‘Account managers’ in parliamentary library & research services?

The concept of ‘account manager’ is well established in business – a role that gives the client a single point of contact with the organisation. Focusing communications allows a relationship to develop and the account manager can, therefore, calibrate service delivery to the needs of the particular client. For the client, the service has a more friendly face and a direct line of contact, in person or remotely. In a parliamentary setting, clients may be unaware of the full range of service offers and, depending on the structure, may find it daunting to work out what they can get from whom – so may look for apparently ‘quick and easy’ solutions elsewhere. An account manager can simplify the process of connecting the client with the relevant service offer, and so make it more likely that service will be requested and used.

By tradition, library and research services tend to work to transactions rather to relationships: that is, each enquiry or research request that comes in is dealt with by the relevant staff available, it is resolved, and then the staff move on to the next transaction. There are at least three issues with that traditional approach:

  1. Each transaction requires an investment to understand the client and their need. It may be relatively trivial for a quick reference enquiry, but it may be quite substantial for more difficult requests. With a purely transactional approach that investment is written off each time, except if staff and client coincide in future, or if knowledge is shared informally amongst staff.
  2. The transaction is often through an intermediary – for example a junior staffer in a Member’s office – and it can be difficult to get a fix on exactly what is needed. Seen as just one transaction, it may look expensive to clarify for both service and the office, so most likely will remain partly ambiguous. It is unlikely the principal will spend time getting involved.
  3. The client probably asked for what they thought the service could provide, rather than the full range of what they actually needed. Clients usually have a limited understanding and expectation of what can be provided and no amount of brochures or websites will change that. The transactional approach means they may not get a service beyond their limited expectation. Again, for a single transaction, it is not worth the time to investigate the service options, to learn more.

Is it worth going beyond this transactional approach? Delivering a service based only on transactions means repeated overheads on each transaction and investment that is written off each time. In addition, a limit is placed on service improvement. By contrast, if the service can achieve a relationship with the Member’s office then some of those costs can be saved and there are potential benefits in addition. Reducing the cost (in time and effort) of using the service increases its value to the Member, even more if the outcome is also better.

An understanding of particular client needs that cumulates with each transaction, rather than being dissipated, is both saving and benefit. As the understanding grows, delivery can be faster, more accurate and less expensive on both sides. If delivery matches needs, then both satisfaction and the chances of additional business should increase. It is usually much easier to increase ‘sales’ to an existing customer than to attract new clients.

If a relationship is established then it becomes viable for both sides to invest more in mutual understanding than they would for a single transaction, to achieve long term benefits. The service can hope to achieve a better understanding of requirements and that the client has a better understanding of the offer. Services can be adapted and innovations made on the basis of insights gained.

In parliaments the library & research service may be dealing with hundreds of what are, in effect, small businesses. Each business (each Member’s office) is run in its own way with varying responsibilities for initiating and following up on research. There are usually varying degrees of interest in library/research services. To be effective, the library/research service needs to be in direct contact with the research principal. The research principal is the person who will actually use the research produced; they may rely on intermediaries such as junior assistants to actually find the raw material, including liaison with the library & research service. Dealing with intermediaries creates many challenges in library & research service. Often the Member is the principal but some may delegate research responsibility to a senior assistant – this is one reason it is important to know the office, to know who the principal is. It is more likely that the principal will invest in direct contact with the library & research service if they know it is for a long term beneficial relationship rather than a single transaction.

Investing in a close relationship is expensive on both sides. It will likely only prove viable with and for Members who are active in a role that is research-intensive – those with a formal or informal specialisation and/or particular activity in legislative work. In some parliaments, at least, there is a subset of Members who are particularly active and influential, often acting as information gatekeepers and as signallers to other Members. Channelling critical policy evidence to such Members is, in principle, a highly effective strategy to achieve impact. There is, however, a duty to serve all Members and the investment in close relationships with the most active Members cannot prejudice service standards to Members in general. If the strategy is pursued then the logic would be that resources are drawn into responding to the key accounts and to specific requests from other Members, with less available for speculative proactive work.

I am aware of one brief experiment in a parliamentary library & research service of the use ‘account managers’. It would be interesting to hear of any other examples. Recently, I noted with interest that a Dutch information school offered a training course for relationship and account management in information services. So the concept is current in the profession – but is it happening in parliaments? Or are there other solutions to shifting from a transaction-based service to a relationship-based service?

Recent training course advert (in Dutch): https://www.linkedin.com/posts/go-opleidingen_relatiebeheer-en-accountmanagement-in-de-activity-6618827820279955456-UA8M

Wikipedia on ‘account manager’: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Account_manager

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