Vendors and researchers: The value of relationships

The dream repeats in my head: There you are, standing in a long coat, clearly working on something important. You look concerned, or simply deep in thought. Either way, I recognize the passion behind what you’re doing. I’m supposed to approach you—muster up some courage and say hello. That’s how all great relationships start, right? Simply walk up and say hello.

But, you’re holding a pipette. My boss’ voice rings in my head: “Cold calling is a MUST!”

Ashley Parish

This isn’t a romantic situation, but rather a nerve-racking interaction between vendor and researcher that can benefit both parties—or crash and burn with little hope of recovery. My gut says not to interrupt; my job demands I must. What to do?

Maybe you’ve been on the other side of this story. A thesis or grant proposal is due soon. Your PI has set a deadline. All the while fingers are crossed that those precious cells stay alive and well so your hard work can reach the light at the end of the tunnel. Meanwhile, an all-too-familiar face suddenly pops up behind you with an enthusiastic, “Hi there! How are you? Need some gloves?” A few potential outcomes:

  • Maybe you do need gloves, but the timing couldn’t be worse, given that you’re in the middle of a cell count—and have now lost track.
  • “No. Look at the boxes of gloves we have, wonderfully organized by size!”  
  • “Yes! You can give me a discount for bulk purchases, right? Fantastic.”

These scenarios boil down to a point upon which both sides can likely agree: The relationship established between a sales rep and a researcher can be successfully symbiotic—or the stark opposite. Through my prior experience as an inside and field sales rep for a vendor with which you’ve likely interacted, I’ve learned how importantly and frequently the element of communication comes into play. I felt most confident in my relationships with the labs I interacted with when they saw me as a personal resource and partner. The ideal support rep shouldn’t be a product pusher; but rather an advocate who will gladly come to your rescue if something goes wrong, or if you simply need solutions to everyday problems.

Your rep was likely hired with a BA/BS in life science/biology, and should have a baseline understanding of where you, the researcher, are coming from. A scientist’s work requires focus and precision. Sometimes it just isn’t the right time to discuss the “new and improved” reagents. A system of open communication based on the wants and needs of both parties is the best way to develop a mutually beneficial relationship. The following are suggestions for a systematic approach to building a successful relationship with your field reps/vendor customer service that will ensure you get the most out of what each individual has to offer.

  1. Agree on a meeting time and place

While it’s customary for a rep to pay unsolicited visits to the labs they support (and this can be beneficial), it’s also useful to schedule meetings. Tell your rep a specific day and time that works best, along with a couple additional windows, if possible. I suggest having the meeting take place in the lab lounge or an office, to maintain respect for the other lab members in case they don’t want to be bothered.

  1. The more information you give, the better support they can provide

When you have an introductory meeting with a support rep, they should absolutely ask for an overview of the project you’re working on. The more information you can comfortably provide, the better equipped your rep will be to keep an eye out for items that are useful for your applications. Doing transfections? Tell them! Thinking about switching from one type of media to another? Let them know! It’s OK to be unsure about the next steps regarding products or to have potential questions: This is where relationship building comes to play.

  1. Leverage samples and new products

When companies release a new product, they typically have a large push to market, and want customers to be excited about it. This comes with a variety of business strategies, usually involving a heavy promotion—or, if you have a rep, a potential free sample. If you have the flexibility to introduce a new reagent to your workflow, as a consumer, you’re in a position of power. Clearly communicate with your rep that you’re interested in trying product X, and the date you will be able to test it. This shows the rep you’re serious. Depending on the dollar value of the product, it’s entirely fair to request a sample in return for a soft commitment for future purchases, given testing goes well. If you consistently do business with a particular vendor, they should be happy to help maintain the health of your relationship with these little “perks.” In the end, the rep is focusing on endorsing the best items available, and you can be exposed to potential areas for improvement and advancement with your research.

  1. Ask for quotes

It’s possible that the one lifeline you’ve observed with reps is their ability to provide discounted quotes for the items you need. In any situation, always ask for a quote. A rep is usually given some guidelines depending on the lab you’re coming from: university, small biotech, large corporation, etc. And there may be prior pricing agreements by which they must abide. Referencing back to the importance of overall communication, if your rep is aware of the “bread and butter” items you rely on, you can likely arrange a custom agreement depending on your usage. For example, if you know your lab uses 100 bottles of FBS per month, it would be worthwhile to ask your rep for bulk pricing for the whole quantity. They likely have better quoting flexibility for this request, versus individual orders of five bottles each.  

  1. Explore vendor show opportunities

There are typically local conferences or vendor shows every quarter for biotech companies to host booths. New products, live demos, promotional items, and opportunities to network can be expected. If you arrive equipped with questions for your primary reps, you can easily get them all answered within 30 minutes of doing rounds.

  1. Utilize spend counseling

This can go two ways. If your purchasing system/department can provide this report, you have leverage it while asking for discounts and samples by showing your committed usage. You can also request this information from your sales rep, since they should have some invoice summary for your account.

  1. Ask for added perks

I must again drill the importance of open communication. The more honesty around a need, the more opportunities for support. Do you rely on a specific reagent, and cannot work around a backorder? Ask if the company can secure a lot for you, or set up scheduled deliveries. Need a certain quote by the end of the day? Express that importance in your request. It absolutely never hurts to ask. Having a discussion around response time is also valuable. Agree on an appropriate timeline for action items with your rep so everything is completed within your expectations.

  1. Take Counsel  

The ideal rep will develop a true consultative relationship with you, not sporadic transactional interactions. Since a science background is required, it’s likely they can provide suggestions and advice on alternative routes you can take if needed. Most companies will also have applications specialists in addition to generic account managers, so if you require a higher level of expertise, it should be available to you. As a friendly reminder, it never hurts to ask. Write down the top three things you want or need. Are you running low on a reagent? Jot down the catalog number and lot. The next time your rep pays a visit, they will be more than happy to take that information and run with it.

Good luck, and happy pipetting!

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Ashley Parish

Bearded dragon enthusiast and freeway speed demon, Ashley has a BS in Biology and is your vivacious advocate for discovery!