Managing vendor relationships can be an uncomfortable task for some library staff. Given the general collaborative nature of library staff, working with vendors can feel competitive and unnatural. In my current position, I manage e-content for a public library system where vendors are my allies in helping my library better serve the community. Based on my experience, here are some tips for making the most in working with vendors.
Build relationships. For libraries, working with vendors is more than a transaction. We are cooperatively developing solutions for our communities. Seek to understand the vendor’s priorities (e.g. user experience, content, or integrations). Vendors also work with a number of libraries and may see trends before an individual library experiences them locally. Vendors can be your allies in anticipating change.
Understand what “No” really means. Many library vendors offer a suite of products. If a library is looking at one product and decides not to buy, think of it as a “No, this isn’t a good fit at this time.” Just like libraries, products evolve and change. The vendor may bring a new solution to the market. Building relationships with vendors, even if you aren’t a current customer, is beneficial. This helps you better understand the market and learn about new solutions that may be in the works. Also share feedback about your library made the decision they did. Is the user interface a concern? Is the content area not a good fit for your community’s needs? Were competitors offering a more affordable option? All this helps to build a relationship with this vendor and also helps the vendor better understand their market. Think of this as constructive criticism that helps build better options for libraries.
Take a collaborative approach. It can be easy to fall into adversarial roles when working with vendors. Vendors and library staff are not in competition, they are not adversaries. Falling into adversarial roles is counterproductive. Take a different approach. Ask about their products and share issues at the top of your priority list. If you have a question about their product, ask it.
Money isn’t everything. It can be easy to focus on price quotes, but sometimes the lowest bid is more expensive in the long-term. When you have built relationships with the vendors, you can gain an understanding of what is included in the quote. Are there extra service fees? Talk to references for the vendor. This can help you understand what it is like to work with the vendor after a sale is made.
Listen and learn. Spend time in the exhibits at conferences. Attend free product webinars. Listen to vendors and learn about the products they offer. Conferences are a great way to quickly explore the library market. Often you can test out a product on the exhibits floor and talk to a knowledgeable representative who can answer your questions. This is a great place to discover new vendors and solutions. Approach visiting the exhibits floor as professional development where you are learning about the library market. Vendors dedicated to the library market possess significant expertise about the library field. Learn from them.
Positive negotiations: Negotiating pricing and terms of service can be uncomfortable, especially for library staff new to this role. It doesn’t need to be—instead, think of it as problem solving. When talking to a vendor about pricing, share what your concerns are. Perhaps a product is superior to the competition, but the pricing is double that the nearest other quote. Share that information with the vendor. This provides the vendor an opportunity to revise their quote if they would like. They may choose not to, and even if the negotiation isn’t successful, you have done your best to provide the best service to your community.
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach for vendor relations. Find what works for you and your library. In the end, remember that vendors are critical in providing excellent service to our communities.