Cold Call Sales Effectiveness: an Investigation of Source Perceptions and Gender Differences

Sharon R. Lundgren, Texas A&M University
ABSTRACT - People approached in a cold call influence situation quickly seek source information to help determine if they will attend to or comply with the appeal. Those approached rely on source perceptions, and in ambiguous situations, sex characteristics, to shape their perceptions. 190 male and female introductory psychology students were individually approached in the first experiment during an ongoing experiment by a male or female solicitor attempting to sell inexpensive raffle tickets. Subjects were approached by the solicitor using either a friendly, dominant, competent, or neutral style. In the second experiment, 134 subjects were approached in either the friendly, dominant, or neutral style by a solicitor selling more expensive booklets. In both studies, subjects did not rely on sex characteristics. Solicitors selling the inexpensive ticket in Experiment 1 who were perceived as dominant had the highest overall influence rates, whereas solicitors selling the more expensive item in Experiment 2 who were perceived to be friendly had the highest overall influence rates. Additionally, males in Experiment 2 had greater overall sales rates. These findings and are discussed in light of the relevant literature.
[ to cite ]:
Sharon R. Lundgren (1995) ,"Cold Call Sales Effectiveness: an Investigation of Source Perceptions and Gender Differences", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 606-610.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Pages 606-610

COLD CALL SALES EFFECTIVENESS: AN INVESTIGATION OF SOURCE PERCEPTIONS AND GENDER DIFFERENCES

Sharon R. Lundgren, Texas A&M University

ABSTRACT -

People approached in a cold call influence situation quickly seek source information to help determine if they will attend to or comply with the appeal. Those approached rely on source perceptions, and in ambiguous situations, sex characteristics, to shape their perceptions. 190 male and female introductory psychology students were individually approached in the first experiment during an ongoing experiment by a male or female solicitor attempting to sell inexpensive raffle tickets. Subjects were approached by the solicitor using either a friendly, dominant, competent, or neutral style. In the second experiment, 134 subjects were approached in either the friendly, dominant, or neutral style by a solicitor selling more expensive booklets. In both studies, subjects did not rely on sex characteristics. Solicitors selling the inexpensive ticket in Experiment 1 who were perceived as dominant had the highest overall influence rates, whereas solicitors selling the more expensive item in Experiment 2 who were perceived to be friendly had the highest overall influence rates. Additionally, males in Experiment 2 had greater overall sales rates. These findings and are discussed in light of the relevant literature.

Consumers today are often distrustful of any salesperson who approaches them. It is difficult for salespeople to break through the defensive barriers installed by the wary consumer. Salespeople have evolved tactics to catch the consumer off guard, such as calling potential customers unexpectedly and surprising them with an influence appeal. This is termed a "cold-call" approach. Salespeople can catch the consumer before the consumer can marshal resistance to the appeal. Cold-call selling is still preferred to other forewarned methods by many sellers today; consider the high priced vacuum salespersons, newspaper subscription peddlers and even cookie-weilding girl scouts. This type of selling is a two stage process of influence: First, the consumer must attend to and comprehend the appeal, and second, the consumer must yield to the appeal. These are two separate processes, as a consumer who listens to the appeal may not necessarily yield.

Little research has been conducted on actual cold-call selling; it is a discrete phenomena from those types of influence attempts in which the subject has previous knowledge of the appeal. Forewarning subjects of an impending influence attempt has been found to increase subjects' motivation to defend their beliefs on certain issues, and it increases their resistance to persuasion (McGuire, 1964; Lundgren & Wood, 1994). An audience that has been distracted or not forewarned of the appeal has a harder time building counterarguements to the appeal, and is easier to influence (Hass & Grady, 1975). Salespeople similarly believe that an approach without forewarning will have these desirable effects. Cold-call selling thus provides a rich context for laboratory study of the processes of attention, comprehension and yielding. Subjects who are unaware of the impending salespitch should be more willing to attend to and comprehend the appeal and should not be predisposed to resist yielding to the appeal.

Whereas much social psychological research has examined important characteristics of the communicators in influence settings, (e.g., a communicator's expertise, Eagly, 1983; Hass, 1981; and credibility of the communicator, Hovland & Weiss, 1952), there has been little attention to the importance of characteristics of the communicators in cold-call settings. Thus not much is known about the psychological processes involved in these settings. To help illuminate these processes, the present research will examine whether the consumers' willingness to listen and decision to yield in a cold-call setting are affected by the sex and the behavior of the salesperson. These characteristics are important to understanding cold-call influence because they potentially could affect the apparent perception of the salesperson, the amount of reactance evoked within the consumer by the influence appeal, and the consumer's liking for the salesperson. All of these processes plausibly affect attention, yielding, and opinion change to cold-call appeals.

Effects of Influence Style

Direct empirical observations of men and women influencing others in group contexts have revealed that style is indeed important. Often, who attracts attention in a group is determined by the behavioral style of the speakers. In general, research suggests that styles which enhance the source's apparent competence have the effect of attracting attention of others and increasing influence. For example, a confederate exhibiting dominant behavior in one study was not perceived as competent, and was not influential (Ridgeway, 1987). However, a confederate adopting a dominant style in another study was perceived as competent and the style enhanced influence (Shackelford, Wood, and Worchel, 1990). Although dominant influence agents are uniformly disliked (Ridgeway & Diekema, 1989; Shackelford, Wood, and Worchel, 1990), they can be influential if dominance is linked to competence.

In the present research I am interested in cold-call selling, which is typically a one-on-one interaction. It is thus less important than in group contexts for the agent to attract attention away from other possible sources. However, a dominant approach may be helpful in attracting a target's initial attention even in cold-call selling.

Highly competent sources or dominant styles generate reactance. According to reactance theory (Brehm & Cohen, 1962; Brehm, 1966), the person influenced must feel that he she has the freedom to turn the solicitor away at any point, or be able to turn down the request after hearing the solicitor's pitch. If the solicitor threatens or limits this freedom, the target should feel aroused (Brehm and Cohen, 1962; Brehm, 1966).

In the cold-call scenario, this might occur when a high-pressure solicitor is perceived by the target as overpowering or pushy. The client may then feel the need to react defensively or to stop listening to the solicitor altogether. How much reactance the target experiences depends upon several factors, such as how the message relates to that individual's value-system, or the unfavorable consequences that might result from the interaction with the solicitor. The receiver who feels threatened should not take the advocated position of the communicator but rather maintain his or her own position with increased confidence in order to reduce the arousal level.

Likable sources are influential. We tend to be influenced by those we like (Cialdini, 1988). This has implications for professional salespeople; they can attempt to behave in a likable manner. This should keep the customer from reacting defensively towards the agent and refusing to listen or terminating the pitch early. According to Cialdini, we like people who are nice or act decently; also, we will be attracted to those who display positive rather than negative traits or habits (Kaplan & Anderson, 1973). People we like also tend to be people we trust, and trust has been shown to have a favorable influence on dyadic interactions (Schurr & Ozanne, 1985).

Gender Effects

There is also reason to suspect that there are sex differences in the effectiveness of cold-call selling. Until more recently, women did not assume sales positions. Their competence was particularly suspect in those positions dealing with typically male-oriented or high technology products (Skolnik, 1985). Although some marketers studying sales techniques indicate women can be more influential than men (Boyan, 1989a, Boyan, 1989b; Skolnik, 1985), social psychological research findings have not suppported that claim. A recent meta-analytic review of research on mixed sex task groups revealed greater influence of males than females (Lockheed, 1985). Indeed, a number of individual studies have shown adult males to have greater influence on others than do women in group settings (Nemeth, Endicott, & Wachtler 1976, and Pugh & Wahrmann, 1985). When no information is available to identify who is expected to be the most competent, such as in a condition in which no predominant behavioral style is evident, socially important attributes, such as gender, should come into focus. In our society, a higher value is attached to traditionally masculine characteristics than traditionally feminine ones. In this view, men are more influential because males possess the "superior" features associated with their sex, such as being stronger, more competent, and more knowledgeable. From this perspective, then, males should be more influential than females at both stages of cold-call selling when no predominant behavioral style is evident.

Males and females as consumers, however, should not tend to vary much in their influenceability. A recent meta-analytical review showed women to be only slightly more influenceable then men (Eagly & Carli, 1981). Since the effect was so small, sex differences in influenceability would not be expected here.

Present Research

The present research was designed to examine behavior and sex differences in cold-call sales effectiveness. These two experiments are simulations of cold-call selling in the laboratory. Both studies manipulated the behavioral style of the solicitor interrupting an experiment. Behavior styles were operationalized so that both male and female confederates evoked the same mannerisms and body language for each of the styles, to guarantee that perceptions of each style would not vary across the confederates. The threatening manner was portrayed by the confederate acting in a pushy, persistent, overbearing manner; the confederate spoke in a loud voice and attempted to push his or her way into the room. The friendly manner was portrayed by the confederate acting polite, smiling frequently, and approaching the subject in a friendly manner. The competent style was displayed by the confederate standing in an upright posture, with self-assured gestures and speech. The speech contained larger vocabulary, and the confederate additionally dressed in a blazer. The neutral confederate was portrayed by the confederate acting in a casual, matter-of-fact manner without appearing to be particularly friendly, pushy, or particularly knowledgeable. In addition to this training, each confederate demonstrated the four styles via videotape for the pilot test of the styles. 233 Introductory Psychology students rated the videos on the impressions questionnaire, and found the confederates using the competent style to be perceived as more competent than the those using other styles, the confederates using the friendly style to be more friendly than those using other styles, and the confederates using the dominant style to be more dominant than those using other styles (all p's <.001). One of four confederates, two male and two female, selected to be average in physical attractiveness, served in the experiments. Confederates were trained to follow standard style patterns when delivering the influence appeal. Extensive pretesting was conducted to ensure that none of the confederates differed from the others in their portrayals of the four styles; therefore, subjects perceived both male and female confederates similarly on their operationalization of the styles.

H1: Salespersons using the dominant style should be more effective in garnering agreement to listen from the subjects, and should also keep the subjects listening to the sales pitch for a longer amount of time than when they are using the friendly, competent or neutral styles.

H2: The salespersons using the competent and friendly styles should sell more frequently than when using the dominant or neutral styles.

H3: Due to the ambiguous perceptions of the salespersons using the neutral style, subjects should instead rely on quick judgments of other status characteristics, particularly expectations based upon gender. Salesmen should be the most effective at procuring listening, comprehension, and yielding from the subject in the neutral style condition.

Experiment 1

Naive male and female subjects worked on a timed IQ test and were interrupted by a solicitor asking them to purchase a 50 cent raffle ticket for a psychology club. The solicitor was either male or female, and furthermore, adopted a dominant, pushy style, a friendly, warm style, a competent, knowledgeable style, or a neutral style.

METHOD

Subjects

Subjects were 190 male and female Introductory Psychology undergraduates at Texas A&M University. They were run individually.

Design and Procedure

A Sex of Confederate (Male vs Female), x Sex of Subject (Male vs Female) x Influence Style (Dominant vs Friendly vs Competent vs Neutral) between subjects factorial design was employed. Subjects were told that the experiment concerned intelligence testing in word games. The subjects were isolated into individual rooms and were encouraged to find as many words as possible in the time limit given. Subjects were instructed via intercom to begin the word game. Approximately ten minutes into the word game, a confederate knocked on the subject's door. The confederate identified himself or herself as a member of Psi Chi, the Psychology Honors Club, and requested the subject to listen. If the subject did not agree to listen, the confederate requested the subject listen for just 30 or so seconds. If the subject refused to listen after the second request, the confederate left the subject's room. If the subject agreed to listen, the solicitor told the subject that Psi Chi was having a raffle to raise money to send students, including the confederate, to a professional convention where research papers could be presented. The tickets were 50 cents each, and there were supposedly two chances to win $40.00 in the upcoming raffle. The confederate then asked the subject if he or she would be interested in purchasing one of these tickets, and then either completed the sale, or left with "no."

The experimenter terminated the experiment shortly after subjects had approached by the confederate. The experimenter explained that the solicitor was part of the experiment and had the subjects fill out their impression of the confederate on a questionnaire. Once this was done, the experimenter discussed the confederate's style and other information relevant to the debriefing.

RESULTS

Influence of Source

Influence of the source was measured in several different ways. Whether the subject attempted to terminate the salespitch or listened to the whole pitch was labeled "listening," and the number of seconds the subjects listened to the salespitch was labeled "comprehension time." The third influence measure assessed whether the subject purchased the ticker or not and was labeled "sales." The total sales variable included not only money exchanges, but I.O.U.'s for the subjects who agreed to purchase but did not have the money available.

Listening and comprehension time. Analysis of variance revealed a significant main effect for confederates' style on the frequency with which subjects listened to the salespitch, F(3,174)=3.66, p<.02. Subjects were less likely to terminate sales pitches with either the friendly style (M=.89), the competent style (M=.90), or the dominant style (M=.90) than they were with the neutral style control (M=.70, all p's<.03). This finding appears to reflect a overall positivity effect, in that either dominance, competence, or liking enhanced willingness to listen, compared with neutral style. A significant main effect occurred also for style in the number of seconds the subject allowed the confederate to speak, F(3,174)=8.343, p<.001, in that the neutral style control pitch was allowed the least amount of time (M=25.96) compared with each of the other three styles, the friendly style (M=40.70), the competent style (M=38.50), and the dominant style (M=34.69, all p's<.01). The dominant style thus was not found to garner more listening or comprehension time than the other styles, as was predicted.

Sales. Analysis of variance revealed a significant main effect for style in the amount of overall sales, F(3,174)=5.017, p<.002. Surprisingly, planned comparisons showed that the confederate using the dominant style (M=.65) sold significantly more tickets than either the competent or friendly styles(M's=.48) or the neutral style (M=.26), t(186)=2.95 p <.005. The dominant style thus proved to be the most effective sales style. No other main effects or interactions were found.

Subject's Perceptions of Source Mediate Influence

The likelihood of the subject listening to the entire pitch increased with greater perceived dominance of the confederate, r=.13, p<.05, and marginally with greater perceived competence, r=.11, p<.07. Dominance commanded attention from the subjects and competence garnered it. All three perceptions also correlated with the length of time spent listening to the pitch: Subjects who perceived the confederate to be more dominant listened longer, r=.12, p<.06 (although marginal), competent, r=.24, p<.001, and friendly, r=.19, p<.01. Finally, the more dominant subjects perceived the confederate to be, the greater the likelihood of the confederate making a sale, r=.22, p<.01. Surprisingly, then, across the three influence measures, the perception of dominance was the best predictor of influence success.

Gender Differences

As would be exppected, no effects for confederate sex emerged across the styles. However, the expected effect in the neutral style did not emerge, either. Finally, no gender effects were observed in influenceability of the subject.

Experiment 2

It is surprising that no gender effects was obtained in the neutral style. One possible explanation for the lack of sex effects is that the paradigm may not have clearly represented a sales or influence paradigm. The supposed purpose of the raffle sale was to send undergraduates to a research convention, and the subjects who bought a ticket were not guaranteed to win the prize. Hence, the subjects did not directly receive anything for their purchase. For this reason, many subjects may have viewed the request as a request for assistance or a donation, which would generate helping behavior instead of a sales interaction, and perhaps not necessitating any judgments of competence from the subject. To investigate this, the persuasion appeal needed to clearly involve a direct sale instead of a request for help or a donation. Therefore the nature of the appeal was changed from a fund-raising project to a direct sales project for Experiment 2. The solicitor in Experiment 2 sold $5.00 booklets on professors' course grades, a motive clearly for the solicitor's profit. Additionally, the competent condition was dropped for Experiment 2, because of the inherent difficulty of being competent and knowledgeable of such items as raffle tickets or booklets. Experimental focus instead turned to the more behavioral styles, such as the friendly, dominant and neutral style.

METHOD

Subjects

Subjects were 134 male and female Introductory Psychology undergraduates at Texas A&M University. They were run individually.

Procedure

The procedure was identical to the first experiment except that these solicitors adopted a dominant, friendly, or neutral style only. Additionally, the solicitor attempted to sell a $5.00 booklet. The booklets identified the average grades earned in various courses taught by different professors at the university.

RESULTS

Influence

Listening and comprehension time. Analysis of variance revealed a significant main effect for confederates' style on the frequency with which subjects listened to the salespitch, F(2,132)=13.74, p<.001. Subjects were more likely to terminate sales pitches with the neutral style (M=0.73) than with the dominant style (M=0.97), or the friendly style (M=1.00). This finding appears to reflect a overall positivity effect similar to that found in Experiment 1, in that either dominance or liking enhanced willingness to listen, compared to the neutral style. However, the the dominant style did not garner more listening than the friendly style as predicted. Analysis of variance again revealed a significant main effect for style in the number of seconds the subject allowed the confederate to speak, F(2,132)=17.36, p<.001. As expected, the dominant style was listened to marginally longer (M=62.68) compared with the other styles, the friendly style (M=44.57) and the neutral style (M=32.45), F(1,132)=3.60, p<.06.

Sales. Analysis of variance revealed a marginal main effect for style in the amount of overall sales, F(2,132)=2.89 p<.06. The confederates using the friendly style sold more (M=0.32) than confederates using either the dominant style (M=0.17), or neutral style (M=0.14). As predicted, the friendly style thus proved to be the most effective sales style in garnering the actual sale.

Confederate Sex Differences

On overall measures, the sex of the confederates did not have a significant effect on listening or the length of time subjects listened to the salespitch, but males (M=0.30) sold significantly more booklets than females (M=0.13), F(2,132)=5.28 p<.03. The predicted gender effects on the neutral style again did not occur. Finally, there were no gender effects on influenceability of subjects.

DISCUSSION

Surprisingly, when the cost was low, a dominant approach garnered the most influence. Shackelford, Wood and Worchel (1990) noted that when a source using a dominant style is perceived as competent, targets listened, comprehended, and complied to the influence appeal. This finding is supported by the specific perceptions of the confederate that were related to successful influence of raffle tickets. In the correlations, perceptions of dominance appeared to be the critical factor generating influence for the styles manipulated in the low-cost purchase: Of the three source perceptions evaluated, only dominance predicted all three influence measures. Perhaps subjects decided that 50 cents was too cheap to bother exerting effort in order to terminate a pushy solicitor. In other words, it was easier to pay the solicitor to terminate the pitch. Influence on higher priced items can often increase reactance in consumers (Clee & Wicklund, 1980); perhaps the menial cost of the ticket did not add to any reactance already prompted by the dominant style, and therefore, the amount of reactance alone was not enough to refuse the sale. Further, the small sum could be legitimized as a donation to help others (Brockner, Guzzi, Kane, Levine, & Shaper, 1984), regardless of the solicitor's demeanor.

However, when the price increased, and the sale became less philanthropic, the friendly solicitor was the most influential. Although a positivity effect for dominance occurred with the likelihood of listening and the time spent listening, subjects did not purchase as much from dominant solicitors as from friendly solicitors with the higher priced item. Caution does need to be taken in interpreting price comparisons as the prices and products were not carefully pretested. On the whole, though, these results indicate that style is important in garnering listening and yielding, but that effective styles may vary with the cost and the nature of the product sold.

As predicted, there were no gender differences in any of the standardized styles. Male and female sources were expected to be perceived similarly when adopting the friendly, the dominant, or the competent style, because the sources received extensive training to ensure that men and women delivered the pitch in the same way. The perception ratings of confederates from subjects in the study revealed few effects for the styles. Thus, for all sources, the dominant style was perceived as especially dominant, the competent as especially competent, and the friendly style as particularly friendly. Given these clear style patterns, there was no need for subjects to rely on source gender to form perceptions of the source. It is surprising, however, that sex did not have any effect in the neutral style, as had been hypothesized. All of the styles, including the neutral style, were pretested so that they were carried out the same by all of the confederates, regardless of sex; because emphasis was placed on standardizing the neutral style, male and female solicitors did not differ in their delivery of this style. Perhaps the neutral style was not interpreted as ambiguously as predicted and therefore, gender status was not necessary; due to the standardization, this neutral style may have become a type of style of it's own, so subjects did not need to refer to other status characteristics, such as gender.

A sex effect was found overall in Experiment 2, in that males were found to sell more. Interestingly, in Experiment 1, there was no overall gender effect on the less expensive tickets. When the financial risks increased, subjects may have looked toward diffuse status characteristics, such as gender, to determine the positivity of the sales encounter. In other words, subjects may have needed more information in the higher priced interaction and thus turned to gender. Attributions of knowledgeability or competence, which are usually attributed to males, may have allowed the males to sell more of the booklets.

Whether the behavior and gender effects observed in this study are similar to the sex and behavior effects so often observed in the real world is an interesting question. The confederates did not differentiate styles according to their sex, as might typically be the case in natural settings. The influence styles established in the present research were identical for males and females. Were the confederates allowed to adopt more natural styles, males might have adopted a dominant and assertive sales role whereas females might have been friendlier. It would be of interest to design a study in which sources do not adopt a standardized style but rather are allowed to adopt their own personal style. It should be the case that solicitors would adopt a variety of styles, but females should tend to take on a style that would be perceived as more friendly overall and males a style perceived as more dominant. Then sex differences related to not only subjects' perceptions of the confederates, but to influence as well, might be seen. After proper pretesting on pricing and product, this experiment could also be taken to the field as well as conducted in the laboratory, as it would be interesting to determine what styles and gender are most effectively on the consumer's turf, when consumers are busy with their own routines.

The behavioral styles that occur naturally in the real world are likely combinations of these styles, rather than a style such as dominant behavior in isolation from friendliness or competence. It would thus be interesting to determine the combinations of behaviors of styles that are more frequently used in less constricted settings. Also, do the style and gender effects differ in cold-call vs. forewarned sales attempts? Finally, what are the implications for sales settings other than face-to-face cold call sales? These experimental findings should be relevant to telemarketers who solicit unwary consumers over the phone, and other salespersons who attempt to influence consumers unaware of the impending salespitch.

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