales Representatives

  • Arrive 15 minutes before the scheduled meeting.
  • Speak with honesty and  conviction.
  • Know your product line and be able to describe its features and benefits without a PowerPoint        presentation.
  • Remember that buying information is not like going to the grocery store.
  • Listen more and talk less; be an “Information Doctor.”
  • Visit the customer’s Website before the meeting.
  • Respect the librarian’s time and keep the meeting to an hour or less.


I would like to dedicate this article to the memory of Paul Wasserman, the founding dean of the School of Library and Information Services at the University of Maryland. Every year over a 10-year period, I had the privilege to speak to Paul’s classes at the library that now bears his name. It was an honor to be invited, a joy to interact with incredibly gifted library students and staff, and be able to call this extraordinary man my friend. SLA

MICHAEL GRUENBERG is president of Gruenberg   Consulting LLP, which provides services in the areas of sales force training   and assessment, organizational reviews, executive coaching, event planning,   market/product evaluation, and negotiation skills for both vendors and   librarians. He has more than 30 years of experience in the information   profession and has held senior-level sales positions at ProQuest, CSA,   OneSource, Oxford Analytica, and Disclosure. He can be reached at



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I have had the pleasure to know and work with Mike for many years. He was an integral member of the team that contributed to the sales and revenue successes at CSA and ProQuest. He has an incredible work ethic and is willing to take on even the most daunting of challenges in a professional manner. He has been a success at every level of his sales and sales management career. I am most impressed with him as a “people person” who will always take the time to mentor and help the salespeople in our organization. Mike is a gifted writer contributing a monthly column about music to an online site for over eleven years and is a natural teacher. He is truly an asset to any organization that is lucky enough to engage his services. I highly recommend him.
Jim McGinty, Former Vice Chairman, Cambridge Information Group
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