Identify Negotiations in Buyer-Seller Interactions

Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina
James L. Taylor, University of Alabama
ABSTRACT - The argument is presented that a useful choice of analysis of bargaining communications in marketing should be two or more communication turns between two or more parties in the exchange. Such communications are likely to include discretely packaged blocks of interactions and breaks and connections between such blocks. The concepts of official and unofficial identity negotiations may be useful in labeling a few of the blocks of interactions. These concepts are defined and examples provided from tape recordings of buyers and sellers meeting in natural settings. "Being there" is advocated as a necessary part of research programs to study bargaining behavior in marketing communications.
[ to cite ]:
Arch G. Woodside and James L. Taylor (1985) ,"Identify Negotiations in Buyer-Seller Interactions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, eds. Elizabeth C. Hirschman and Moris B. Holbrook, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 443-449.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 12, 1985      Pages 443-449


Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina

James L. Taylor, University of Alabama

[The cooperation of Liberty Life Insurance Co. in conducting the study is acknowledged gratefully.]

[Send correspondence to Arch G. Woodside, College of Business Administration, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC 29208.]


The argument is presented that a useful choice of analysis of bargaining communications in marketing should be two or more communication turns between two or more parties in the exchange. Such communications are likely to include discretely packaged blocks of interactions and breaks and connections between such blocks. The concepts of official and unofficial identity negotiations may be useful in labeling a few of the blocks of interactions. These concepts are defined and examples provided from tape recordings of buyers and sellers meeting in natural settings. "Being there" is advocated as a necessary part of research programs to study bargaining behavior in marketing communications.

Extant content analytic systems for analyzing bargaining communications call for dismembering verbal or written exchanges of buyers and sellers and placing the separate utterances into categories (e.g., Bonoma and Rosenberg 1975; Pennington 1968; Willett and Pennington 1966; Angelmar and Stern 1978; Bales 1968; Pettigrew 1975). For example, building directly on the work of Bonoma and Rosenberg (1975), Angelmar and Stern (1978) develop eight categories of semantic units of each party's turn in a bargaining conversation.

While the analytical schemes used by Olshavsky (1973), Angelmar and Stern (1978), and others (e.g., Willett and Pennington 1966; Taylor and Woodside 1979) are useful, the violence done in uncoupling an exchange of turns between communicators needs to be considered. The referenced content analysis schemes use something less than exchanges as units of analysis. Classifying a communicator's verbal or written turn as a promise or into another bargaining category without relating the turn to the other party's response is similar to listening to one hand clapping. Such analytic schemes fail to capture the essence of marketing exchanges.

The choice of analysis of bargaining communication in marketing should be two or more communication turns between two or more parties in the exchange. Bargaining communications in marketing are likely to include discretely packaged blocks of interactions and breaks and connections between such blocks.

Within the talking or verbal part of a negotiation, a content analytic scheme of such exchanges should build upon the recognition of the following facts, which seem grossly apparent to relatively unmotivated examination of conversational materials. In any conversation:

1) speaker change recurs, or, at least occurs;

2) overwhelmingly, one party talks at a time;

3) occurrences of more than one speaker at a time are common, but brief;

4) transitions from one turn to a next with no gap between them are common, together with transitions characterized by slight gap or slight overlap, they make up the majority of transitions;

5) turn order is not fixed, but varies;

6) turn size is not fixed, but varies;

7) length of conversation is not fixed, specified in advance;

8) what parties say is not fixed, specified in advance;

9) relative distribution of turns is not fixed, specified in advance;

10) number of parties can change;

11) talk can be continuous or discontinuous;

12) turn-allocation techniques are obviously used, current speaker addresses a question to another party; parties may self-select, in starting to talk;

13) various turn-constructional units are employed, turns can be projected one word long or, for example, they can be sequential in length;

14) repair mechanisms for dealing with turn-taking errors and violations obviously are available for use. For example, if two parties find themselves talking at the same time, one of them will stop prematurely, thus repairing the trouble (Sachs, Schegloff, and Jefferson 1978, pp. 10-11; Morley and Stephenson 1977; Morley 1978).

Exchanges between insurance salesmen and prospective clients are used in the present article to describe what the parties do in such interactions to juggle their official and abstract identities with informal and personal identities in the course of their conversations. Schenkein (1978; 1971) first called attention to the "identity negotiations" which are likely to occur in seller-buyer encounters. "Whatever else they might or might not share, such encounters are made up of talk between strangers who might know one another only as local versions of some abstract identity like 'salesman' or 'client.' For these encounters, strangers not only conduct their business under the auspices of their official identify relations, but they also negotiate into the unfolding of their encounter eminently personal identities from their separate biographies" (Schenkein 1978, pp. 57-58).


Both official and unofficial identity negotiations are likely to occur in buyer-seller interactions of the type described, i.e., between a life insurance salesman and prospective client meeting for the first time. Similar negotiations are likely to occur in industrial marketing, distribution channels, and in retail transactions involving expensive items.

Official identity negotiations are two or more conversational turns between parties which provide some information about one of the parties and comment by the other party related directly to the main purpose of the meeting (e.g., selling and buying insurance). Official identity negotiations help to specify the rather abstract identities of "salesmen" and "client" characteristics of the Parties in the meeting.

Unofficial identity negotiations are two or more conversational turns between parties which provide some information about one of the parties and comment by the other party not directly related to the main purpose of the meeting. Attempts by salesmen to use "referent power" (French and Raven 1959) by first learning and commenting to the client on the similarity of a planned, unofficial, identity negotiation.

Official and unofficial identity negotiations may be centered on characterizing and commenting on either the buyer or seller. Thus at least 4 types of identity negotiations may occur in a customer-seller meeting:


      Type      Salesman     Customer

   Official       (1)  Os        (2)  Oc

Unofficial       (3)  Us        (4)  Uc

Several hypotheses can be developed and tested concerning the frequencies and sequences of occurrence of each type of identity negotiation relative to the purchase and satisfaction outcomes of buyer-seller meetings. The purpose here is to describe several examples of such negotiations, how they might be classified into discrete blocks of exchanges, and report on the separate interpretations a salesman and buyer offer later to identities earlier negotiated between them. In several instances, conjectures and other comments are offered with the examples.


Excerpts of conversations from several buyer-seller meetings were transcribed from a study (Taylor and Woodside 1980) of exchanges of insurance salesmen and customers which occurred in natural settings. A total of 40 salesman-client parties was included in the study. All face-to-face meetings of the salesman and client for each of the 40 parties were tape-recorded. The second author accompanied each of 3 salesmen on sales calls to collect the data. Each client was requested to permit the tape recording "for a study of conversations among persons meeting for the first time." A total of 15 customers purchased life or health insurance and 25 did not during the meeting and taping of the exchanges, details are reported in Taylor (1977). Given the wealth of data produced, only a few of the recordings have been transcribed. A long excerpt of one conversation is available elsewhere (Woodside, Taylor, Pritchett, and Morgenroth 1977).


Schenkein (1978) observed the presence of a common four-turn Puzzle-Pass-Solution-Comment action sequence or discrete conversation block in identity negotiations. The following exchanges may be an example of such a block for an unofficial identity negotiation (U ) of a customer (C) with a salesman (S):

C: I have one son who will take over the business someday.

S: How old is he?

C: Six.

S: So it won't be for awhile before he's ready to take over. Ha, ha.

Such four-turn action sequences are very common in the conversations among the 40 customer-salesman parties and for both official and unofficial identity negotiations.

Though not always present, a question by the second party is a common identifying feature of the Pass. The following exchange illustrates the presence of a question in the Pass in a Us (unofficial identity negotiation of the salesman) in the same meeting as the U just reported.

S: When I was in the military I was out at Fort Knox.

C: At Fort Knox?

S: Yeah.

C: I'll be.

Us and Uc occurred commonly during the first 1 to 5 minutes of the first meeting between the salesmen and clients (Taylor and Woodside 1980). Us and Uc are likely to be planned specifically to occur by the salesman as a method for developing referent power over the customer. Thus, Wilson (1977) hypothesizes that the first time period of a dyadic customer-salesman exchange is devoted to source legitimization attempts by the salesman. This may include attempts by the salesman to induce Os, Oc, Us, and Uc. "Unless this basic acceptability [of source legitimization] is developed, further communication tends to be ineffective if not impossible" (Wilson 1977. p. 36).

Identity negotiations require the willingness of both parties to participate in the exchange. While such negotiations can be stopped during the action sequence, specific changes in the topics of conversation nearly always occurred after participating in the full Puzzle-Pass-SolutionCComment sequence, in the meetings of the 40 customer-salesman parties. Thus, it may be that some action sequences are organized to resist interruptions, and with even an unwilling participant, they run to completion, as first noted by Schenkein (1978, p.74).

Examples of discrete blocks of exchanges believed to represent Os, Oc, Us, and Uc are provided from different salesman-customer-parties in Tables 1 and 2. The exchanges shown are taken from the same meeting. Different customer parties and two salesmen (A or B) are included between the tables.

Notice in comparing Oc's in Tables 1 and 2 that the third turns are different. In Table 1, the Solution, or third turn, is a confirmation to the candidate solution offered by the salesman to the customer's first turn: "I work for State Farm Insurance." The Oc in Table 1 may be best described as an example of the following action sequence:

C: Identity-Rich Puzzle

S: Candidate Solution

C: Confirmation

S: Comment

More than a confirmation is provided in the third term in the Oc in Table 2: "I make all the decisions for this shop, but he does as far as the corporation goes." Thus both confirmations and/or "Identity-Rich Solutions" (using Schenkein's term) may be offered as solutions to a prior Pass or Candidate Solution. The willingness to provide Identity-Rich Solutions versus Confirmations only may be an indication to the other party, especially the salesman, of the likely outcome of the meeting.





The first part of the Os in Table l, "I've been with Protection Life for 5 years now, and ..." is a tentative presentation of a Puzzle by the salesman which received no verbal response from husband and wife as customers. The salesman continued the turn then but changed the subject from himself to the customers and presented a direct Puzzle in the form of a question: "Are you familiar with Protection Life" [disguised name]. The Comment by the wife (WC) in the second turn, "More or less" appears to be ignored by the salesman. The Pass is followed by an Identity-Rich Solution in the third turn by the salesman. Any Pass by the customer is likely to follow with this solution, is one conjecture which may be reasonably suggested. Only the provision of a Candidate Solution in the second turn in place of a Pass is likely to change the contents of the third turn.

The original start of the Puzzle in Os in Table 1, "I've been with Protection Life for 5 years now, and ...," includes a pause indicated by the three dots. The pause allowed time for the customer to start a conversation turn and participate in an Os. The customer did not participate in an Os, i.e., the negotiation attempt by the salesman failed. The salesman immediately executed a restart that was a more direct Os, "Are you familiar with Protection Life?" than indicated by the original start.

"Are you familiar with Protection Life?" may be better classified as a start to a discrete block of exchange to help establish source credibility, i.e., the company is trustworthy and capable, rather than an ¦s Distinguishing characteristics of company versus salesperson specific official identify negotiation can be made. Both, one and not the other, or neither sometimes occurred in the meetings tape-recorded.

The Comment in the fourth turn of the Os in Table 1 is followed by a comment and a transition to a new conversation topic by the salesman leading to an Oc. The salesman announced to the customer that he wanted to learn a great deal of information in the next few minutes of the meeting before the Oc occurred.

"You didn't know that. They try to keep some of those things not too much before the public notice, but they are a good, strong, substantial company. And the -people that have been policyholders of their for years, they like to take good care of them. So they assigned Buyers [name disguised] family to me, so that's why I called C.C. [husband] and asked him if I could come out and sit with you and go over what you presently have and maybe talk about some things you might want to accomplish in the future. OK? And to do that, I've got a little questionnaire that takes a few minutes to answer. Now we might discuss some things that are somewhat confidential. If you'd care not to divulge something say so, OK? But it's basic stuff. For instance, Linda, where do you work? "

This presentation served several purposes beginning with a comment to close an Os to an attempt to legitimize the company, to provide a rationale for the meeting with a vague implication to purchasing additional insurance, to gaining cooperation to complete a "little questionnaire," to starting an Oc. The "little questionnaire" did not include a written form but the term was used to set the immediate future exchanges to facilitate participation in several successive Oc's.

The use of such a strategy may appear to be intuitively beneficial for a salesman to use. However, in several other instances of the 40 exchanges no Oc's were found. Oc's did not occur in all customer-salesman meetings. An Oc followed by another type of identity negotiation (Os, Us, and Uc) often occurred but the inclusion of all 4 identity negotiations occurred for less than 50% of the meetings.

Successful bargaining of information by the salesperson (i.e., the customer receives, understands, and accepts information offered by the salesman), may depend significantly on the ratio of Oc and Os. Specifically, when Oc/Os > 1, then the probability of successful information-negotiation by the salesman is likely to increase.

Both the number of Oc and Os as well as their ratio can be hypothesized to be related to the sales outcome. The likelihood of purchase -increases as 1) Oc > 0, 2) Os > zero, and 3) Oc/0 > 1. However, the primary effect of identity negotiations is likely to be on other discrete blocks of exchanges during customer-seller meetings and not the purchase outcome. Identity negotiations may be related- most strongly with information bargaining. In turn, information bargaining may be related most strongly to other discrete blocks of exchanges occurring during the meeting.


Following the meetings for 3 customers and salesmen, separate meetings were held with each customer and one of the researchers. The tape recording of the initial meeting was played to each customer with the request to stop the recording every few minutes and comment on what was happening. In several instances, the researcher stopped the tape and asked the customer why he/she made a particular comment and what did the customer think "when the salesman said that?" The retrospective comments by the customer to the original meeting were cape recorded. The same procedure was followed with the salesmen. The tape recording of the original meeting was stopped at the same locations in both of the separate meetings with each salesman and each customer.

Two brief excerpts involving identity negotiations from the original meeting of a customer and salesman with their retrospective comments are provided in Tables 3 and 4. The Us in Table 3 was followed shortly by the Oc in Table 4.





Both the salesman and the customer report in their retrospective comments that they were manipulating the conversation, "I was crying to build rapport ..." and "I was just trying to find out ..." Both report a discovers about the other party in exchange.

Note that the original excerpt begins with a comment by the salesman. This refers to a previous U . Following "That's interesting," the salesman elaborates an Identity-Rich Puzzle. "That's where I got my MBA degree (University of South Carolina)." This is followed by a puzzle expansion plus candidate solution by the customer and a confirmation by the salesman. Then the customer comments "OK" and shifts the conversation to indicate willingness to accept insurance information, "Lay it on my head ..." A brief comment by the researcher appears at the bottom of Table 3 on the exchange.

The Us in Table 3 appeared to serve to help permit the occurrence of the Oc in Table 4. Notice that the Us in Table 4 represents the following scheme: S: Puzzle-Candidate Solution, C: Confirmation, S: Comment-Conclusion, C: Confirmation, S: Transition. The coupling of a puzzle and candidate solution by either the salesman or customer may occur most often after both Us and Uc have occurred. The coupling of verbal actions may serve to imply to the other party that the conversation is directed to a specific goal.

Notice in the salesman's retrospective comment in Table 4 that he had a hidden agenda that he expected the customer to discover. The customer failed evidently to discover this agenda. The salesman evidently did not realize this, or he believed the discovery to be unimportant to future agendas since he shifts the conversation: "In light of that, let's look at your present plan." The salesman may be about to elaborate on the original O in the conversation about the present plan to accomplish his goal mentioned in his retrospective analysis. Later in the meeting he specifically tells the customer the conclusion he believes she should reach based upon this and other Oc's.


Some discrete parts or blocks of buyer-seller interactions may represent identity negotiations of both the seller and buyer. Such identity negotiations may be classified as official or unofficial. Possibly more categories than two should be used to classify such negotiations, e.g., semi-official, semi-unofficial.

Identity negotiations represent only a part of the total exchanges in meetings of buyers and sellers. As theorized by Wilson (1977) and Taylor and Woodside (1980), attribute delineations and attribute value negotiations are likely to occur in such meetings. The important point is that interactions appear to occur in discrete blocks of exchanges linked by transitions. The separating of the seller's and buyer's interactions into different classification categories may be useful but also violates the nature of the exchange. Both the analysis of chunks of exchanges and complete exchanges, as well as classifying buyer's and seller's turns into separate categories are advocated for use within the same research program.

Detailed analysis of salesman-customer conversational turn-taking in natural settings is a necessary step to understanding bargaining behavior in marketing exchanges. Case-by-case research programs of salesman-customer meetings are needed for marketing exchanges in several settings. Several empirical studies incorporating such ethnomethodologies are available (e.g., Lombard 1955; Browne 1973; Varela 1971) which reduce the arguments that 1) the approach is too time consuming and too much work, 2) the customers and salesman will not agree to be observed or tape-recorded, and 3) it's too obtrusive to be valid.

Lombard (1955) and his associates found substantial numbers of meetings of 20 salespersons and customers can be observed meaningfully in 6 months. Browne's (1973) participant observation study of salesmen and customers meeting in a used-car lot indicated that nearly all the customers and salesmen were willing to be observed. The rates of sales of the salesperson during the studies by Browne (1973), Lombard (1955), and Taylor (1977) were not significantly more or less than the sales recorded before the studies nor expected by the salespersons. Given these findings, the recognition of the need to learn "theory in use" (Zaltman, LeMasters, Heffring 1982), and the serious problems with self-reports (cf. Wilson and Nisbett 1978), "being there" needs to be included in most research designs on marketing exchange behavior.


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