Comments on Buyer-Seller Research

John L. Swasy, Pennsylvania State University
[ to cite ]:
John L. Swasy (1980) ,"Comments on Buyer-Seller Research", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 400-404.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 400-404

COMMENTS ON BUYER-SELLER RESEARCH

John L. Swasy, Pennsylvania State University

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this article is to comment on buyer-seller interaction research. It will address conceptual and methodological issues, specifically those evolving from within the framework provided by the articles by Upah (1979), Sawyer, Deutscher and Obermiller (1979), and Taylor and Woodside (1979). It is hoped that a discussion with a more focused orientation, (i.e., one directed by these articles) will serve both the advancement of research within each article's area and buyer-seller research in general. Overall, these articles highlight the importance of many methodological and conceptual issues. They illustrate both deductive and inductive research approaches. Also they bring attention to the complexity and importance of group buying situations, the importance of and difficulty in studying buyer-seller interaction in actual purchase situations, and the potential benefits of an information processing perspective for the study of buyer-seller interaction.

DISCUSSION

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

Many studies in marketing, sociology, and social psychology and organizational behavior have addressed the topic of interpersonal influence in various decision making situations. The complexity surrounding the buying process and interpersonal influence in an organization has been discussed elsewhere (Zaltman and Bonoma, 1977). It is sufficient to point out that despite the obvious importance of understanding the role of personal influence in decision making situations and the multitude of past research studies in this area, many conceptual and methodological problems still remain.

The article by Upah, "Applying the Concept of Perceived Risk...," seeks to develop a theory of buying influence which relates the ability of an individual to cope with the particular risks in a decision and that individual's influence in the decision. He argues that the two dimensions of perceived risk (Bauer, 1967; Bettman 1973), (i.e., uncertainty and magnitude of loss), both need to be considered simultaneously in order to explain buying influence in a firm. Although the author recognizes and highlights many of the difficult issues involved in the conceptualization and testing of the proposed model, several conceptual issues of the model may benefit from further development. These will now be discussed.

As presented in this article it is not clear how the two components of perceived risk, uncertainty and magnitude of loss, contribute to our knowledge of the buying influence processes above and beyond that suggested by other existing conceptualizations. Specifically, Robinson, Faris and Wind (1967) suggest that an individual's involvement in a buying decision is partially dependent upon that individual's ability to provide information critical to the decision problem. This is also the basis for Hickson, Minings, Lee Schneck and Pennings' "Strategic Contingencies Theory of Intraorganizational Power" (197]). The identification of influentials for specific types of decision risks appears to follow directly from these perspectives (e.g., for financial aspects of the purchase, financial and accounting people become likely to be influential; for regulatory issues, the legal department; and, for product demand issues, the marketing and sales personnel are likely to be influential). These theoretical perspectives from marketing and organizational behavior lead to this conclusion (i.e., one's influence is a function of one's ability to provide critical information) without utilizing of components of perceived risk.

One issue of concern present in this article and in the general literature, for the most part, is that the discussion and conceptualization does not present a clear delineation of important concepts. Many concepts need to be disentangled. It would be particularly helpful if terms like "involvement," "influence of a decision maker," "perceived power of a decision maker," and "number of individuals involved" were clearly defined and organized. Also the concept of "Locus of Buying Influence" is not defined and discussed. Once these terms have been clearly defined, then perhaps, more complex issues and distinctions can be addressed. For example, if the locus of buying influence varies with levels of decision risk, does this mean that the final decision maker changes? Do certain people become disassociated with the purchase decision? For different levels of decision risk does a person's role change from "decider," to "buyer," to "influencer?" In actuality, the distinction between a "decider" and an "influential" may be very ambiguous. For example, one may question what the roles of other influentials become if they provide all the necessary information concerning important attributes but the decision rule and actual decision is made by upper management (i.e., if one person selects the decision rule and another supplies the information on all the attributes, who is more influential?).

This complexity and confusion of terms is quite similar to that discussed by Safilios-Rothschild (1970) in her review of the concept of "Power" in the family decision making and family role structure literature (cf. Cromwell and Olson 1975). The research on industrial buying may benefit by adopting an approach similar to what Davis (1976) has done with the family decision making situation. In this case the larger decision task is divided into specific subdecisions and within each of these decisions the "influence" is addressed in terms of specific stages or tasks such as who actually gathers information for the specific subdecision, and who actually decides.

Another possible perspective to the conceptualization of group decision making and perceived risk is to utilize Bettman's (1973) distinction between "inherent" and "handled" risk. Inherent risk is the latent risk a product class holds for a consumer--the innate degree of conflict the product class is able to arouse. Handled risk is the amount of conflict the product class is able to arouse when the buyer chooses a brand from a product class in his/her usual buying situation. That is "handled risk to a first approximation represents the end result of the action of information and risk reduction processes on inherent risk" (p. 184). One might hypothesize that the level of "inherent" risk associated with a purchase decision may dictate the level of involvement by upper management. The influence of various people within the organization will vary with their ability to "handle" the risk. In this sense the presentation proposed in this paper appears to deal with aspects involved in producing an acceptable level of "handled risk."

If one follows the information processing and decision making perspective presented by Bettman, one might obtain a better perspective into the elements affecting inherent risk. For example he suggests that the level of inherent risk is determined by "(1) the degree to which the buyer believes he can construct a reasonable decision rule for making the brand choice, (2) the importance to him of making a satisfactory choice within the product class, (3) his perceived distribution of the quality over the brands of the product class" (p. 185). Thus one might expect that whoever makes a decision with regards to each of these decisions, or whoever provides information on each of these aspects must be dealing with the "inherent risk" aspects of the larger decision. On the other hand, decisions involved with "handling" a purchase risk should be associated with (1) general information about the product class, (2) relevant information for the specific situation, (3) assessing the confidence in the information and (4) knowledge about the specific brands involved in the choice decision.

Another point presented in the Upah paper which may need clarification is the distinction between "types of risk" (e.g., availability of product demand for produce) and "stages in the decision process" (e.g., determination of the need for the product, evaluation of alternatives, selection of suppliers). Also it seems possible to conceptualize certain types of risks as being associated with a particular stage in the decision process and other risks as being associated with subdecisions within each stage. Perhaps some people are more related to risks in "coordinating" the stages while others deal with more specific issues. One person may be very influential in coordinating the steps in the buying process, while others may be quite influential at particular points or decisions within the overall process. In this case it may be fruitful to conceptualize "influence" not as an absolute phenomena but rather as one of "relative influence'' in which case participants' relative influence may vary across stages in the decision process.

The last and perhaps the most interesting issue to be discussed deals with the processes underlying group decision making and the notions of perceived risk, uncertainty and buying influence. Hickson, et al., (1971) suggest that several different mechanisms underlie an organization's approach to coping with uncertainty and how/ why individuals' participate in a buying decision. These are: (1) prevention (i.e., forestalling uncertainty), (2) information (i.e., forecasting) and (3) absorption (i.e., taking or having the ability to take action after the event). These coping strategies imply conceptually different processes underlying how various members of an organization assist in the reduction of uncertainty. One might hypothesize that these mechanisms may be used differentially to address "inherent" and "handled" aspects of the buying decision.

Upah presents some information on the mechanisms behind the influence structure in an organization. He suggests one aspect involved in the change in responsibility is the desire for those under top management to protect their positions by transferring the risk on to top management. This suggests a rationale for participation in the decision process which is quite different from that which reflects ones ability to provide critical information. The different coping strategies suggested by Hickson, et al. (1971) and this "protection" motive of lower management suggest that those most influential in making a particular decision may not have an informational basis as their basis of influence (see French and Raven, 1962).

In summary this paper advocates that a consideration of both the two components of perceived risk, level of uncertainty and magnitude of consequences, is needed in order to identify the influentials in a particular decision making situation. Primarily it emphasized the very "rational" problem solving aspects of how an organization might cope with uncertainty. Other researchers want to address other approaches to coping with uncertainty.

Can Seller/Customer Interaction and Influence be Studied in the Laboratory

The Sawyer, Deutscher and Obermiller article addresses the issue of determining the appropriate methodology for studying buyer-seller interactions and testing theoretical models. Also they present the results of a study in an actual face-to-face selling situation in which salesman's expertise was manipulated. Before beginning this discussion it should be noted that in contrast to the many past researchers who have called for a "process-oriented" methodology and theoretical perspective to the study of actual buyer-seller interactions, this article is one of the few to actually attempt such an investigation. It is an innovative first step in a difficult research area and is one that addresses many important conceptual and methodological issues. This discussion will focus upon some of these issues and offer an alternative viewpoint on some of them. Basically this discussion will focus upon (1) the "non-standard" operationalization of the independent variable and the associated problems involving the trade-off between external realism and internal validity, (2) the development of research hypotheses, and (3) the conceptualization and operationalization of the dependent variables.

The experimental manipulation is the first issue to be discussed. The authors have carefully presented the advantages and disadvantages of a controlled laboratory manipulation of the experimental variable (e.g., filmed presentations varying salesperson expertise) and those of a live role playing interaction between the salesperson and buyer in which the salesperson plays different roles. In the latter case one possibly gains greater realism and greater impact by the experimental manipulation while increasing the threats to internal validity.

The authors argue that using a non-standard treatment is acceptable as long as the lack of standardization leads to randomized error and not systematic error or bias across the different treatments. It seems that in order to make these assumptions one would have to have a firm understanding of the factors impinging upon the research variables or one would have to assume such a simple situation that it would lack any degree of interest or external realism. Thus it is hard to visualize when one would/could make this assumption.

In situations like this study, where a researcher chooses to use a non-standard manipulation of the independent variable, the coordination of a research program becomes very important. This section will briefly review this topic to supplement Sawyer's et al. discussion and to suggest additional considerations for future research.

Aronson and Carlsmith (1968) discuss the utilization of a non-standard manipulation and the resulting conflict between the experimental goals of experimental impact and control. An experimenter may decide to use a non-standard manipulation in order to increase the situational realism of the phenomena being studied, or because a strong manipulation is needed to overcome large individual difference. For either of these cases, Aronson and Carlsmith present two alternative research approaches which may be followed in order to address the problem of multiple explanations caused by the lower experimental control.

The first approach, "purification," involves performing a sequence of experiments which address the same research question but which employ methods which are as different as possible from one another, in order to eliminate overlap between conceivable alternative explanations. Through a series of replications one is able to sequentially rule cut alternative explanations. A second approach calls for creating an experimental situation in which the independent variable produces a large number of different outcomes, all of which are theoretically tied to the independent variable. The key to employing this second approach is, of course, being able to theoretically relate one of the alternative, independent variables (i.e., alternative explanations) to a distinct set of meaningful dependent variables. Thus, one would then have a basis for selecting among possible alternative explanations. In summary, either one or both of these two approaches appears to be needed to supplement this study and thus provide evidence for the fruitfulness of this research paradigm as a basis for studying buyer/seller interaction.

A second issue of concern with this study deals with the need for a clear presentation of the research hypotheses. Presumably, the study was designed to partially replicate previous buyer-seller research on the effect of salesperson expertise. Particularly missing, however, were the hypothesized effects of the expertise manipulation upon the reported thoughts. In light of the previous section's discussion on the importance of theoretically distinct effects, a clear delineation of these relationships may have been quite helpful.

The conceptualization and coding of the buyer's reported thoughts is unclear. In the article the authors refer to the reported thoughts as "cognitive responses." Past studies investigating cognitive responses in persuasion have viewed cognitive responses as thoughts generated by the receiver during a persuasive message. These thoughts are conceptualized as indicators of the persuasion process and mediators of attitude change. Also, the thought collecting task is usually administered immediately after the message and prior to other dependent measures. For longer messages, thoughts are usually collected during the message to reduce recall biases (cf. Wright, 1977).

In this study the thoughts were reported after the collection of many other measures, and prompted by a replaying of the taped interaction. These in-depth interviews following the buyer-seller interaction have been discussed previously in the buyer-seller literature by Olshavsky (1976) (i.e., "retrospective analysis") and employed by Woodside and Taylor (1978) to develop a graphical decision net representation of the seller's (or buyer's) decision process. This method of thought reporting is similar to the prompted verbal protocols used to study information processing (Newell and Simon 1972; Bettman 1970). Russo (1978) points out that one strength of verbal protocol research approach is its ability to reveal larger strategic concepts which guide the information processing. However he also notes that a Very important point about verbal protocols is that they are difficult to analyze formally and have been successfully utilized in relatively few consumer research settings (see Bettman 1970; and Payne, 1976).

In summary the authors describe and analyze the reported thought data in terms of a cognitive response conceptualization and typology but appear to be actually employing a prompted protocol approach in gathering the thoughts. While these two approaches, cognitive responses and verbal protocols, may share similar aspects, an integrated conceptualization of these two approaches was not addressed. This may however be feasible. One possibility for doing so is discussed by Wright (in press). He proposes that "problem-framing" thoughts may by generated by the recipient of a persuasive message (Wright, in press, p. 25) and guide the decision processing. It seems quite likely that both buyers and sellers would engage in these activities during the interaction. The results of Woodside and Taylor (1978) using the verbal protocol method strongly suggest that this does in fact occur.

The coding procedure for the reported thoughts, assuming that they are viewed as "cognitive responses" is questionable. Sawyer et al. had judges rate each response according to its valence, origin, and target. Greenwald (1968) is one of the few studies to address the validity of judges' codings of subjects' thoughts. He reports that his judges were able to agree in their judgment as to the "origin" of the thoughts for 85% of the judgments. However, the judges classifications agreed with the subjects' classifications for only 62% of the judgments. Chance agreement was 33%. These results led Greenwald to the conclusion that subject coding was a more appropriate procedure.

In summary, Sawyer et al, present an exploratory attempt at developing a methodology suitable for studying theoretical models of buyer-seller interactions. In doing so, they highlight the complexity of the research program which is required to deal with the resulting non-standard "treatments" and multiple explanations problem.

An Examination of the Structure of Buying-Selling Interactions Among Insurance Agents and Prospective Customers

The purposes of the Taylor and Woodside article were to identify and distinguish between possible stages within the selling process for health and life insurance. This discussion will comment on several conceptual and methodological issues of this research.

In addressing the first issue, "Is the buying and selling process for life and health insurance characterized by a series of stages with each stage having different content?", the authors do not directly address a theoretical basis for determining the number of stages in the process. Various practitioners and academic theorists have presented models of the buyer-seller interaction process.

One of the earliest presented by E. K. Strong (1925) emphasizes the steps of (1) gaining attention, (2) developing interest in and (3) desire for the product, and finally, leading the buyer to take action and purchase the product. More recently Robinson, Faris, and Wind (1967) have proposed eight stages to describe the industrial, first-time purchase situation. Wilson (1976) has proposed a five step process for an industrial selling situation. Also, Jolson (1977) presents a ten step model to describe door-to-door personal selling. Each of these are briefly outlined in Table 1.

Although the authors present a logical basis (i.e., discussions with practitioners) for the six stages they used (i.e., prospecting, establishing a common ground with the prospect, determining prospect needs, presenting alternatives, closing and follow up), it is not clear why the Jolson model was not also considered. Jolson's model for personal selling appears to be applicable to an insurance selling situation and may provide some additional insights, or at least a basis for comparison. (It may be more appropriate than Wilson's model for industrial selling.)

For an inductive research study such as this study, the selection of an initial model or framework, may affect the research conclusions. The initial framework may limit the researcher's selection of the types of "interaction behaviors" which are considered and also the researcher's selection of what categories are used in a content analysis. For example, if the interaction is viewed as being a "bargaining" or "contract negotiation" process in which the two parties are viewed as having similar or equal power, then one might not look for or recognize elements in the interaction which reflect an unequal power situation and subtle manipulative or controlling techniques which may be operating in the interaction. For example,

TABLE 1

OUTLINE OF VARIOUS BUYER-SELLER MODELS

a question by the salesperson such as "Would you like to have this product in your home, if money were not a consideration?'' might be viewed as an "information exchange" statement. However, it might also be viewed as the stage setting for a follow-up question such as "Can you save 754 a week for your child's college education?", and the close attempt which offers the product for "Only 754 a week!" In summary, the "type" of implicit theory the researcher employs may affect the selection of the analysis units (i.e., "single declarative sentences" or "networks of ordered questions, expressions or manipulative gestures.") and also the categories which are used. In the Taylor and Woodside study, the categories appear to reflect a "persuasion-bargaining" orientation between the buyer and seller rather than a "manipulative-power" orientation. Future studies may want to consider analyzing the buyer-seller interaction in terms of more "manipulative" and "power" aspects in addition to an information-exchange, problem solving perspective. Also related to this issue is the possibility that in this study, the actual extent of "less-socially desirable" acts or appeals in an interaction (e.g., manipulative techniques, references to personal fears and threats) may have been underestimated due to the researchers' heavy reliance on industry personnel, trade materials, and cooperative salespersonnel.

A second, related conceptual issue concerns the "unidirectional'' flow implied by the model. As described by Jolson, salesmen may repeatedly "check-the-pulse" of the prospect throughout the presentation. Also is seems likely that certain steps in the selling process may occur several times throughout the interaction (e.g., presenting new alternatives after an unsuccessful close attempt). These considerations suggest that a revised model might include several "do-loops" in addition to a sequential series of stages.

A final comment deals with the conceptual distinction between single person and multiple person buying groups. The researchers do not provide a rationale for combining the interactions of sales people with a single prospect with those interactions involving multiple person buying groups. One might suggest that these are conceptually different buying situations.

Several methodological issues dealing with the calculations of interjudge reliability estimates and the data presentation will now be addressed. The calculation of the inter-judge coding reliabilities is not clear and appears to be inappropriate. Apparently, the correlations between the two judges' total frequency counts of each "bargaining act" for each subject were calculated across the subjects. This calculation does not specifically address the issue of how well the two judges agreed upon what expressions were specific "bargaining acts" or upon what categories the expressions were assigned. Thus it is possible that the two judges agreed upon the same frequency counts but may not have agreed upon a single sentence's classification. Instead the authors should have reported a reliability coefficient appropriate for categorical assignment tasks. (See Hubert 1978).

A second aspect of the coding deals with the failure to report the percentage of sentences which were not coded by the judges. Knowing the nature of these expressions may be quite interesting and helpful in assessing the thoroughness of the categorization scheme. Also in reporting the relative frequencies of the specific bargaining and selling acts, the authors have not reported the relative distributions of each act in each stage. In fact, for the "salesperson determining concession limits" category only 70% of the acts are reported. Readers may be interested in knowing where the remaining 30% of these acts occurred. Furthermore the authors should explain why certain categories were collapsed (e.g., "salesperson and prospect information provided acts" in the exchange of information stage).

In summary, the Taylor and Woodside article provides support for conceptualizing the buying and selling process for life and health insurance as a series of unique stages. It remains, however, for future researchers to build upon this and other research, and move beyond descriptive studies and begin to develop testable research hypotheses. Particularly interesting would be hypotheses which relate salesperson performance with the nature and sequence of "bargaining" or "manipulative" acts by a salesperson.

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