A Working Relationship

I spent half an hour talking with a colleague who runs a small information team yesterday.  She had an odd discussion with a vendor and was gut checking her response.  It reminded me how easy it is to personalize what should be an arms-length relationship with someone selling you something.

Her team has selected a vendor and a product after nearly a year’s worth of research.  She’s checked all the bureaucratic boxes:  included members of IT, talked to Finance staff about process, etc.  After an RFP, she notified the winning vendor.

TL:DR  When you’re dealing with law library vendors, there can be a tendency toward overly friendly connections since we work in a small sector with few vendor options.  But

  • it’s business.  Professional relationships are based on each side making business decisions.  Making it personal can color how you make your business decisions.
  • it’s not always equal but sometimes you need to ask for what you want, even if it doesn’t exist and no-one offered it to you.

The relationship is important.  It’s important to treat the people you buy or license things from in the same way you want to be treated.  Interpersonal skills 101.  But it’s still business.  I think sometimes libraries can put themselves at a disadvantage because they see themselves as having to accept something without having a countervailing position.

Back to my colleague.  She’d explained to the vendor that, once she had the contract, it would go through some pretty standard steps:

  • Legal review of the contract terms
  • Approval by the IT department, since it would live within the IT environment
  • Sign off by Finance and by various other managers based on the dollar amount.

More importantly, she explained to the vendor that it would take time.  The vendor offered discounts on training if it was executed by X date.  Or a lock in at such and so a price if executed by Y date.  But my colleague was clear that her shop was in a very slow organization and that, best case, it would be signed this calendar year.  It wasn’t that the incentives weren’t enticing, but that the bureaucracy needed to crank and the other gears wouldn’t turn faster.

So she was irritated when she called the vendor with an update – good communication is important in professional relationships, both directions – and the sales rep said that the lack of a signed contract “was a problem.”

One of my first questions to my colleague was, “problem for who?”  As we talked through, there were lots of reasons that the lack of an executed contract was a problem.  After confirming that the vendor still wanted the business (yes), we figured it could be any of a number of scenarios

  • someone’s bonus was tied to the completed sale in this fiscal year
  • someone’s investment in the company was tied to a certain revenue target or number of clients in this fiscal year
  • someone’s reputation within the firm might be impacted by a lack of completion

But all of the problems were on the one side, and it wasn’t hers.  Apparently the sales person had made the unfortunate mistake to commit to someone that this sale was, in fact, complete.  In reality, this sale is unlikely to occur before January.  Any time you can avoid a complex deal in December, the better.  But sometimes that’s just the timing and both sides have to accept that winter contracts have delays.

This is the awkward part: you know your sales rep is in a bind, for whatever reason.  You want to have a good relationship.  And so when they ask you to do something, you consider it.  I’ve had people make pricing mistakes in the past – typos – and that’s the sort of thing you fix, because it’s fair and the right thing to do.  In this case, the sales rep wanted to know if my colleague could send something, in writing, committing to the sale.

But that’s what the contract is for.  And she said as much, that any confirmation would necessarily include a caveat that the contract needed to be executed.

We were both taken aback by the sales rep’s approach.  It’s hard to know what people are thinking.  In this case, I think they were focused on the near-term and so left the impression that they weren’t really interested in the relationship.  My colleague was numbers on a balance sheet.  That’s not optimal, as it raises distrust.

Normally, legal publishers and software vendors I’ve dealt with have been easy going about this.  Some account reps are with you your entire career – or theirs – and others are in and out.  They are always looking for the best deal for their company, which means getting as much money or other intangibles as they can.  It’s business.

At the same time, it’s important to remember there always two sides.  I’ve been surprised at some of the presumption publishers, in particular, bring to the table.  In those cases, take a second look at see if there’s something you can get out of the arrangement, that creates value for you.  It doesn’t need to be comparable value, particularly if you’re dealing in intangibles.

Case in point.  Irwin Law Books, a Canadian publisher, wanted us to add MARC records to their e-books in our catalog.  We do not license their ebooks – for good reasons – and so this would essentially create a bunch of deadend, upsell opportunities for the publisher.  No value.

What if, instead, they offered free access – one person per book at a time – to those books.  In that way, we can provide access to their books but, importantly, we’re getting data showing that this sort of catalog-to-ebook linkage actually gets used and, we create a free, province wide resource at the same time.

So we’ve worked out an arrangement that appears to satisfy both sides.  Anyone who searches our catalog or our discovery layer for an Irwin book can click through to their desLibris provider platform and read the book for free.  We’re not paying for the license – they appear to see it as a marketing opportunity, and we have both an access and data benefit.  Win win.

In this case, a relationship has been created – tenuously – where one was not going to exist.  We’re still feeling our way forwards but it contains all the successful elements so far.

We all work with real pressures – living within our budget, delivering promised resources or services on time, whatever.  We want to be successful, which usually means we want those helping us to be successful too.  But in business relationships, it’s important to remember it’s about business.  My colleague is having a chat with the sales rep today and is hopeful that she’ll be able to clarify that waiting is part of that relationship.