Tuesday, May 26, 2009

No Soliciting

My preferred method for acquiring information and making decisions about textbooks is to browse the offerings at conference exhibits, talk to colleagues, and/or look through copies of books that I acquire or borrow through various means. I prefer to adopt a textbook and stay with it for many years, but sometimes a change is necessary because the textbook gets too out of date relative to a changing field or because I decide that a new textbook is better (e.g. has better explanations, is less boring, is a better fit with a course).

** This post is not about whether textbooks are worth the cost, whether publishers/bookstores/authors are gouging students by charging inflated prices for something that is, after all, just a book, and so on. I dealt with some of that last year (here and here). Feel free to leave scathing comments about your loser professor who made you buy an expensive book and then you didn't even read it but realize that you are somewhat off-topic.**

I have never made a decision about a textbook based on anything that a textbook sales representative has told me during a visit to my office. Perhaps this is because, in my experience, it is extraordinarily rare for a publishing representative to be well informed about their products. I suspect that the causes of this include:

(1) Sales reps cover a wide range of topics and can't be expert in them all;

(2) There is high turnover in the field (not sure why) so faculty are constantly encountering reps who are new to their job; and

(3) The reps trying to sell Science Books may not have a background in science. I have yet to meet one, anyway.

I am sure it is not an easy job. Sales reps show up unannounced at faculty offices and interrupt the day of someone who probably has no time to spare and who may not have a lot of respect for sales representatives in general, perhaps in part based on past experiences.

Also, for some reason the sales reps who visited me this year (e.g., last week) came at a time that was nowhere near when I have to turn in my textbook choices for the next term. I am sure they did not have a very satisfying experience trying to talk to my colleagues (or me). I could not do their job.

I have heard rumors of experienced and knowledgeable sales representatives who establish good, long-term working relationships with faculty, but unless my experience has for some reason been unusual, I'm guessing this is uncommon.

When a textbook sales representative darkens my door, I typically say "I am currently very happy with all the textbooks I am using, I am not interested in changing at this time, and I don't have time to talk now, but if you want to leave a brochure or a card with a website address, I will look at that later." I see no need to waste their time or mine.

Last week, a person unknown to me knocked tentatively on my door, and, without explaining who he was or what he wanted, asked me "Do you have a few minutes?". The answer to that is always no. I said "No". He ignored this, my first clue that he was a salesperson, told me his name and publishing company, and then told me that he has only had this job for 6 months and doesn't know much about textbooks and even less about science but he hoped that I would spend at least a few minutes telling him about my textbook needs.

I know nothing of sales, but I wonder how effective the "pity me I'm ignorant" approach works. It was not effective with me, but it's possible that his upfront statement of ignorance was a defensive response to unpleasant experiences he had had in the past with faculty who felt he was wasting their time.

Alas, I did not have time to spend with someone who wanted to sell me things I didn't want, so I directed him instead to another colleague. Evil hint o' the day: When sales representatives ignore your emphatic statement that you have no time or interest in talking with them, an excellent way to end the conversation is to direct them to another colleague, preferably one who is not a friend.

29 comments:

franglais said...

FSP, I think this year has been worse on this front, probably because of our struggling economy, and reps have got more aggressive. Two weeks ago, I received an email from a rep asking me if I had already chosen the textbook for a large-enrollment class I will teach next Fall. I politely responded: Yes, I have, and it is not the book you are representing. She sent me another email asking me which textbook I was going to use; I did not reply. Last week, she came back to the charge, this time by phone, to get that information; BTW this information will be posted on our dept webpage very soon. For all the reps out there, I would not like to have your job, but this attitude is VERY annoying, and I am sure counter-productive.

Anonymous said...

I used to have similar problems as a professional engineer with sales reps. Except sometimes they'd give me things I wanted like samples... all the same, it was less than thrilling to order samples only to find the rep calling from the lobby two days later to deliver them in person. As a rule I never let them come to my office and would only meet them in the lobby. This works better in a large setting with security.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Alas, I did not have time to spend with someone who wanted to sell me things I didn't want, so I directed him instead to another colleague. Evil hint o' the day: When sales representatives ignore your emphatic statement that you have no time or interest in talking with them, an excellent way to end the conversation is to direct them to another colleague, preferably one who is not a friend.

FSP, you are teh evul!!!!!

John said...

In our department, book reps usually come and set up a small display (with food!) in the graduate student lounge, but I don't know if they use this to target faculty members or just the graduate students. I do appreciate the ability to order exam copies online (even if I don't end up using a textbook - http://slac.wordpress.com/2009/05/08/the-beginning-of-the-end-for-textbooks/), though I'm sure this adds to the cost of the books for students.

Clarissa said...

Don't you think that instead of sending him to another colleague it would have made more sense to tell him the truth about how and why his pitch antagonized you? If people don't know what they are doing wrong, they will never improve.

Anonymous said...

The school where I attended graduate school (and where I taught undergraduate classes)took a hetrodox approach to my discipline (economics), and was often highly critical of the prevailing theories at the "big name" institutions. I therefore was always a little stymied at why the textbook reps would come and peddle a textbook by the "big name orthodox economist du jur" as if we would all buy the book based on name recognition alone. I always wanted to ask them if they had any idea at all what our program was about?

John V said...

Quite so. I've resorted to lies such as that I don't teach, I have a meeting in 5 minutes to prepare for, and I don't reply to their calls or emails.

If I need another textbook, I'd ask people who teach similar courses at other universities. The whole concept of textbook salespeople is strange. Even the comments on Amazon can be more useful than non-specialists with vested interests lecturing us on our specialties.

Ms.PhD said...

Great advice re: sending the salesperson to someone you don't like. I've done that before.

However, I generally find it's very educational to talk with sales reps if I'm not too swamped. I find out about all sorts of new things this way, and I find it's a lot more efficiently, actually, than shopping online. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to send feedback to the company. I have gotten free stuff this way, too.

I really think textbooks are going to go away completely and be replaced by interactive multimedia/online materials. I guess we should just be glad we're not selling textbooks- I think the days of having that kind of job are numbered.

TW Andrews said...

I know nothing of sales, but I wonder how effective the "pity me I'm ignorant" approach works.In contrast to the typical stereotype of a sales person, good sales professionals are much better listeners than they are talkers.

If you make the assumption that most buyers have a pretty good idea of their needs--not true in all markets, but typically the case in those for which the average sale is large enough to support a direct salesforce--the key is not so much convincing a buyer that your product is superior, but finding out where a potential buyer has an unmet need.

In your case, you obviously didn't, but even if he knows he's not going to make a sale, getting you to provide an overview helps him hone his ability to parse your descriptions of the books you use and whatnot.

Chris said...

an excellent way to end the conversation is to direct them to another colleague, preferably one who is not a friend.

Can you blog about ways to "attack or annoy" other colleagues that you don't like in the same school?

Besides attacking their graduate students....

amy said...

I'm wondering what people think of the ethics of selling exam copies of textbooks. I get a lot of exam copies that I don't really want, either sent to me unsolicited, or sent by my sales rep because I didn't have the heart to say "no." Then the bookbuyers come around and offer A LOT of money for these things. I feel kind of guilty taking the money, and often donate it to my dept.'s petty cash fund or to our student club. But sometimes I pocket it. Is this wrong? Would it be wrong for me to order exam copies expressly for this purpose?

Alex said...

Don't you think that instead of sending him to another colleague it would have made more sense to tell him the truth about how and why his pitch antagonized you? If people don't know what they are doing wrong, they will never improve.FSP is a Science professor, not a Marketing professor.

If the sales reps want constructive feedback on how to improve their sales technique, they should visit the business school.

Most of the sales rep visits in my department are from the people who sell the books we're using in our freshman physics classes, coming to check in and see if we're still happy. These books are cash cows for them. They're nice enough and since I use their online homework system I always offer them feedback to try to get them to improve things in the software.

JLK said...

As a sales rep, I feel the need to comment on this post.

First, unless you are willing to make appointments to meet with a sales rep, they are going to continue to cold call you. We are required to see a certain number of clients every week, and they have to get that number or get fired. If professors continue to refuse to make appointments, reps are going to keep showing up unannounced. Their jobs depend on it.

Second, this particular sales rep's approach was right on based on sales training. It sounds like he was trained in Sandler techniques. He asked you an open-ended question rather than offering you a sales pitch - "Tell me what you need so I can determine if I can help you."

Most salespeople WANT to develop long-term relationships with their clients - that's the GOAL of sales. But in order for that to happen, the client has to be willing to sit down and talk to them. The reason you are seeing high turnover is most likely because these reps are not bringing in the numbers they need. They are not only accountable for sales volume, but, as I said above, they are accountable for every single call they make to clients every week.

We are just trying to do our jobs so we can pay the bills. We are not the enemy. Yes, some salespeople are slimy douchebags, but they aren't the type to go into textbook sales. We all have bosses to answer to. In sales, those bosses don't care that the clients didn't want to talk to you - they consider it a failure on the part of the salesperson. Their jobs are literally on the line every time a door gets slammed in their faces.

Imagine if you could get fired from your faculty position because your students don't show up to class. Imagine your boss said "You must not be trying hard enough or doing well enough, otherwise your students would come to class every time and get excellent grades." You have no control over whether or not your students decide to come to class that day. But if your job was on the line, maybe you would find yourself nagging students to just show up.

I'm not telling you to sit down with every sales rep that shows up on your doorstep. But have some compassion for what their job entails.

alkali said...

JKL, why on earth is there such a policy? It seems to me more the bosses' fault than the professor's if a rep is fired due to such a situation. A professor can only assign their students so many textbooks a semester, particularly in basic science courses, right? (This question is directed at those with teaching experience, not JKL specifically. From my perspective as a student, I don't see how the publishers can reasonably expect (e.g.) a physics or chemistry department to change and/or add required textbooks for core courses, which in my experience account for most of the course offerings.)

Unbalanced Reaction said...

I tell them, "I am a visiting ass. I have no power to change the textbook, and I have no interest in trying to do so." It actually works. I'm not sure what I'm going to say once I'm TT... can the "I'm not tenured, I have no power" possibly work, too?

female Science Professor said...

I have compassion, but no time. I also don't think much of the guilt-trip 'they're just doing their job' explanation. According to that line of reasoning, I should also listen at length to telemarketers and people who come to my door selling magazine subscriptions.

EscapedWestOfTheBigMuddy said...

JLK:

"We are required to see a certain number of clients every week [...] We are just trying to do our jobs so we can pay the bills [...] Their jobs are literally on the line every time a door gets slammed in their faces."


To be blunt: so what?

That is your problem, and being rude to be in hopes of dealing with it is neither socially acceptable, nor likely to make me more cooperative.

And pushy sales techniques are rude.




And:

"the client has to be willing to sit down and talk to them"

Um, no.

The prospective client has no obligation to you at all.

You have to convince the client to talk to you. And in the case of this prospective client that means I have to like and respect you. Tick me off, and that will never happen.

John V said...

JLK

My job as a scientist, teacher, and general public servant has a variety of responsibilities, but generating income for textbook salesmen is not one of them.

If anything, I'm paid to help students get the learning they need while avoiding paying more their scarce dollars than necessary to support sales staff.

If you want to earn your money, scan what textbooks I use in the (easy to access) course descriptions, and suggest BY EMAIL which of your books are better than my current selection and why.

Because my working assumption is that you don't know that there is any reason I should buy your stuff, and are just trying to sell it to me anyway.

EliRabett said...

The problem is that the people who buy the books (students) are not the people who specify what is to be bought (professors). The entire dynamic is sick as is marketing of pharmaceuticals to physicians.

In this context examination copies (and pharmaceutical samples) can only be thought of as bribes

Anonymous said...

Imagine if you could get fired from your faculty position because your students don't show up to class. Imagine your boss said "You must not be trying hard enough or doing well enough, otherwise your students would come to class every time and get excellent grades." You have no control over whether or not your students decide to come to class that day. But if your job was on the line, maybe you would find yourself nagging students to just show upUmmm, actually for a lot of us this is the case. We give class participation points, threaten failing grades, and nag, nag, nag but it is true, in fact, that we have no control over whether students show up or not. For our institution, our grade distributions are now available to the public through a local newspaper, so now students have gotten into the administrators' act of holding us accountable for the number of grades below A...because everyone knows that anything below an A makes our student clients unhappy. And unhappy students results in fewer tuition sales...

Heck, I even get prospective clients asking for advance descriptions of features of my product [how many quizzes and exams we have, if lab class schedules are "flexible" (true story!)] and may decide to forgo my product because of those features [and give me often nasty detailed feedback as to how I could make my sales pitch better (reduce the number of quizzes, etc.)]

So, in fact, our jobs are tied to the behavior of a "client" over which we have no control.

Kevin said...

On examination copies:

Accepting a book someone sends you to evaluate for a class is reasonable, if you (a) actually teach a class for which the book might be suitable or (b) loan the book to a student who can use it. Giving the book to the library or to a student is a reasonable way to handle those books that you turn out not to be able to use for a course. Selling them to a book buyer is sleazy---I turn away book buyers very abruptly, while I will often talk with the sales reps.

I have yet to have a sales rep actually influence what book I choose for a course, though, so I'm not sure what the point of them is for the publishers. The sales booths at conferences seem much more productive use of resources, since many books can be looked at and comparisons between different publishers' offerings made.

JLK said...

I'm getting the impression that my original comment was not as clear in purpose as I had hoped.

What I read from FSP's original post and the first slew of comments was basically "Why do salespeople DO this stuff when it's so annoying? Why won't they leave me alone?" Etc., etc.

What I was trying to do was offer an explanation for why salespeople do what they do. It seems however that I was attempting to answer a question that was apparently meant to be rhetorical.

FSP expressed frustration both with the fact that the salespeople won't seem to go away and with the fact that she has not yet experienced a long-term, good quality relationship with a sales rep. I was trying to explain how these two sentiments are at odds with each other.

Also, as a salesperson, I couldn't help but notice that while FSP expressed not "having time" to talk to a salesperson, she managed to find the time to blog about it.

So yes, I am reacting to the overall negativity toward sales reps in general and I was hoping to provide some insight into what those jobs are like and why a salesperson would be inclined to keep bugging you when it seems that any other person on earth would find it rude and unacceptable.

EliRabett said...

The average cost of a science text is approaching $200. The library has copies. Amazon has excerpts.

Alicia M Prater said...

Where did the culture of humoring someone who's attempting to sell you something come from? Isn't the business mantra "the customer is always right"? A byproduct of consumerism perhaps?

All of the comments indicate a problem with the sales industry, not with client reception. Profs are busy, and blogging on her downtime does not mean it was time when she could've met with a sales rep! It's time she could've spent painting her toenails or enjoying a pint of ice cream or going to a monster truck rally (threw that in cuz I was sounding too girly with the options) - seeing sales reps happens during "work" time. And yes, sales people are annoying. As mentioned already, know what you're talking about and present the client with something helpful at a time when they need it. If your boss can't handle that then the industry needs to adapt to its clientele. Business 101

As a grad student and low level lecturer I didn't have to deal with textbook sales, but I did have to deal with lab equipment purveyors. They would setup a little show/carnival thing in the school lobby every year trying to bribe us into giving our email addresses - candy, pens, sample tubes - and then the following week the inbox bombardment of "sale!" "new technology/features"(which was really the same old thing repackaged to look svelte on the benchtop). And they'd stop by unannounced, give us a crate full of catalogs and business cards (forcing us to find somewhere for them or waste them) and interrupt experiments requiring delicate attention. How are these things encouraging to a person who needs a particular thing at a particular time? It's not like selling shoes.

The clientele has to be understood for a sales person to be successful, but the current generation of sales is all about the quota. (as illustrated in previous comments)

Medical rep said...

You professors are just ignorant and have no respect for other peoples professions. How can you say you dont care about someone elses livelyhood and you are a college professor educating the minds of our young adults? you have to have some kind of heart. 80% of college students dont even end up working in their major after graduation so how good of a job are you really doing? more than half of that 80% end up having a career in sales. then they come knocking on your door trying to get you to support their family the same way you supported them as a student.

higher education is a joke. 90% of the things you learn you will never use a day in your life because 80% of us arent even working in our majors. No you dont have any obligation to any sales rep that comes a knocking but i would imagine that most of you have hearts! what would it hurt you to take 15min out of your day to talk to a rep? teach him/her more about your subject so the next time they will be able to recommend some credible options for you to chose from! DUH!!!! but i guess thats too much like right. you all go to scholl for so long that you are all book smarts and have lost all sense of common sense! by the way im not a book rep i am a medical sales rep and we go through the same thing in the hospitals. i understand your frustration JLK!

Kimmy said...

I guess I do not understand the reason why the term "sales people" gets a pass on the word no, just because sales is what they CHOSE for a living?

I am tired of people putting others on the spot, and claiming it's okay for the sake of a dollar!

Do you have a moment? NO. That should be the end of it.

True sales and marketing people today build relationships. Perhaps I would say no to being cornered, but might take the time to read your offer via email. I might even respond and ask more questions about said product without someone BLATANTLY ignoring my response of NO, I don't have a moment.

I have TWO No Solicitation signs on my front window, and yet, I still get idiots, selling siding, Jesus, blacktop, and my favorite, At&t sales. None can read the sign.

In this country, each state has individual sales solicitation laws. If a sign is posted at the door, near the doorbell, IT IS AGAINST THE LAW to continue.

I feel the same with sales people that are told no. I think they should find a different way, without harassing, and then looking to bash a NO SOLICITING post when need to vent about their crummy sales jobs.

My advice to sales people, get back in your company car, and either find a way to develop relationships, or whine in your scotch to your IPHONE. No one cares that you chose to be a sales person.

Kimmy said...

And one last afterthought in defense of FSP.

I am an IT Recruiter downtown Chicago. Call me what you want, headhunter, staffing, it doesn't matter. I seek every call based on the phone number they posted on their resume that the candidate posted on the internet. Then the next question is, is this a bad time. If they say no, I ask if I can email my contact information, to their posted email, based on their resume. I won't even email someone my information without contacting them verbally. That would be SPAM!

If they forgot they had their resume on Hotjobs, Monster, etc, I have a smile in my voice, let them know I was seeking them out because they had a great resume, and if I can email my contact info anyway. Everyone knows someone unemployed!!

If you are a sales person out there, you can succeed at your position, but the first thing you must do is RESPECT your market, your potential relationship as it is GOLD.

I cannot tell you how many people that I have placed with simple kindness, and respect for others.

I cannot tell you how many referrals I have gotten word of mouth. Not because I have jobs. But because I am not pushy.

If you have to ask for respect in your sales field, then perhaps you haven't earned it.

Ethical Educator said...

Professors that say I don’t know anything about selling are kidding themselves. The tactics it takes to teach, write, get published and earn tenure take sales. Putting up a wall that your role as an academic, a professor, a researcher does not require the qualities of a good sales person is hard to believe. You are actually sell yourself and your work to a wider market than most sales people. Your market includes students, colleagues, publishers, journal editors and those that site your work.

If you want to believe you not in sales, your secret is safe with me.

Anonymous said...

Students at schools such as University of Washington, Penn State, Ohio State, UCSB, UCR, Sony Brook, Brown, Penn, Hopkins, Emory, and on and on are failing general chemistry at remarkably reduced rates, faculty report that grade distributions have all totally changed for the better (or they've had to make up harder exams), and the conversations among faculty and students have been elevated significantly, all because of a unique, A.I. tutoring software I sell that is grounded in cognitive science and took teams of UC--Irvine cog sci jockeys, mathematicians, and software engineers about 25 years to create.

But.

But I can't get through to the faculty at many schools because the textbook reps have closed them off. I've had a lot of success (I *always* hang up as fast as possible if the prof gives me any good reason to do so, because I am looking for "no" as quickly as possible, if no it shall be. Why waste time?

However, because of the poor sales tactics of overly aggressive reps and the closed minds it has engendered among many chemistry faculty, Several hundred thousand students each year are denied access to a unique, powerful, no-brainer technology.

It's a shame.