Applying the Concept of Perceived Risk to Buying Influence in Industrial Firms

Gregory D. Upah, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
ABSTRACT - One of the major aspects of the study of organizational buyer behavior is the study of buying influence within the firm. However, there has been little development of theory dealing specifically with buying influence. This paper presents an attempt to begin to develop a theory of buying influence which relates the ability of an individual to cope with the particular risks in a decision to the individual's influence in the decision.
[ to cite ]:
Gregory D. Upah (1980) ,"Applying the Concept of Perceived Risk to Buying Influence in Industrial Firms", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 381-386.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 381-386


Gregory D. Upah, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


One of the major aspects of the study of organizational buyer behavior is the study of buying influence within the firm. However, there has been little development of theory dealing specifically with buying influence. This paper presents an attempt to begin to develop a theory of buying influence which relates the ability of an individual to cope with the particular risks in a decision to the individual's influence in the decision.

The identification of individuals within a firm (or a household) that are most influential in selecting a particular supplier or product is of major importance to marketers. The effective targeting of sellers' marketing efforts depends on an understanding of purchase influence within the buying firm. Several researchers in marketing have pointed to the need for more research into the determination of buying influence within firms and to the need for the development of theories identifying the fact ors which determine buying influence (Bonoma and Zaltman 1978; Nicosia and Wind 1977; Webster 1965; Wind 1978; Zaltman and Bonoma 1977).

There have been a number of studies which have examined the relationship between various organizational, environmental, product and purchase factors and the type or number of individuals involved in a purchase decision. However, few of these studies have been based on theories specifying the relationship between these factors and the influence of particular subunits or individuals within the firm. The general models of organizational buyer behavior (Sheth 1973; Webster and Wind 1972; Robinson, Faris and Wind 1972) detail a number of factors that can influence organizational buyer behavior. However, they contain little development of specific propositions or hypotheses relating these factors to buying influence (for an exception see Sheth 1973). For further useful research on this aspect of organizational buyer behavior, it seems necessary to develop theories or predictive models dealing specifically with buying influence.


The purpose of this paper is to: (a) suggest a set of relationships between the risk involved in a purchase decision and those individuals within the firm that are likely to be most influential in making that decision; (b) cite literature in support of the proposed relationships and (c) suggest issues and directions for future research to test them.


Contributions from Organizational Behavior

Some of the major attention given to influence or power within a firm has been in the field of organizational behavior. Organizational theorists have, in general, agreed on the proposition that influence within a firm is a function of the ability of the individual or subunit to reduce or cope with the critical uncertainties faced by the firm (Crozier 1964; Hickson et al. 1971; Perrow 1970; Pfeffer and Salancik 1978; Thompson 1967).

Perrow (1970) found that the marketing department was perceived to be the most powerful subunit in a firm since marketing was able to deal with the organization's most critical uncertainties. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) also found marketing/sales departments to be most influential in two firms that faced considerable uncertainty in output markets. Crozier (1964) showed that plant and maintenance engineers were the most influential individuals in a particular factory since the only form of uncertainty faced by the factory had to do with the breakdown and repair of machinery.

Hickson et al (1971) considered power of an individual or subunit in an organization to be a function of: (1) the degree to which the individual copes with uncertainty, (2) the ability of other individuals to cope with that uncertainty and (3) the centrality of that individual or subunit within the firm. A study by Hinings et al. (1974) provided empirical support for the theory. Another study, using a sample of industrial firms, showed buying influence to be a function of the ability of individuals or subunits to cope with the particular uncertainties faced by the firm in various types of purchase decisions (Salancik, Pfeffer and Kelly, 1978).

Contributions From Marketing

The theoretical connection between ability to cope with or reduce uncertainty and intraorganizational power or influence also has been made in marketing. Based on research dealing with purchase decisions by industrial firms, Robinson, Paris and Wind (1967) suggest that an individual's involvement in a buying decision is dependent upon that individual's: (a) position in the firm's hierarchy--i.e., level of authority and (b) the ability of that individual to provide information critical to the decision problem.

Furthermore, the concept of uncertainty as it influences buyer behavior is not new to those interested in consumer behavior. The perceived risk concept first suggested by Bauer (1967) and further developed by Cunningham (1967) includes uncertainty along with magnitude of loss as determinants of risk. Perceived risk has been used to explain various aspects of consumer behavior (e.g. see Cox 1967; Bettman 1973; Peter and Ryan 1976; Pras and Summers 1978). It also has been used to explain various aspects of organizational buyer behavior (Cardozo and Cagley 1971; Levitt 1965). However, no studies have made the connection between perceived risk (using the dual component view which defines risk as level of uncertainty in a decision and magnitude of loss due to a bad decision and buying influence within firms.

A number of presumed determinants of buying influence--e.g., the buy phases suggested by Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) are based in large part on uncertainties relative to suppliers and products. The buying influence model suggested by Fisher (1972) considers factors relating to uncertainty and magnitude of loss. Thus, based on work in organizational behavior and marketing, the concept of perceived risk would seem to be a useful one for aiding in our understanding of buying influence in firms and possibly households as well.


Before discussing the relationships suggested in Table some key definitions need to be presented.



Much of the research on buying influence in firms has relied on the concept of the buying center (Robinson, Faris and Wind 1967). The buying center has been defined as members of the organization "who interact during the buying decision process" (Webster and Wind 1972, p. 77). Webster and Wind have categorized the members of the buying center in terms of 5 roles.

Buyers.  Those individuals with formal authority for selecting suppliers and negotiating terms of purchase (in most organizations, the purchasing agent).

Influencers.  Individuals who directly or indirectly influence buying decisions. In industrial firms influencers include: technical people; (e.g., engineering, research and development people), marketing and sales people, finance/accounting people, legal people, public relations or consumer affairs people, and materials management people (e.g., inventory and quality control people, traffic managers and warehouse managers).

Users.  Those individuals who use the products being purchased by the firm. The users can range from production managers and production workers to clerical and maintenance people.

Deciders.  Those members of the organization who have either formal or informal power to determine the final selection of suppliers. For the purposes of this model, deciders will be considered to be middle to top management people.

Gatekeepers.  Those individuals that actively seek and/ or control the flow of information to or from the buying center. Webster and Wind (1972) cite the purchasing agent as the prime example of a gatekeeper. However, technical people also have been viewed as being major information seekers or gatekeepers within the firm (Mogee and Bean 1978).

Perceived Risk

Consistent with the dual component view suggested by Cunningham (1967) perceived risk is defined as (1) the level of uncertainty concerning some aspect of a purchase and (2) the magnitude of loss from a bad decision in regard to that aspect of a purchase.


In the left hand columns (1 & 2) of Table 1, various aspects of risk in an industrial purchase have been listed. In the right hand columns are listed the individuals most likely to be involved and influential in purchase decisions with various types and levels of risk. The involvement of these individuals was felt to be a function of their ability to cope with the particular type of risk listed.

As each of the various types of risks increases so should the number of individuals or subunits involved in the purchase decision. In accordance with theories of influence in organizational behavior, those individuals or subunits that are most capable of coping with the greatest risk in a purchasing decision should be, overall, most influential in that decision.

Theoretical and Empirical Justification for the Model

In general, most theorists (Fisher 1972; Robinson, Faris and Wind 1967;-Webster and Wind 1972) and managers/practitioners (Mogee and Bean 1978) agree that at low levels of risk (e.g., straight rebuy decisions) where uncertainty about suppliers, products, etc., is very low the purchasing agent has the greatest degree of involvement in the purchase decision. Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) suggest that for very frequent, routine purchases, the purchasing agent is likely to have the greatest influence This is largely due to the fact that product specifications or supplier requirements at lower levels of risk are likely to be less strict. Furthermore, the purchasing manager due to his experience knows which suppliers and products will meet these specifications.

It also has been suggested and shown that at high levels of risk (i.e., high product complexity, size of investment or criticality of decision to the firm) middle to upper level management becomes more involved in the decision (Fisher 1972; Salancik, Pfeffer and Kelly 1978; Webster and Wind 1972). This is not to say that top management is necessarily most capable of reducing the higher risks, but that top management is expected to deal with or cope with the major risks faced by the firm. Thus, while technical people may be more capable of reducing uncertainties as to product performance they will attempt to transfer the risk of very high uncertainties to top management. Thus, there seem to be two processes involved in the movement of the locus of buying influence as risk increases from medium to high levels. First, one of top management's major functions is to cope with the major risks faced by the firm. Second, it is desirable for those under top management to protect their position and reduce their personal risk in very high risk decisions by passing responsibility on to top management. At medium levels of risk, the influence of other individuals or subunits is added to, or substituted for, the influence of the purchasing department. As indicated in Table 1, the influence of these individuals varies according to the type of risk involved.

The following is a review of the available literature relating type and level of risk to buying influence. This review deals principally with the effects of various types of risks on involvement of individuals or subunits other than top management. The assumption is made that as any of these risks gets high enough, the locus of buying influence will move more toward higher level management.

Risk Dealing With Choice of Suppliers

At least two studies have found that the purchasing department has the greatest influence in the search, evaluation and selection of suppliers (Cooley, Jackson and Ostrom 1978; Woodside, Karpati and Kakarigi 1978). The latter study showed that purchasing's influence was decreased when nonstandard purchases were being made.

Mogee and Bean (1978) suggest that purchasing departments are most influential in selecting suppliers based on criteria such as delivery time, costs, customer relations and overall reputation whereas technical people exert the greatest influence when uncertainty as to the technical qualifications of the supplier is greatest. Salancik, Pfeffer and Kelly (1978) found that when uncertainty about buying alternatives (suppliers and products) was great, those individuals most highly engaged in external information gathering were most influential. Spekman and Stern (1979) found overall uncertainty (i.e. composed principally of uncertainties regarding environmental factors such as government regulations and economic conditions as well as internal uncertainties regarding product requirements) to be significantly, positively related to the influence of the purchasing agent.

The influence of users and technical people in selection of suppliers should increase at medium levels of uncertainty. As Webster and Wind (1972) point out users can exert influence in supplier selection by setting specifications such that only one or a few suppliers could possibly be chosen. However, at low levels of uncertainty and magnitude of loss, these specifications would likely be less strict allowing more discretion to the firm's buyers.

Risk Regarding the Product Itself

Along with decisions relating to a choice of supplier, firms face uncertainty as to the performance of the product being considered in its desired application. Suppliers may be judged equal in terms of reliability, delivery, overall reputation and so on but may vary on the type of product they produce and vice versa. The buying firm must therefore evaluate alternative versions of a product as well as alternative suppliers of that product At least one study has shown that both user departments and technical departments (e.g., engineering) have greater influence in the selection of particular products as opposed to the selection of suppliers (Cooley, Jackson, Ostrom 1978). This influence in product selection was even greater for "custom-order" products.

Fisher (1969) has suggested that when product complexity is high, the buying influence of technical people should increase. When commercial uncertainty (e.g., amount of investment required) is high, higher-level management becomes more involved. Fisher posits that when both complexity and commercial uncertainty, (two concepts that greatly resemble the uncertainty and magnitude of loss components of perceived risk), are high a number of sub-units in the firm will be involved in the decision. Correspondingly when both components are low, the purchasing department is felt to have the greatest influence. However, the sheer cost or complexity of a product has not always been shown to be related to greater top management involvement and less involvement by lower level staff people (e.g., purchasing agents) (Harding 1966; Weigand 1968).

At least one study has utilized measures of uncertainty and measures of consequences of loss in attempting to determine the number of individuals involved in a purchase decision. Gr°nhaug (1975), in a study of purchases by specialty stores, showed that the novelty of the buying problem and the cost of the purchased product were positively related to the number of individuals involved in the purchase process.

Determination of Need for the Product

While the risk involved in choosing a quality supplier and product may be low, there also may be a risk involved regarding the need to purchase the product at all. The suggestion that the firm consider a new product for some particular application may come from a number of individuals or subunits in the firm. Salancik, Pfeffer and Kelly (1978) have found that when uncertainty as to the need for an additional purchase is high (i.e., that is a purchase of the same product from the same supplier), that those most familiar with the existing products and their use were most influential in the decision (e.g., users and technical people).

Once the product to be purchased and the supplier to be purchased from are chosen, there also may remain decisions as to what quantity to purchase. Such decisions are typically in the hands of purchasing and/or materials management people. However, when quantity-risks increase others become involved.

Risks Due to Availability of Product

A firm may have little uncertainty as to the acceptability of a supplier or its products, but may be uncertain as to its continued ability to purchase the product from those suppliers. As the risk involved in obtaining desired products increases, purchasing should continue to play a major role in selecting suppliers that are likely to continue to provide the needed product to the firm.

Risk Dealing With Demand for Product

Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) and Wind (1978) suggest that marketing/sales people should be more influential in purchases as demand or market uncertainties increase. While this relationship has a high degree of face vanity there have been only two studies the author is aware of which provide evidence for this relationship. Lawrence and Lorsch (1967) and Perrow (1970) found that marketing/ sales people were more influential in firms that experienced greater uncertainties in regard to the demand for the firms' products.

Risks Relating to the Financial/Accounting Aspects of the Purchase

When questions of cost-effectiveness and cost-justification advantages of lease vs. purchase of a product are involved, one would expect that those most able to cope with such financial or accounting-related uncertainties would have greater influence in the decision. While there is little empirical support for this proposition, one study has shown that purchasing and finance people were highly involved in purchase decisions that involved leasing options (Anderson and Bird 1979).

Risk Dealing with Legal-Regulatory Issues in Purchases

Legal issues surrounding negotiation of, and performance on, contracts, determination of product liability, reciprocal buying arrangements and so on are an additional important aspect of purchase decisions. As the legal problems in purchasing become more complex and potentially more costly one would expect legal people to become increasingly involved in purchase decisions. Purchasing people who have been found to be increasingly upgrading their knowledge of the legal aspects of purchasing should be expected to retain a high degree of influence when legal risks are present.

Social and/or Ecological Risks Involved in a Purchase

When threats to employee safety, consumer safety or to the ecology are involved in purchasing a particular product, one should expect the technical people (engineers and scientists) as well as legal people to become increasingly involved in the purchase decision. Organizations external to the firm such as labor unions, consumer groups and, of course, government also may become directly involved in purchase decisions involving such risks.

Flexibility of a Perceived Risk Model of Buying Influence

The perceived risk model incorporates many of the major determinants of buying influence that have been suggested by those interested in organizational buyer behavior. The Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) buyphase concept is based largely on levels of uncertainty regarding the products and suppliers being considered. Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) also have suggested that buying influence varies by stage in the adoption process. The risks associated with most of the stages of adoption (e.g., determination of need, search for alternatives, evaluation of alternatives) are treated in this model. The sheer cost of a particular purchase is reflected in the magnitude of loss component of risk.

Product factors (e.g., the type of product being purchased) are included in terms of risks due to performance, compatibility, etc. Thus, simpler, lower cost products such as supply items would be expected to engender less risk while capital goods would be expected to lead to higher risk. However, variables such as sheer cost and/ or product complexity alone may not explain influence. The purchase of even the simplest component part for a spacecraft would likely involve many technical people in the organization.

The effects of environmental factors or interorganizational dependence on buying influence are treated with the inclusion of risks involving (a)the availability of needed input materials and (b)the ability to sell output. Thus, as mentioned above, in a world of scarce resources, one would expect purchasing agents to gain influence within the firm.

Issues Involved in Testing the Model

As with any research dealing with buying influence within firms, any tests of this model must deal with the problems of determining the level of an individual's involvement or influence in a decision. The problems of using only one individual's (e.g., the purchasing agent's) perception of buying influence in a purchase decision has been well-documented (Weigand 1966, 1968). However, attempting to reconcile the disparate opinions of multiple respondents can present potentially complex problems. One method that has been used is to aggregate influence ratings (Spekman and Stern 1979).

The determination of the amount and type of risk involved in a purchase also is a difficult one especially if multiple respondents are used. Again, this might be accomplished by forming some composite risk score. Other approaches to operationalizing risk in a purchase have included making reference to products which through pretests and/or the researchers judgment represent particular types or levels of risk (Cardozo and Cagley 1971). Still, another approach would be to provide respondents with scenarios of purchases involving various types of risks.

The determination of whether a multiplicative or additive model of risk should be used should be made from an actual empirical test of this model. Bettman (1973) found that an additive model of risk seemed to provide the best prediction of risk in the purchase of a number of consumer products. Peter and Ryan (1976) provide evidence that use of merely one component of perceived risk --i.e. uncertainty, leads to better prediction of brand preference than the use of both components in a multiplicative model.

The perceived risk model can be seen as one that is similar in many ways to multiattribute attitude models. As such it is susceptible to many of the same measurement and analysis problems. Some of these issues and problems including the multiplication and summation of components and the relative usefulness of importance weights (which are analogous to the magnitude of loss components of risk) have been discussed in detail elsewhere (Wilkie and Pessemier 1973).

The relationships suggested in Table 1 seem very amenable to testing using a variety of multivariate methods including multiple regression canonical correlation and multiple discriminant analysis. A.I.D. also could be used to assess the interaction effects of the types of risk on buying influence.

Finally, the implications of the growing professional and organizational status of the purchasing manager and the adoption of the materials management concept in regard to buying influence have not yet been tested. One general hypothesis that is suggested by these developments is that purchasing and/or materials managers will be increasingly more influential in all aspects of the firm's buying decisions for all types and levels of risks. Strauss (1962) showed that purchasing agents aspired to be more influential in all aspects of a purchasing decision Both Strauss (1962) and Pettigrew (1975) have discussed ways in which purchasing and other boundary persons achieve increased influence within the firm. Recent developments in purchasing indicate that purchasing people have indeed achieved greater influence (Bird 1975; Business Week 1975).


There is clearly much room for research designed to test the relationships posited in this paper. Several studies have shown ability to reduce uncertainty to be a useful concept in explaining intraorganizational power and influence. The concept of magnitude of loss also has been useful in this regard. However, past studies have limited considerations of the effects of magnitude of loss to the sheer cost of the purchase. Cost has seldom been made relative to the ability of the firm to absorb the loss. Furthermore, the effects of other types of losses on buying influence such as lost production time due to inability to purchase a product or costs associated with a lack of compatibility with existing products also have not been tested.

None of the studies on buying influence have tested the effects of uncertainty and magnitude of loss together -as is suggested through the use of the concept of perceived risk. However, both need to be considered simultaneously in order to better explain buying influence. For instance, a purchase involving a high potential loss but little uncertainty does not represent as high a risk as one with both high potential loss and great uncertainty. Accordingly, one would expect these two purchase situations to involve a different set of buying influences. However, by looking only at magnitude of loss, this likely change is risk and influence would not be suggested.

It is hoped that this application of the concept of perceived risk will help stimulate further research into the determinants of the composition of, and influence within, the buying center. At the very least it is hoped that it will help to stimulate more thinking as to the nature of the relationship between the various factors said to influence organizational buying and buying influence.


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