Libraries Need Relationship Marketing

Article excerpt

What do libraries have in common with John Deere tractors, Mary Kay cosmetics, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, and Prada haute couture? Regrettably libraries have no special link with these diverse businesses, which share a common business reputation for top satisfaction ratings from their customers. Along with many other businesses, they each appear to have committed to relationship marketing (RM), a deceptively straightforward switcheroo on traditional marketing methods.

The lead of a 1998 Harvard Business Review article put it provocatively, "Relationship marketing is in vogue. Managers talk it up. Companies profess to do it in new and better ways every day. Academics extol its merits. And why not? The new, increasingly efficient ways that companies have of understanding and responding to customers' needs and preferences seemingly allow them to build more meaningful connections with customers than ever before. These connections promise to benefit the bottom line by reducing costs and increasing revenues.

What is relationship marketing? It is a mutual interest between company and customer. It is not a new concept. In fact, it is as old as the merchant trade itself. It is the demonstration of a deep and abiding regard for the customer and this is displayed in the product and services sold, in the interaction between company and customer, company and potential customers, company and suppliers, and so on. And in this case, the word company encompasses every employee that represents that company. It transcends the product or service being sold.

Why have libraries not jumped on the RM bandwagon as they have jumped through the hoops of other business fads such as total quality management (TQM)? The disjoint may be because librarians have never really "got it" about traditional marketing methods, never mind newfangled relationship marketing, which is only about two decades old. As our very own management guru, Herb White, stated in Library Journal, "... it should be fairly clear that librarians do not market and that they never have marketed." He concludes, "What we need to tell people is not how wonderful our public libraries are but rather how wonderful they could be. The awakening of these dreams is the purpose of marketing..." The purpose of this article is to introduce the topic of relationship marketing to the library audience.

We believe that Herb White is right. All libraries, not just public libraries, have been inept marketers. Traditional library marketing methods are mired in transactional muck; the number of items circulated, the number of searches performed, the number of documents ordered and so on. The transactional marketing approach places the emphasis on quantity vs. quality; on the product rather than the customer. Relationship marketing emphasizes customer retention and long term customer relationships.

A Paradigm Exchange

The flood of business verbiage and pontificating about marketing is enough to dissuade even the most dogged M.B.A., let alone a librarian seeking a businesslike way over troubled waters. For example, the American Marketing Association formidably defines marketing as: "the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." Adrian Payne, a RM pioneer, pinpoints the elemental difference between RM and old-fashioned marketing this way, "Traditional marketing has been about getting customers. Relationship marketing addresses the twin concerns--getting and keeping customers." A working definition of RM is more elusive.

Christian Gronroos addresses the concept in this way: "Marketing is to establish, maintain, and enhance...relationships with customers and other partners ... so that the objectives of the parties are met. This is achieved by a mutual exchange and fulfillment of promises." Tony Cram's definition is that, "Relationship Marketing is the consistent application of up-to-date knowledge of individual customers to product and service design which is communicated interactively, in order to develop a continuous and long term relationship, which is mutually beneficial. …