42 things that database vendors need to do to secure AND keep my custom

42This is a post that I’ve been meaning to write for a Very Long Time and which is finally seeing the light of day thanks to interest shown by Sarah Wolfenden during a conversation we had at the recent LILAC conference: ‘I’d like to read a post about that’ she said, or words to that effect.

A bit of background will quickly explain why this is topic is a big deal to me: I manage a £350k+ per annum budget for databases at the University of Cambridge’s Judge Business School. I’m effectively buying for the whole University as we’re its business and management department, but that said, by far the most extensive usage of the products I purchase is made by members of Judge. I’ve been dealing with database vendors since the mid-Nineties (in fact a quarter of them are the very SAME database vendors, but both the products and people have changed) so I have around 20 years experience of these relationships and, for the past 6 years, direct purchasing power.

It’s important to say that this post isn’t intended to be a quick cathartic vent of my spleen. For one thing I’m not particularly annoyed with any vendors at the moment, not even mildly, however, I like the idea of some of them being alerted via this post to where they commonly go wrong and to better understand why they regularly drive us librarians up the wall.

N.B. For obvious reasons I have deliberately anonymised the experiences and vendors in question.

Without any further ado, those 42 things (in no particular order):

1. Authentication 101
You’ve not heard of Shibboleth. You want me to spell it for you? You want to know what a proxy server is? Not cool. Sort out how your database is going to being authenticated to all of our users before you pick up the phone to me. And if your solution is multiple usernames and passwords accept that this is not going to be a viable solution for 99% of your academic customers.

2. Serial phoner
Hi it’s Zack again. Have you thought any more about buying our product since I last called you ten minutes ago? No Zack I haven’t and from now on I’ll be screening your calls.

3. The Only Librarian (really?)
Don’t tell me that I’m the only librarian experiencing issues with your database unless you know this for certain. We talk to each other you know. And in the past 20 years, I can count on the fingers of one hand the times when the fault has purely been a local problem.

4. Browsers 101
Develop your product so that its compatible with ALL browsers. And that means Safari too. What? You didn’t get the memo about the fact that students are on phones and tablets all the time now? Check your in-tray.

5. No hard sell
Don’t hard sell to us. It almost never works. I vividly remember a conference at which a vendor stepped in front of another vendor, who I was busy speaking to, in order to sell their product to me. I was not impressed. Go back to Vendor School, and if you pass Go, do not collect £200.

6. Price chat  ban
Some of you think banning discussion of prices between librarians is appropriate. Newsflash! It isn’t. It only means we all talk about you in hushed angry tones and nurse negative thoughts that may well contribute to some of us cancelling our subscriptions, and leads others, who don’t yet have your product and hear of this practice, to never buy from you. And get this, this is regardless of how good your product is. Drawing board.

7. How is our product really used?
‘How is our product really used in your institution?’ This is a key question and should be asked a lot more than it is. High fives to the two vendors who asked me this recently.

8. Great (big silly) expectations
Sponsoring and attending conferences because you think you will secure around 10 new subscriptions just like that <clicks fingers>. This rarely happens for lots of reasons, some of which include: most deals occur after vendors have already built a relationship with us; lots of us have to cancel another product before we can buy yours; we rarely have both the spare cash and/or authority to purchase a product on a whim.

9. The discount line
Don’t, just don’t tell me that the price represents a really good deal because it’s a huge discount on the commercial price. Well of course it is, otherwise we wouldn’t have a hope in hell of even considering purchasing your product! We are not the commercial sector. We don’t have that money. The price you charge that sector is utterly irrelevant to us. We are not pleased or impressed that the price is considerably lower – we actively expect this to be the case <breathes into paper bag>.

10. Invite and ignore
This one particularly frustrates me as I’m A Terrible Gasbag Who Needs To Be Heard: don’t invite us to focus groups or advisory forums and then take all the airtime yourself. Yes I know you want us on board with your product, but talking at us without any opportunity for comment or feedback is not cool.

11. But the contract says…
The moment that has made me more angry (Grrrr…) than any other in my professional career was when a vendor read out a (or similarly numbered subclause, other subclauses are available) of a contract to explain why their current appalling level of product support and customer service was OK because a minimum backstop was worded in the small print of the contract. That legal small print, dear vendor, is intended to prevent anyone from suing you, not an appropriate basis for a discussion to either solve the problem at hand, or to get me back on board and/or liking you and your product again.

12. Product oversell
My product is the answer to all your prayers. No it isn’t. In fact I’m struggling to understand: why it’s any different/what it is/why it has all those tabs/the clunky functionality/the colour scheme/why you like your product so much. Delete as applicable.

13. Research your market
We are the only supplier to offer this. No you’re not. Research your market.

14. The Academic Bypass
I’m going to bypass you and talk straight to your academics cos you’re only the librarian. Bypass me at your peril!

15. Price lockdown
Me: So what’s the best you can do on this database? Vendor: £10k. Me: Oh, that’s not going to be possible, we’d need it to be nearer £6k. Vendor: £10k. Me: We just don’t have the budget. Vendor: £10k. Me: The very best we could do would be 7.5k including VAT. Vendor: No. Me: Goodbye, it was lovely talking to you. Question: Do you want to sell 5 subscriptions at £7.5k or no subscriptions at all at £10k? Your call.

16. Life sharer
While I’m all for building a good working relationship with a vendor and finding out about them as three-dimensional people, I don’t want to have to navigate past this chit-chat for too long every time we talk and email, especially if I’m busy and just want an answer to a question. Building relationships is key but there’s a line here and I don’t really care if you’ve had falafel and a refreshing walk at lunchtime.

17. Angry customer service
Guess what? When I’m annoyed about a product glitch or loss of service, you being angry back at me when you guys are in the wrong, or have failed us in some way, is really not the best way to go. I am the customer. Say the word slowly: c u s t o m e r. Recommended dosage: Repeat daily forever until you realise that this is what I am and that I’m helping to pay your wages.

18. Accept my advice for what it is
Too often my advice to vendors is not taken for what it is: genuine altruistic advice to help you make better decisions when you make bad ones and to ensure that we librarians don’t get more frustrated with you. Don’t get huffy about it, use my advice. And remember, if you are going to get huffy and tell other librarians about what I said – we all talk to each other. It will get back to me. It did get back to me.

19. PowerPoint 101
Death by PowerPoint isn’t funny, and it could mean the difference between people buying your product or not. Learn how to construct a good PPT or equivalent. There really is no excuse anymore.

20. Presentations 101
Honestly how did most of you get through Vendor School? Learn how to present well – to engage, to sell you proposition, to focus on the key points, to entertain. It is an art, granted, but it can be learnt.

21. Death by demo
Almost as bad in my book as Death by PowerPoint. Just remember that we are intelligent people with many databases already that we have been navigating for years. We don’t need to be shown every page, tab or view. Give us the functionality highlights and a clear summary of content and coverage and leave it at that.

22. Free Trial! Free Trial! Free Trial!
Well whoopty-do. Just as we actively expect an academic discount, we expect a free trial of your product. How else can we evaluate whether we should buy it?

23. Socialise at conferences
Yes we know conferences can be a bit awkward and some of us librarians are a bit weird but don’t ignore us at conference socials. Talk to us rather than each other. You’re missing the opportunity to build relationships and ultimately sell your product.

24. Social media
Use it and use it properly – not just for product updates and announcements, but to engage with your audience with wit, wisdom and character.

25. Databases that try to do everything
‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ is that the reputation you want for your database? No? Well then.

26. Make your products better (with our help)
In all my years as a business librarian I have never been invited to help make a product better. I’ve been asked my likes and dislikes, but not to assist with real development or actual usability testing. You’re all missing a trick here. Use our knowledge, improve your product, and get our buy-in along the way. If you want someone to really buy-in to something you give them some ownership.

27. ‘Oh shit – they’ve changed it’
Tell us if you’ve changed something, don’t wait for us to find out ourselves. It’s called common courtesy. And please stop unveiling new interfaces at the start of the new academic year after we’ve already prepared the supporting documentation for the old version. This sort of behaviour makes us want to wear a necklace made from your teeth.

28. ‘What’s the problem again?’
I’ve sent numerous emails, had countless phonecalls with you, and now you’re asking what the problem is again? Seriously? This is a joke right?

29. On file
I have never understood why I regularly need to give you my email, my phone number or my address. You have these all on file. Unless the paperwork we fill in is all a vast joke and goes straight into a shredder at your end?

30. Customer satisfaction (is dropping all the time)
If you send me endless customer satisfaction surveys I will become less satisfied each time one pops into my email inbox. It’s both a simple equation and a fact.

31. Students
You sell an academic product. For this reason you need to allow students to talk to you about your product and ask you questions about data and functionality. They are not beneath your notice, they are your customers. And, more than that, potential future subscribers.

32. On your marks, get set, chase invoice
Stop chasing invoices almost immediately after they have been sent to me. Even if I turn them around immediately, and I do, our finance office will still take 30 days to pay them, sometimes more. This early invoice chasing is pointless and waste’s your company’s money. And… I find it intensely irritating.

33. Know your product better
If you can’t tell me what your product does and what is on it then you probably shouldn’t be selling it.

34. More conference freebies (and wit)
Pens and notepads don’t cut it. You need to be giving away stuff that makes us smile, or sparks a conversation. Only one company whose product I subscribe to gets this right and their sales people also have a great sense of humour. Don’t underestimate the value of the latter or the reach of the freebies.

35. No follow-up support
The deal is done, the money spent and suddenly, guess what, that endlessly ringing phone goes silent. Don’t be that vendor guy. Support us after and during our subscription. You never know, we might subscribe the following year as well.

36. Carrot dangling
However much you dangle a ‘cheap first year carrot’ in front of my nose I’m not going to bite unless I know that the price for Years 2 and 3 is reasonable. I’m not stupid.

37. The North-South divide
I thought this only really truly existed in stand-up and comedy shows, but no you vendors really don’t like going oop North to support your subscribers up there. Yes they’re all busy playing bingo and racing their whippets but they paid the same for the product as me and shouldn’t be penalised for being based further away from London. It’s bad enough that they have to live up there. Poor loves.
N.B. I jest about the North, lived in Newcastle for years.

38. Dodgy competitions
Dodgy competitions for which we have to disclose the names and contact details of our faculty members in order to enter a draw to win an iPad. Nuff said.

39. Online training
The MOOCs bubble has burst. Everyone knows that everyone hates remote online training. Start training us and our students in person again.

40. Loyalty
I have subscribed to your product for years and years but this doesn’t appear to be mean anything. Some of you even cut the database off if an invoice is a little late in being paid. Look after your customers, don’t bully them.

41. Name the month (don’t name the month)
If you’re not sure when an update, enhancement, or new release is coming don’t name a month. That would be a stupid thing to do.

42. Honesty
Be honest about what you think could be improved in your product. This will earn you far more brownie points than pretending it’s all brilliant. And we won’t believe you anyway.

And if you take ALL of that advice on board I might buy or keep buying your product, it’s not much to ask now is it?

But wait I’m not done. It wouldn’t be fair not to have a bit of a dig back at librarians too, so here’s 4 more just for you guys, all equally maddening to me as the 42 above.

1. Complain more
We librarians don’t complain enough when products go awry or vendors don’t behave reasonably. Stop sitting back and taking it. We pay for these products. It’s my belief that in our personal lives we librarians are the first people to complain when something that we bought from B&Q or John Lewis stops working, but conversely we’re ridiculously reluctant to sort out faulty products in our work lives.

2. Bargain more
Don’t just accept the first price you are given. Bargain with vendors. Try to knock them down on price. There’s far more room for manoeuvre than you think. Far more.

3. Be more realistic
I’m heartily sick of those people who complain that vendors are just out to make money. Well of course they are and you’re stupid if you think otherwise. Similarly there is of course the same ulterior motive for them to build relationships with us, but that shouldn’t make you feel uncomfortable. That’s part of the deal. Play the game.

4. We’re more important than you think
We’re not as lucrative as the corporate market, no, but altogether the academic market still adds up to a whole stack of moulah. We are far more important to them than you might think we are, and what is more we can be a force to be reckoned with if we stick together on matters like poor customer service, ridiculous pricing and unreasonable service changes.

There I’m done.

Librarians: any more advice for vendors?
Vendors: any more advice for librarians?

Message ends…

[’42’ image by Iguana Jo via Flickr Creative Commons]


11 thoughts on “42 things that database vendors need to do to secure AND keep my custom

  1. sarah111well says:

    On a much smaller scale this all rings true to me – a school librarian. We librarians all talk to one another. Why don’t we unite when a supplier is badly letting us down? And why doesn’t anyone offer training in negotiating with suppliers? I know that I’m useless at it, but there are deals to be done by people who know what they are doing.


      1. Keith Walker says:

        I remember once (Leeds conference?) when we had a sesion from Eduserve about negotiating. Good piece btw Andy. Would agree that there are deals to be had. If you don’t ask, you don’t get! p.s. Oop North is down South for a lot of us! 😉


      2. libreaction says:

        Yes, but I think it needs to come from a librarian. I may have to start offering this? ‘Oop North’: I distinctly remember when I lived in Northumberland feeling that Newcastle was a long way South so I can appreciate that.


  2. geeksinheritall says:

    13 and 33 drive me round the bend! Got to add: I work in a very specialist institution. Knowing this (you called me, remember?!), if you are a vendor perhaps learn which areas of the world we focus upon and then be able to tell me about the coverage of these areas?! Because it takes about 2 minutes of research on your end. If you demo only a completely different geographic region, I will then have to interrupt you and ask for somewhere I actually want to see information about… This is especially true if I’ve already spoken to you several times and stressed that I’m only interested in certain areas of the world and listed them for you. More than once. At which point I may feel a little pissed about the situation and start to wonder what level of blithering idiot I’ve been given as a rep. This is not out of spite. I need to know that the resource can do what I need it to do- and what you have already claimed it can do. Do your research: it saves a lot of embarrassment on both sides and hopefully prevents you mumbling inaudibly into your shoes when I ask about coverage… Only one vendor has ever pro-actively walked in and run a search using an appropriate country without being coerced. I want to stand on a chair and shout “know your market” and other catchy slogans at the others as I pelt them with sales manuals! (Sorry: that got a little rant-y, but it’s a particular bug-bear of mine!)


    1. libreaction says:

      Yep. With you 100%. 13 and 33 are absolutely key, but they often don’t seem to be on the radar at all. If I’d tried to prioritise the list ( I gave up) – they would have both been in the Top 5.


  3. Sarah Crofts says:

    In connection with no 32, I would add: please don’t ask for details of student numbers etc for renewal months beforehand and then, following discussion and agreement, fail to get the invoice out in time so that the payment comes out of the following financial year’s budget – a real downer for most academic users.


  4. Janine Scott says:

    As one of these “vendors” portrayed in the article I want to say the following….. THANK YOU.
    This was a great article and admittedly I giggled at a few of the points having seen them occur on the odd occassion 🙂 For those of us who are vendors and believe passionately in creating a great experience for our customers this feedback allows me to share this within our firm and address some of these concerns. What you may not realise is that some of us want to know about this and want to fix it so bring on more guidance, we are here to serve…..


    1. libreaction says:

      Thanks Janine. That was my primary motivation for writing it, so that’s great to hear. Some of these things crop up so frequently and damagingly that I do feel some sort of training is required. However, as I related above, I think librarians are to blame too for not pushing back enough, or being realistic enough about the fact that you are seeking to hit sales targets.


  5. Charlie C says:

    I was reading through this list going ‘yep, yep, yep’ so clearly we are all suffering the same, frustrating experiences! For me, presentation and demo style is so important. Often we’re trying to show our faculty why this might be a good resource for them; half of them are falling asleep and the other half are wondering how this is relevant to them because the presenter is showing them EVERYTHING rather than what they need to know. Surely if you’re in sales your personality/people skills should be a fairly important part of the job?


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