Libraries, the universe and everything

How to talk to vendors at conferences, even when you’re not planning to buy anything.
July 21, 2016, 11:56
Filed under: Reflections | Tags: , ,

When I started attending library conferences, one of my greatest misconceptions was that you had to be a content-buyer in order to talk to vendors in the expo. As a lowly team-member with no budget of my own, I didn’t see what I could possibly achieve from such interactions. Happily, I soon realised the error of my ways, and at my last conference I had a brilliant time talking to vendors. In terms of my position (and my purchasing power) nothing has actually changed, just my perspective. To remind myself of this, and in case this might be helpful to anyone else, I thought I would write about it whilst the experience was still reasonably fresh in my mind.

The main thing to remember is that vendors are people too! They are not (as I once imagined) scary sales monsters who will hold you down until you sign on the dotted line. In fact, many of them are members of SLA in their own right, and a number of them even started out as library/info pros before their careers took a different path. I would never interrupt a sales person who looked to be deep in conversation, but if you see someone standing at their booth looking a bit bored or lonely what can you possibly lose by going over to say hello?

This also has benefits for the wider community – support from our business partners is vital for conferences, so the happier the experience for their staff the more likely they are to continue to exhibit. I am told that many companies look on these occasions as an opportunity to raise awareness of their brand and products rather than to make any major sales (although I’m sure they don’t mind if this happens!), and to find leads to follow up with afterwards.

My goal for SLA’s conference this year was to connect with some of the companies that we interact with in New York, but whilst I was wandering around the stands I took to stopping by any which I thought looked interesting. This could be because because I was vaguely  familiar with the product, or because I had never heard of them before, because their logo was attractive, because they had a nice carpet in their area, or for whatever other random reason they happened to catch my eye. I was totally up front about this with whichever staff person I spoke to – my opening gambit was generally something along the lines of “hello, I work in a museum library, I was drawn to your stand because of X reason, are you having a nice day?” – and I had some excellent conversations as a result. (Of course, some people were less responsive to this than others, which was absolutely fine too.)

Even better, as the conference went on I was able to introduce vendors I’d discovered to other people – there were two instances where I ran into friends of mine and asked if they knew about particular products which I thought would be interesting/relevant to their line of work. In both cases they had not: one of them I introduced to the rep personally, the other I sent to seek out the relevant booth. It felt great to be able to do this, and of course it had absolutely nothing to do with my personal status in the vendor-purchaser continuum.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the information-gathering potential of the expo is something which every single attendee should look to benefit from. Whether or not a product is directly relevant to your role today, who knows when knowing what’s out there might become useful? You could be asked to research something totally new to you, you might change jobs or take on new responsibilities, maybe even start mentoring someone from a different sector. And, for those of us lower down the food chain, how amazing would it be if your boss mentioned a product they’d heard about, and you were able to say “oh yes, I met them at SLA, I think this would be great for us because of x,y,z reasons”?! Even more potentially-impressive, but probably depending on your boss, you could even go back to the office after conference with a shopping list of products you think would be worth trialling. Just because you don’t have the final say doesn’t mean you don’t have a vested interest in the products you work with, so why not be proactive?

As always, I’d love to hear what you think about this. Do you have any great vendor/expo stories, comments, or pieces of advice to share? If so please do add a comment below.

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