Communicating Effectively to Consumers Through Salespeople: a Look At Competent Salespeople an Overview of This Special Session

Harish Sujan, The Pennsylvania State University
[ to cite ]:
Harish Sujan (1988) ,"Communicating Effectively to Consumers Through Salespeople: a Look At Competent Salespeople an Overview of This Special Session", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 372-374.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 372-374



Harish Sujan, The Pennsylvania State University

Two important sources of influence for decisions that consumers make are advertisements and salespeople. Across the wide range of purchasing decisions that are made, the influence of salespeople is often more than that of advertising. Yet, this source of influence, in contrast with advertising's influence, is very much the under-researched domain.

Several approaches can be taken to study salesperson influences on consumer decision making. The traditional approach has been to study the interaction between buyers and sellers. A second approach is to study consumers' reactions to various salesperson cues. This approach closely parallels the study of consumer reactions to advertising cues. To illustrate, Sujan, Bettman and Sujan (1986) looked at the impact of salesperson arguments on consumer preferences, when the salesperson's appearance and introductory remarks were consistent or discrepant with consumers' expectations. This work resembles work done on the impact of arguments presented in advertising contexts, when the message is consistent or discrepant from consumers' expectations (e.g., Sujan 1985). Another example is research on "schemer-schema", recommended by Peter Wright in his ACR presidential address (1985). This research when done with salespeople, rather than with ads, may take the form of examining how consumers interpret salespeople's actions, and the explanations they give for why salespeople do what they do.

Also relevant to the understanding of salesperson influence in consumer decision making, is studying the salesperson's behaviors and cognitions from his or her own perspective. For example, one might ask what information -- pertinent to influencing consumer choice - do salespeople have, and how does this differ between better and worse performers? Or one might ask how do salespeople explain a successful persuasive attempt and how do they explain an unsuccessful persuasive attempt, and what effect do these explanations or attributions have on their behavior with their customers? The contribution of research focusing on the salesperson alone, as against the salesperson and his or her customer, is likely to be similar to research focusing on advertising alone, for example, work done on the linguistic structure of ads (e.g., Thorson and Snyder 1984). An integration of research focusing on the salesperson alone, research on buyer-seller interactions and research on consumers' reactions to salespeople, could result in a rich theory of salesperson influences in consumer decision making.

Besides broadening the scope of research on consumer decision making, another motivation for consumer behavior theorists to conduct salesperson research is that a synergy exists between many current areas of investigation in consumer research and many, potentially interesting, areas of investigation in salesperson research. Several psychological constructs that have been applied in consumer behavior research are equally relevant for the study of salespeople. For example, research on categorization, that has been applied to the study of consumer knowledge and expertise (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson 1987), is very helpful in studying the knowledge structures salespeople have for their customers and for strategies for selling to these customers (see, for example, Sujan, Sujan and Bettman 1988). In fact, since person perception rather than object perception has been the foundation of several psychological theories, such as attribution theory (see, for example, Fiske and Taylor, 1984), studying salespeople's perceptions of consumers or consumers' perceptions of salespeople may lead to greater theoretical insights than studying consumers' perceptions of objects such as products. Finally, for consumer behavior researchers interested in "efficiency" or "accuracy" questions (Bettman 1987), the study of salespeople may be specially appealing, since in the selling domain it is easier to distinguish good "decision-makers" from poor ones, based on criteria such as the supervisor's performance evaluation. This synergy between traditional consumer behavior research issues and salesperson related research issues suggests that it would be fairly easy to extend the domain of consumer behavior research to incorporate salesperson issues.

Lastly, research on salesperson issues can also contribute to growth in the understanding of some traditional consumer behavior issues. An area that seems particularly likely to benefit from this work is family decision making. For some kinds of family decisions, the process by which family members iterate from differing preferences to a common choice may closely resemble a sales process. For example, a family decision in which one family member takes an advocacy position on an issue. Thus, identifying commonalties between these two domains may prove to be of substantial benefit to both sets of research interests. A second area of overlap between traditional consumer behavior issues and salesperson issues is in the domain of source or spokesperson effects. There may be some common processes of influence by which salespeople and spokespeople in advertisements influence consumers.

In this special session an introductory attempt to interest consumer behavior researchers in salesperson issuesCthe focus was on salesperson competence. It would have been beneficial, in terms of achieving the goal of demonstrating to consumer behavior researchers the close fit between "salesperson" issues and "consumer behavior" issues to have all presentations focus on the customer rather than on the salesperson. However, this could only be achieved in part. The presentation by Klemp made the role of he customer clear and thus was very functional towards his goal. The presentations by Leong and Roedder-John and by Szymanski and Churchill focused on the salesperson, though the place of the customer in the questions they asked was fairly explicit. In the last presentation, by Sujan, the focus was more heavily on the salesperson, and the connections with consumer decision making were more distant. All four research studies used theories and methods that should be of interest to consumer behavior researchers, and somewhat novel ideas on knowledge, motivation, impression formation and competency, in general, were presented.

In what follows a short description of each of the studies is given together with an attempt to place them in the broader context of salesperson behavior research, as traced above.




George O. Klemp, Jr, Charles River Consulting, Boston.

George Klemp is a psychologist (from Yale) who worked for many years with David McClelland at assessing the characteristics of competent performers in various professions. This work was done at a consultancy organization, McBer and Company, and resulted in the development of interesting methods for assessing competence as well as some intriguing insights on what constitutes competence in several professions, including sales. George now is a partner in the firm he works for and is carrying through with his interest in competency research.

In his presentation, George focused on the characteristics of the excellent salesperson, viewed from the customer's perspective. He feels that consumers need to, and in fact are able to, recognize when a salesperson is acting in such a way as to ensure customer satisfaction. Based OD empirical work done by him, he described means by which consumers can assess if salespeople are acting in the consumer's interests, are less than helpful, or are acting only in regard to their own gain. His work fits with the notions of being customer-oriented while selling (Saxe and Weitz 1982), selling consultatively and developing long-term buyer-seller relationships.

The methodology he follows is to, first, identify groups of salespeople who vary on some performance criterion -- in this case salespeople whose customers are generally satisfied with them and salespeople whose customers are generally not satisfied with them. Then, following a technique that originated with Flanagan's (1954) critical incident technique and was later refined at McBer (McClelland 1976), he records in great detail what these two classes of salespeople do with their customers. By comparing the differences between these two known groups, he arrives at conclusions for what customers value in salespeople.

George Klemp's work fits with the general theme of customer perception's of salespeople. It provides one of the first examples of research in the area of "schemer schema" (Wright 1985) by examining consumers' perceptions of what tactics make salespeople effective. Further, Klemp's methodology is an interesting one and different to the ones commonly used in academic research.




Siew Ming Leong, National University of Singapore, and

Deborah Roedder-John, University of Minnesota

This presentation was based on the notion of scripts (Schank and Abelson 1977) and, more generally, expectations. Salespeople subjects were classified as high or low performers, and their scripts for what happens during interactions with their customers were elicited. Differences in the scripts of high and low performers were identified, in terms of elaborateness and some qualitative knowledge measures. Additionally, differences in scripts for typical and atypical selling situations were examined. A natural extension of this work, and this was mentioned in the presentation, is to look at consumers' expectations of what happens in a buyer-seller interaction, comparing the expectations of expert and novice consumers, for typical and atypical selling situations.




David M. Szymanski, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Gilbert A. Churchill, Jr., University of Wisconsin-Madison.

This study, undertaken from a categorization perspective, looked at how salespeople categorize their customers. It was proposed that an important difference between effective and ineffective performers is the accuracy with which they classify their customers.

A computer exercise was developed in which salespeople classified hypothetical, prospective clients. The computer exercise allowed an examination of the cognitive process used for categorizing customers. Specifically, it enabled an examination of (1) the particular attributes-used to classify clients, (2) the number of attributes referred to before identifying a client as a member or a non-member of a category, (3) the time taken to examine individual attributes and, more generally, (4) the nature of the categories used for classifying different kinds of prospective customers. Differences in these aspects of process between effective and ineffective performers was then inferred.

This study adds to research in consumer behavior for many reasons. For one, the process by which categorization occurs has been of interest to consumer behavior researchers (e.g., Alba and Hutchinson 1987) and this work adds to this literature. A second reason is that the computer exercise may be a useful methodology for future work examining the process of categorization. Further, at a more substantive level, this study may prompt an examination of how consumers categorize different classes of salespeople.




Harish Sujan, The Pennsylvania State University

This research follows-up on the work done by Sujan, Sujan and Bettman (1988). They looked at, from a categorization perspective, differences between more and less effective sales performers, in terms of their knowledge of customer characteristics and sales strategies. Illustratively, they found that more effective performers had greater overlap, across customer categories, in their knowledge of customer characteristics and sales strategies.

Three objectives were described for the current study. First, to trace the stages salespeople go through while developing their categorical knowledge. Changes in categorical knowledge as salespeople move from being new and ineffective sales performers to being experienced and effective sales performers would be charted. For example, salespeople may start with highly distinct customer categories, move to overlapping categories and then, in advanced stages of knowledge development, to more distinct categories.

Second, attributions made by salespeople for their successes and failures would be examined for their effect on knowledge development. Particular causes, such as attributions to good and poor strategy, were proposed as being particularly facilitative for knowledge development. Since attributions are a motivational factor, this analysis would link motivation and knowledge. Understanding this process, it was suggested, could also provide insights into the question of how consumers develop expertise.

Third, differences between more and less effective sales performers in the attributions they make for their successes and failures would be examined. These differences would give an indication of differences in motivational orientations between better and worse performers. An illustrative finding presented was that better performers more than worse performers tend to attribute their failures to poor strategies and bad mood, while worse performers more than better performers tend to attribute their failures to difficult task and bad luck.

In Conclusion, this special session was an initial attempt to integrate behavioral salesperson research with consumer research. The basis of this integration, it was suggested, is that the effectiveness of salesperson communication depends critically on the consumer's reaction to influence attempts. A second basis suggested is-that parallel theories and methods are applicable for consumer and salesperson behavior research.


As discussant, William D. Perrault, Jr of the University of North Carolina, characterized the selling process as one of sizing up (the customer) and responding (with sales strategies). He said that this was an adaptive process and the notions of accuracy and efficiency expressed by James R. Bettman in his presidential address were very relevant here. Further, since the selling process is an iterative one, requiring constant updating, dynamic theories and methods are needed to understand this process. Currently, many static theories and methods are available to the researcher and it is a challenge to develop suitable dynamic theories and methods. Some ten years ago research on methods such as the Bales (1950) interaction process analysis appears to have lost favor -- this and other dynamic methods could be developed further.

Lastly, he pointed out that recent developments in methods for studying cognitive processes, such as protocol analysis (see, for example, Bettman 1979), and analyzing dynamic data, c.g., short time-series analysis, could be used to explicate the sales process.


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