Liaisons as Sales Force: Using Sales Techniques to Engage Academic Library Users

In Brief
Liaison librarians are assuming a wide variety of new roles that serve their institutions’ students, staff, and faculty. An essential foundation of these new roles is the ability to engage with the liaison’s user community. These engagement skills are not necessarily natural or innate, nor are they skills that most liaison librarians have had an opportunity to learn and develop. This article adapts a practical selling framework for the liaison context with examples that demonstrate how this framework can lead to improved communication, engagement, and problem-solving with liaison user communities.

By Nathaniel King and Jacqueline Solis

Image Caption/Alt Text:

“Problem, Solution, Result…” by Duncan C (CC-BY-NC 2.0)


The movement from a collection-centered focus to an engagement-centered focus is a central element in the evolving landscape of liaison librarianship. Although roles vary across institutions, liaison librarians share a common focus on supporting teaching, learning, and research by providing services to defined organizational units across the academic enterprise. Although recent work provides a clear articulation of new and emerging areas of liaison librarianship (Malenfant 2010; Kenney 2015; Miller and Pressley 2015; Pasek 2015; The Ohio State University Libraries n.d.), the existing literature provides little guidance on the interpersonal and communications skills that are required to carry out these new roles and responsibilities. While collection management, research services, and teaching remain core skills for liaison librarians, the advocacy elements of an engagement-centered philosophy positions liaison librarians as a “salesforce” for library-related solutions.

While the LIS literature provides a rich collection of perspectives and advice on outreach and marketing activities for liaison librarians (Latta 1992; Frank, Raschke, and Wood 2001; Moore 2005; Stoddart, Bryant, Baker, Lee, and Spencer 2006; Rodwell and Fairbairn, 2008; Daniel et al. 2011; Polger and Okamoto 2013; Silver 2014), this article endeavors to address gaps in the skills needed to engage more deeply with liaison user communities by identifying a compelling suite of practical communication techniques from the sales literature. These techniques provide a selling framework that can improve liaison librarians’ communication, engagement, and problem-solving skills.

Why Sales?

Making reference to “sales” or referring to the work of librarians as “selling” tends to elicit negative responses from library colleagues (Fister 2009; Pukkila 2009; Farkas 2009). While some liaison librarians may not see the need to sell their services, many libraries struggle with the fact that users and funders don’t know the full breadth and depth of what they offer (Kenney 2015). Stephen Bell (2009b) makes the distinction between stereotypical depictions of selling and the kind of selling that needs to takes place in a library context:

    When I say “we [librarians] need to be more like salespeople” that doesn’t mean we should all become obnoxious used car salespeople. It’s not about “pushy” but it is about “persuasion”. My point is that we have to be assertive and get out of the library and let faculty know what we have and how to best use it. It’s not about pushing people to use our resources just because we have it. It’s about helping them to make the right choices and putting the resources where they can be readily found and used. If we just wait around for the customers – there – I said it – to figure it out and make the right choice that’s a surefire recipe for making ourselves obsolete.

Other leaders in the profession also recognize the importance of sales skills for liaisons. The sales role of liaisons is perceptively outlined by strong proponents of the engagement-centered liaison model, Jaguszewski and Williams (2013):

    Liaisons are playing two new roles, that of advocate and of consultant, both with an emphasis on campus engagement. As advocates, they have become a research library’s ‘sales force,’ speaking on a wide range of topics and trends in higher education, influencing and persuading campus stakeholders on important issues, and serving as ambassadors of change. (16)

In practical terms an engagement-centered model asks librarians to proactively and confidently uncover and solve constituents’ problems that relate to information use, management, and distribution. For Peacemaker and Heinze, engaged library users “pass a threshold from passive recipient of services, to a proactive involved partner who desires a role in shaping the services they receive” (Peacemaker and Heinze 2015). To achieve these ends, sales skills can greatly assist liaison librarians with promoting the benefits of library services and resources. Building on this idea, this article advocates for what Daniel Pink (2012) calls “non-sales selling,” the daily activities in which “we’re persuading, convincing, and influencing others in ways that don’t involve anyone making a purchase” (21).

But Liaisons Don’t Learn Sales Skills

Although there is a recognition of the need for librarians to develop these advocacy skills (Bell 2009; Farkas 2009; Highlender 2010), such skills are not necessarily natural or innate, nor are they skills that most liaison librarians have had an opportunity to learn and develop. While the outreach and marketing literature provides a comprehensive outreach template for liaison librarians, the existing literature has little to say about the communication skills that are needed to be effective in these activities. In order to thrive in this engagement-centered paradigm, liaison librarians must utilize a specific range of persuasion skills to sell services and solutions.

In seeking out evidence for developing these skills, it quickly becomes clear that the academic research on sales in libraries is limited (Fogel, Hoffmeister, Rocco, and Strunk 2012). In response to these limitations, the authors examined classic “how-to” sales literature from seasoned sales professionals and sales guidance aimed at start-up and established technology firms. This literature provides a wealth of guidance on how to structure a sales conversation; advice for uncovering user needs; and methods for identifying potential users who will be receptive to your message. These sales methodologies and philosophies included: Neil Rackham’s (1988) SPIN© Selling; Zig Ziglar’s (1984) sales advice; Jill Konrath’s (2010) SNAP Selling; Mark Suster’s (2013) PUCCKA sales methodology; Robert Miller, Stephen Heiman, and Tad Tuleja’s (1999) New Conceptual Selling; Bosworth and Holland’s (2004) CustomerCentric Selling; and Mattson’s (2009) explanation of David Sandler’s sales techniques. In these methodologies, there are four major elements that can be used to significantly enhance liaison librarian engagement:

1. Recognition that selling is a positive and necessary part of a liaison librarian’s role.

First, it is important for liaison librarians to embrace selling as a positive, mutually-beneficial activity. Selling is not just high-pressure closing techniques that attempt to push a buyer into making a decision that they don’t want to make. At its foundation, selling is about helping people find solutions to their problems and challenges. Sales conversations are natural parts of human interaction, in both professional and personal life.

As sales guru Zig Ziglar notes in Zig Ziglar’s Secrets of Closing the Sale: “Everybody, including coaches, dentists, household executives, ministers, builders, interior designers, etc. sells and everything is selling” (111). In fact, Ziglar stresses that “a … salesperson is a counselor who identifies that prospect’s needs and then fills those needs through his goods, products, or services” (127). This is exactly what liaison librarians aim to achieve in their engagement efforts — identify the needs of users that can be filled through library services and resources.

2. Effective selling requires goal-focused interactions.

After studying thousands of sales interactions, Rackham (1988, 47) found that salespeople who have a clear objective for their customer had more successful interactions. This points to another communication technique that liaison librarians might use in interacting with library users. By approaching an interaction with a pre-determined goal in mind, liaison librarians can ask questions that help lead to the achievement of that goal. While many interactions with students and faculty are unplanned, a goal could be as simple as: “I would like this faculty member to know that I can help them with their data management plan.”

3. Enthusiasm for the library’s resources and services.

In order to convince someone to use a service or resource, it is necessary for the library liaison to clearly and genuinely articulate why they believe it will be useful. Ziglar speaks passionately about the need for this enthusiasm:

    Selling is essentially a transference of feeling… If I (the salesman [sic]) can make you, (the prospect) feel about my product the way I feel about my product, you are going to buy my product, if there is any way in the world that you can… Now in order to transfer a feeling, you’ve got to have that feeling. (83)

He also advises, “If you don’t believe the customers are the losers when they don’t buy, you are selling the wrong product. If you don’t feel a sense of loss for them, you are not going to be as effective and persuasive as you could be” (84). What this means for liaison librarians is that they must believe in the services their library offers. If, for example, liaison librarians are trying to sell an information literacy session to a faculty member, they must firmly and passionately believe that students are more successful when they participate in information literacy sessions. They must use that conviction to convince faculty that it is worth one (or more) class sessions to give students this opportunity.

4. Ability to investigate the needs of the customer.

Rackham (1988) found that in long-term seller-buyer relationships, the ability to investigate the needs of the prospect by asking questions is statistically correlated with the success of the interaction (14-15). Liaison librarians are trained to ask high-quality questions as part of the reference interview. By adapting this skillset toward a solutions-focused approach, liaison librarians position themselves to engage more effectively with library users. The next section describes how the use of Rackham’s sales methodology can build on a liaison librarian’s reference interview skills to enhance problem-solving with library users.

SPIN SellingⓇ Sales Methodology

After investigating a range of different selling methodologies, we identified the SPIN® Selling method as the strongest one for selling library services. The SPIN® Selling method was developed by Neil Rackham of Huthwaite, Inc. (Rackham 1988) and grounded in his research and experience examining factors that contribute to the success or failure of thousands of sales interactions. His methods are compatible with the goals of librarians because he explicitly places customer needs and benefits at the forefront of the sales process. His method lays out a step-by-step process for approaching sales as a conversation, providing a roadmap for people without sales experience to practice and replicate. Liaison librarians can apply this methodology as a conversational framework for in-person interactions that necessitate the promotion of a library solution to a potential library user. This methodology can close the gap between what users know about library offerings and what liaison librarians can do to add value to the user’s work.

1. The S in SPIN: Situation Questions

Liaison librarians know that in order to provide relevant service to library users, it is essential to understand the context of their work. Prior to meeting with a prospective library user, the liaison librarian should gather as much information as possible about the user. In anticipation of working with faculty, liaison librarians are skilled at tracking down faculty CVs and research interest statements online, locating past articles they have authored, identifying grants on which they are investigators, and reading syllabi and course descriptions for the classes that they teach.

In cases where information is limited, the following type of in-person questions help to establish or confirm the context of the user’s work. These Situation Questions are closely related to the kinds of information-gathering questions librarians use in the reference interview, and are also common in outreach situations where the librarian is interacting with faculty and students. Examples include:

For faculty:
a. Which journals are most important for your work?
b. Are your students completing any research assignments this semester?

For students:
c. Are you working on any research assignments this semester?
d. How do you use the library?

2. The P in SPIN: Problem questions

Based on the information gathered about the library user, the liaison librarian can then think about potential challenges that could be addressed by library resources or services. Liaison librarians should try to put themselves in the mind of the user to brainstorm problems or difficulties that might suggest an interest in a library service or resource, and then plan how a conversation might flow from initial greetings to proposing a library solution. For example, if the librarian learns that the user has a large amount of research data stored on an external hard drive, the librarian might ask about the need for long-term access to that data or if the user is concerned about the risk of losing access to their data.

When the user discusses a problem or difficulty they are having, the liaison librarian uses additional questions to determine the seriousness of the problem. The goal of these questions is to help the user begin to see how the problem is really affecting their work, because until they see the problem as something that needs to be solved, the motivation may not be there to take action.

For example, with a faculty member, the liaison librarian might ask:
a. What kinds of problems do you see in student research papers?
b. What kinds of obstacles do you encounter when you are looking for grant funding?

In another example, with a student, the liaison librarian might ask:

c. When your instructor asks you for “peer-reviewed” sources, is it clear what they mean?
d. Do you spend a lot of time formatting the sources in your bibliography?

3. The I in SPIN: Implication questions

After identifying the problem, the liaison librarian can explore the implications of the problem/s identified on the user’s productivity or work quality. By focusing on the implications of the problem/s, the liaison librarian can increase the urgency of finding a solution because the seriousness of the problem will become apparent. As an example, a liaison librarian working with a faculty member might ask:

a. How much extra time does it take to grade a paper with the problems you mentioned?
b. Have you ever missed out on grant opportunity because you learned about it after the deadline?

For a student, the implications of the previously listed problems might be:

c. Do you spend a lot of time searching for peer-reviewed articles for your assignments?
d. Have you ever had points taken off for errors in your bibliography?

4. The N in SPIN: Need/Payoff questions

In this part of the interaction, the liaison librarian asks questions that focus the user’s attention on the benefits of the library service or resource. The goal of these questions is to position the user to embrace the benefits of the liaison librarian’s proposed solution. For example, working with faculty, liaison librarians can help to outline the benefit of a potential solution by asking:

a. So if we could help your students to find quality sources, would that help you?
b. If there was a way to have funding alerts sent to you automatically, would that be useful to you?

For a student, we might ask:
c. If I could show you an easy way to find peer-reviewed articles on your topic, would that be helpful for you?
d. If I could show you some software that automatically creates your bibliography, would that help you to save some time?

Below is an example of how a conversation between a liaison librarian and a faculty member might unfold:

An assistant professor is in her first-year on the tenure-track. She teaches two classes per semester and has had limited contact with her liaison. The liaison librarian approaches her in the campus quad just before the beginning of the summer term…

Liaison Librarian: Hi! How are you?
Assistant Professor: Oh, hi—good to see you!

Liaison librarian: [Let’s begin by asking some Situation Questions] Are you teaching any classes this summer?
Assistant Professor: Yes, I’m teaching international relations.

Liaison Librarian: Is that a new or existing course for you?
Assistant Professor: New, but I’ve borrowed heavily from a course I taught as a grad student.

Liaison Librarian: Do students do any research assignments in the class?
Assistant Professor: Yes, students will do a group research project and presentation on an aspect of the political economy of post-Soviet states.

Liaison Librarian: [Ok, let’s try some Problem Questions to see if we can identify a problem that can be solved with library services or resources] What kinds of challenges do students experience when they’re doing their papers?
Assistant Professor: Based on my other courses this year, the first-year students really struggle with choosing quality academic sources for their projects.

Liaison Librarian: [Let’s change the focus to Implication Questions. What is the impact of the problem?] How do those problems affect your grading?
Assistant Professor: Well, with the first-year projects sometimes I actually have to find the web page they are citing and determine if it is acceptable or not. It doesn’t seem to matter that I tell them to use academic sources, some still cite questionable web sites.

Liaison Librarian: [Let’s dig a little deeper with an additional Implication Question…] That sounds like it takes a lot of time. How long does it take to grade one of those papers?
Assistant Professor: It depends – if I’m in a good “grading zone” I can get through a well-written paper in about 30 minutes. It can take longer though, if I need to make a lot of comments or if I have questions I’d like them to address.

Liaison Librarian: Does that cut into your own writing and researching time?
Assistant Professor: Absolutely!

Liaison Librarian: [Using a Needs Payoff Question, we can outline the benefit of the proposed solution…] So if we could reduce this problem, it sounds like it would save you a lot of time?
Assistant Professor: If there was a way to help students make better decisions about quality sources, I would gain some valuable time – if you consider that I spend so many extra hours on these papers, that’s a lot of time that I could be writing! What have you got in mind?


The strength of the SPIN® Selling framework is its ability to structure the liaison librarian’s communication to address the needs and concerns of their campus community. By starting with the user, this methodology promotes the customized pairing of library solutions with the implicit and explicit needs and desires of the user. In order to practice the techniques Huthwaite suggests, we adapted examples from the SPIN® Selling book to create library-specific scenarios that allowed us to practice the four-step SPIN methodology. Using this method in our own outreach activities has produced two important realizations.

The first conclusion is that it is rare to find a user who has an exhaustive knowledge of the services and benefits of their campus library. With that knowledge in mind, liaison librarians can approach almost every user interaction as an opportunity to “sell” the user on the benefits of library collections, spaces, and services. In a higher education environment that demands efficiency and effectiveness, this mindset is an excellent way to enhance the use of existing resources and services.

Finally, in the same manner as the traditional reference interview, liaison librarians can learn and refine their ability to “sell.” The process of spending a few minutes writing down some potential problem questions in advance of a meeting is an invaluable confidence booster. In our experience, with practice, liaison librarians can generate problem questions with a similar proficiency to their reference interview skills.

By approaching every interaction with the mindset that it is a potential “selling” opportunity and dedicating time for effective preparation, liaison librarians can develop a skill-set that adds significant value to their user community by matching existing services, spaces, and collections with users in ways that enhance their success.

The authors would like to thank Barbara Alvarez (external peer reviewer), Ryan Randall (internal peer reviewer) and the editorial board for reviewing drafts of this article. Their excellent feedback contained valuable insights and suggestions. The authors would also like to thank our Publishing Editor, Ian Beilin. His efficiency and responsiveness made the publication process a pleasure.


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5 Responses

  1. Nathan Rinne


    I think if you buy into the methodology, you are hard-pressed to resist the underlying philosophy. Lex orendi lex credendi.

    If going into every interaction with faculty w/ intent to “score the goal” – your goal – how are you “starting with the user”?

    This is a recipe for exhaustion. The problem is that so many believe the libary’s traditional purposes have been exhausted…


    1. Monique Clark

      I don’t think the intent of this methodology is necessarily to “score the goal” as much as it is to help faculty and students see how the library’s resources can be of use to them. In a way, we’re already doing this when we conduct a reference interview with patrons–asking about the context of their information need, asking about any problems with finding, evaluating, or using this information, and suggesting resources for them to use.

  2. Chris Bishop

    After five years of sales and then a career switch into librarianship — this is the post that I have always wanted to write.

  3. Cliff Van Dort

    Great article and great to finally see this being written about. Marketing and sales skills are essential to all the profession, not just the academic libraries (I work in a special/corporate library) ; gone are the days (they actually went several years ago) of “sitting back” and waiting for people to come in and use services and resources. As you say this only leads to our redundancy and closure.

    We proactively do this in our service, though not as much as I would like – having the right skills, personality, time and resources are a major stumbling block. from my own experience I can say that “selling” and “marketing” the service and resources in a similar way to selling products and goods is the way forward – we need to “sell” the benefits of the service, why they should be used, how they can help improve and enlighten and where the library staff can do so as well. I am sure many of us are struggling to do this with limited help, training (its difficult enough to go on library courses imagine asking to go on a sales course!) and staff

    Perhaps Chris [Bishop] there is a niche here for you?

  4. Megan Mac Gregor

    This is so spot on! Librarians need to stop being afraid to use things that work in the retail/sales industry. Those industries use it because it works, and if we can harness it to help people and bring them the benefit of our collections and services then why wouldn’t we use it?