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v32#6 Both Sides Now: Vendors and Librarians — Advisory Boards

by | Feb 11, 2021 | 0 comments


Column Editor:  Michael Gruenberg  (Managing Partner, Gruenberg Consulting, LLC)   

If you cannot figure out how to solve a problem by yourself, who do you call?  Publishers and aggregators in the information industry are constantly being challenged to improve existing offerings while at the same time, there is a constant pressure to bring new products to market.  In an all-encompassing marketing phrase, these publishers and aggregators are all trying to build “the better mousetrap.” 

New products that are successfully launched breathe new life into the sales team, create more revenue for the company and show the marketplace that the business is vibrant.  A vibrant business ensures current profits and an influx of cash in the future by investors.  A successful new product launch sounds like a “win-win” when done right.  Because when done right the new offering will help many elements.  The customer wins by acquiring a new source of information to better serve their constituencies.  The sales force wins by obtaining a new product in their bag of sellable goods.  Sales of the product will produce more commissions.  Furthermore, by buying a new offering, the customer now becomes more closely tied to the company and will probably cause the client to look more often to the sales rep to be the source of exciting new offerings in the future.  And finally, the company wins by developing a new source of revenue and rising above their rivals in an extremely competitive environment.

Companies in every industry spend huge sums of money to hire the best marketing people to staff their marketing department.  The job of the marketing group is to develop the products that the salespeople will ultimately present and hopefully sell to their customers and prospects.  Moreover, the job of the marketing department is to position the company’s products, determine the funds needed for advertising support and develop a clear direction as to why the company’s product is superior to anyone else’s’ offerings.  In short, “the marketing department uncovers customer’s needs and sales fills those needs.” 

To effectively bring a new product to market, or even revive an existing one, takes a significant amount of effort for any marketing department.  They cannot do it alone.  Internally, a wise marketing Director will solicit the opinions of the sales Director whenever new offering are contemplated or even when poorly selling products need a boost.  It makes good sense for these two individuals to work in concert.  Many a new product offering has failed because the sales department had not fully bought into the worth of the latest whiz-bang deal dreamt up by a seemingly overzealous marketing Director.  Or failure may be blamed on a lackadaisical group of currently employed salespeople.  To avoid such characterizations of why we failed, it is better to celebrate why we won.  To do this, sales and marketing need to work together. 

The reality of introducing new products in any industry is akin to understanding that such machinations are much like a three-legged stool.  It takes all three legs of that stool to stand.  Removing any one of those legs will surely ensure that it will fall to the ground.  We know that two legs of the stool are marketing and sales.  Therefore, the third leg of the stool involves the customer.  Yes, the customer.  Over the years, I have witnessed a number of vendors in the information industry come to market with what seemingly was a “can’t miss” product only to find that the library community was unable to embrace it.  And that is simply because the company did not actively solicit the opinions of the very people who would ultimately buy and use the product.  No matter the industry;  no matter the product, if you do not actively solicit the opinions of the eventual users of the product, odds are, it will fail on delivery.

Companies invest significant sums of money developing new products.  Unfortunately, sometimes that development is done within a vacuum.  All around the company headquarters people are raving about the new offering.  Was a customer called to find out their opinion?  If not, success will be fleeting.  Therefore, Customer Advisory Boards are so important in the successful launch of a new product. 

Several years ago, I called on a customer at a major University.  They were a significant customer of the databases my company was offering.  As is so often the case, the librarian and I spoke about some of the mutual friends that we have in common in our community.  She mentioned that she would be seeing some of those mutual friends at an upcoming meeting sponsored by a vendor, who was a major competitor of ours.  She went on to say that a group of librarians would be travelling to a city, taken out to dinner, be given hotel accommodations and the next day would talk about issues such as customer support, new product ideas, etc.  She went on to say that was an annual event and all the participants were grateful for the opportunity to give their comments and suggestions and looked forward to this get together every year.

Whether or not the host company actually acted on the suggestions of their guests is debatable.  What is not debatable is the good will that this exercise created.  No matter the cost, the information gathered at the dinner and subsequent meeting the next day was far beyond any dollar value that you could assign.  The money needed to organize and bring the parties together was money well spent by the company. 

Of course, given the current limitations on travel as dictated by COVID-19, groups of librarians flying to cities, staying at hotels and spending the day in a meeting room is no longer viable.  We are all thankful for Zoom.

So, what does the Advisory Board really do?  In it’s most basic of terminology, the board serves as a conduit from customer to vendor to advise on product and company direction.  Questions like:

• We have developed this new database, are these data points that would interest your users?

• Product XYZ is not selling well.  What are your thoughts as to why this is occurring?

• Our market strategy is _____.  Does that make sense to you?

• We are pricing product ABC at $___.  Is that reasonable to you?

• Are there any new databases that we should develop?

• How does your acquisition budget look for this year and next?

• Can we count on your renewals?

The list of questions can be quite extensive.  There are few boundaries in the topics chosen to discuss.  Finance, renewals, customer service, technology updates and more all have a place when the company convenes a meeting of the Advisory Board.

A wise Product Manager once said to me a long time ago that he followed the advice that said “The customer is always right.  And if the customer is wrong, our job is to figure out how to make the customer right.”  Advisory Boards do just that.  They help to make the customer right by confirming that the company’s path is a correct one.  And if by some chance, the customer is upset, the board helps iron out those complaints and resolves those issues, as well.

In today’s fast pace of publishers and aggregators competing in the information space, it is important to give the customer what they want, not what the company thinks they want.  One of the best ways to obtain that market intelligence is through an active Advisory Board that has been given free rein to voice their opinions.  Companies that pay heed to those opinions are the ones who will likely be the most successful in our industry.  

Mike is currently the Managing Partner of Gruenberg Consulting, LLC, a firm he founded in January 2012 after a successful career as a senior sales executive in the information industry.  His firm is devoted to provide clients with sales staff analysis, market research, executive coaching, trade show preparedness, product placement and best practices advice for improving negotiation skills for librarians and salespeople.  His book, “Buying and Selling Information: A Guide for Information Professionals and Salespeople to Build Mutual Success” has become the definitive book on negotiation skills and is available on Amazon, Information Today in print and eBook, Amazon Kindle, B&N Nook, Kobo, Apple iBooks, OverDrive, 3M Cloud Library, Gale (GVRL), MyiLibrary, ebrary, EBSCO, Blio, and Chegg.  www.gruenbergconsulting.com


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