Academic Librarians Have Something to Sell | From the Bell Tower

Salesmanship is rarely considered the work of academic librarians. Librarians responsible for outreach and building connections with students and faculty might benefit from embracing the idea they have something worth offering and then selling it.
Steven BellSalesmanship is rarely considered the work of academic librarians. Librarians responsible for outreach and building connections with students and faculty might benefit from embracing the idea they have something worth offering and then selling it. Last month’s column took a deep dive into the retail industry’s ongoing struggles. It offered academic librarians suggestions based on the strategies retailers are exploring to revitalize their business. Those who work in libraries clearly have different motivations in working with their community members, but some of what we do would hardly seem out of place in a retail store. We put books on display. We use our knowledge of the products and resources, referred to in the business world as “executional excellence,” to guide and support community members to achieve good results. When something goes wrong, we use our service skills for problem resolution. Done well, as is the case with retailers with reputations for great service (think Nordstrom’s), we create the type of user experience that keeps our community members coming back for more. Successful retailers and libraries both excel at creating awareness about the resources and services they offer. If the community has little knowledge or appreciation of what academic librarians can do for them, it’s our responsibility to establish the connections to create the change we desire. That’s where the selling comes in.

That “S” Word

In pre-Internet days, the sales game took a different tone. Profit-minded salespeople kept tight reins on scarce product information. Today, when consumers arrive at a store in search of a product or service, they come with considerable knowledge. The customer-salesperson dynamic is altered because consumers now gather much of what they need to know about a product or service from websites, articles, and user reviews. A salesperson, or customer service representative, now spends less time articulating the differences between competing products, their features, and price differences. Instead, they focus on establishing a connection with the consumer that leads to an in-store purchase instead of a showrooming visit. Librarians likewise need to move beyond anonymous desk-bound transactions that are void of potential for emotional connection. That’s why many of us, as well as our colleagues in other academic support and education positions, are developing personalized student success–oriented services. They offer the opportunity for libraries to be about more than content. Everything we know about student success emphasizes the value of building relationships with students.  But success is not the “S” word I had in mind. Academic librarians need to embrace that part of their work that involves some selling.

It’s All Right If You Have Something to Offer

At the 2017 American Library Association Annual Conference, held in Chicago, I attended the Association of Research Libraries (ARL)–sponsored program “Talk to Faculty So They’ll Listen and Listen to Faculty So They’ll Talk.” Its intent was to help academic librarians learn how to better engage faculty in conversation that leads to a better relationship. Similar methods could be equally valuable in working with students. Attendees heard from three speakers, all of whose jobs depend on selling and communicating in academic settings. They divulged something important right at the start of the program: According to a survey of faculty conducted by the moderators, faculty indicated they would be unlikely to open email from librarians, unless they already had an established relationship. Sending email blasts to faculty may allow liaisons to feel like they are doing something, but it’s a low-impact communication strategy. Two speakers addressed the role of the academic liaison librarian, offering experience-based recommendations for emotionally connecting with faculty. The third speaker capitalized on this by encouraging liaison librarians to embrace the role of salesperson because it is a positive, high-impact strategy, affirming that we have something valuable to sell: our expertise. Doing so, for the benefit of our students and faculty, is more than just sensible; it should be a primary function of the liaison role.

What Not to Do

Many of my big takeaways from this session were the examples of what to avoid in seeking relationships with faculty. For example:
  • Acquiring materials they request—and nothing else. If that’s all you do, they will see you as their “buyer” rather than a savvy subject specialist who could be their instructional or research partner.
  • Turning opportunities for conversation into “Let me tell you all about our latest library services” sessions—instead of asking faculty open-ended questions to get them talking about their interests, projects, challenges, and more.
  • Just delivering information. Instead, emphasize the time-saving, productivity aspects of the service. Frame your message from that faculty member’s WIIFM (what’s in it for me) perspective.
  • Doing all the talking. If the faculty member isn’t responding, there’s something wrong. To avoid that, ask enabling questions: 1) What are your challenges as a researcher and teacher? 2) How is your field changing? 3) What are the emerging areas of emphasis for the department? 4) What are your hopes for library services?
Are you currently keeping track of every transaction, from past to present? Try journaling questions asked and responses. Reflectively dig into what was learned. Start developing new questions for a future visit. Keep in mind that even the best sellers rarely get that solid connection on the first visit. Relationship building is something we engage in for the long haul.

Be a Library Evangelist

Those are good starting points to keep in mind, but what else can you do to develop good sales skills and sharpen your ability to make that all-important emotional connection? According to Denise Lee Yohn, in her Harvard Business Review article “The Best Salespeople Do What the Best Brands Do,” selling is no longer about getting people to buy something from you. What great salespeople do is build relationships. They get and keep customers by creating an emotional connection with the company or organization. Yohn echoes one of the program speakers who expressed that a productive conversation with faculty should focus on what they have feelings about. As a librarian, what you offer, as Yohn states, must appeal to the feelings that customers value. Research supports that “top sellers build deeper relationships with fewer customers rather than casting a wider net of shallow engagement.” It certainly helps when the product or service delivers a good experience. Library discovery environments often fall short. Librarians can compensate by adopting what Guy Kawasaki described as the practices of a “brand evangelist.” It means you convince people to believe in your product or service as much as you do, because you believe it is truly beneficial, valuable to others, and will ultimately make a difference for them.

From Selling to Giving

Academic librarians who are truly averse to the idea of selling something to their community members could frame this outreach in a different way. Make it about facilitating their success. Instead of focusing on getting them to use a database or letting you teach their students about research, what we might think of as “getting a sale,” initially concentrate on improving their condition—even if they choose to ignore all library resources and services. In time, and with conversations prompted by the right open questions, academic librarians may find faculty asking them to be educational or research partners, not because there’s an obligation or faculty felt pressured to do so, but because there’s a relationship established on a foundation of trust. Changing the dynamic from getting a sale to giving a rewarding experience may help eliminate feelings of failure and rejection when faculty ignore librarians. It’s more than an exercise in counting numbers; it’s about opening doors to future possibilities. If a faculty member is disinterested in investing in that future today, there are always others with whom to connect. Perhaps the closed mindset will shift to an open one in six months or a year. Both you and that faculty member will most likely still be there, ready to engage. Kudos to Barbara Rockenbach (Columbia University), Kornelia Tancheva (University of Pittsburgh), Rita Vine (University of Toronto), and Sue Baughman (ARL) for organizing this informative and insightful program. I look forward to future programs from this visionary project to reimagine the role of the academic liaison librarian.
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Donald A Barclay

Excellent article. I, too, have advocated the idea that libraries can learn a lot from the business world. What not to do as well as what to do.

Posted : Jul 14, 2017 09:30


Thanks Donald for your comment. Yes, selling is a business thing. But to an extent selling isn't what selling used to be. It's probably less associated with old thinking about selling in the world of business - and instead may be less business and more building relationships. So perhaps we are better not to equate the kind of selling we do with business...maybe more related to the library user experience and the relationship building piece of that.

Posted : Jul 14, 2017 09:30



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