Observations of Buyer and Seller Transactions

ABSTRACT - Wilson and Bambic's (1977) model of a multi-stage sequence of buyer-seller interactions is supported in a field observation study of forty buying centers meeting with one of three selling centers for life and health insurance. Interactions of meetings of the buying and selling centers were tape recorded. Retrospective analyses were performed separately on both buyer and selling center participants of three groups, i.e., the tape recordings of the meetings between the centers were played to the participants in separate later meetings and their verbalized thoughts and strategies were tape recorded of their prior conversations. The results support the general hypothesis that decision net models replicating mental processes in buyer-seller transactions can be developed.


Arch G. Woodside and James L. Taylor (1978) ,"Observations of Buyer and Seller Transactions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 643-652.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 643-652


Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina

James L. Taylor, Texas A & M University

[Financial support of the Division of Research, College of Business Administration, University of South Carolina, and agreement to participate of company officials in a national life insurance firm (anonymous in this study) which made this research possible are appreciated.]


Wilson and Bambic's (1977) model of a multi-stage sequence of buyer-seller interactions is supported in a field observation study of forty buying centers meeting with one of three selling centers for life and health insurance. Interactions of meetings of the buying and selling centers were tape recorded. Retrospective analyses were performed separately on both buyer and selling center participants of three groups, i.e., the tape recordings of the meetings between the centers were played to the participants in separate later meetings and their verbalized thoughts and strategies were tape recorded of their prior conversations. The results support the general hypothesis that decision net models replicating mental processes in buyer-seller transactions can be developed.


Capon, Holbrook, and Hulbert (1977) and Wilson and Bambic (1977) provide reviews of part of the buyer-seller transactions literature and these authors reach similar conclusions: most studies have been research of one stage of a multi-stage interaction process, more research is needed to identify and measure the multi-stage interaction process of buying selling behaviors, and the use of field observations of buyer-seller transactions is healthy and necessary to advance the knowledge of consumer behavior. Few field observations studies are available which include measurements of all stages of buyer-seller interactions. The research on buyers and retail-appliance salespersons reported by Willett and Pennington (1966), Pennington (1968), and Olshavsky (1973) is likely to be the most well-known literature of field research which includes measures on multi-stages in the interaction processes. This evidence does indicate that buyer-seller interactions are likely to follow an orderly process and that the successful retail-appliance salesperson is able to influence various aspects of the buyer's behavior, including the importance of product attributes, number of alternatives considered, and amount of search for information.

Additional evidence is available to support the hypotheses that a few patterns or types of buyer-seller interaction processes are likely to exist and that such patterns are likely to vary by situational variables, e.g., importance of the purchase economically or psychologically, size of the firm or family acting as the buying center. While this literature is reviewed elsewhere (Taylor, 1977; Woodside, Taylor, Pritchett, and Morgenroth, 1977), several hypotheses and findings should be noted here. Cyert, Simon, and Trow (1956) hypothesized that replicating the decision process to purchase computer equipment in a firm which they observed for several months would be possible by describing each of the activities in the process taken one step at a time (if the rules that determined when action would switch from one program step to another were specified, and if the program steps were described in enough detail). Cyert, et al. (1956) illustrate multiple tasks performed by many persons in the buying center observed in their study and they report two common processes: communication and problem solving processes. The communication processes observed indicated the presence of gatekeepers who act as information filters to secure a large influence over the decisions reached by the decider in the buying center. Also, the search for alternative suppliers and products terminated when a satisfactory solution was discovered even though the field of possibilities had not been exhausted. "Hence, we have reason to suppose that changes in the search process or its outcome will actually have major effects on the final decision" (Cyert, et al., 1956, p. 247). For an industrial buying center purchasing computer equipment, this research suggests that search processes and information gathering processes constitute significant parts of decision making and must be incorporated in a theory of decisions if such a theory is to be adequate.

Wilson and Bambic (1977) and Bambic (1977) develop and partially test the adequacy of a five stage decision process to describe buyer-seller interactions in industrial marketing situations. Their dyadic process model is concerned basically with the development of long-term buyer-seller relationships rather that "one-shot" selling situations. The model begins with in initial meeting between the buyer and seller and moves through a number of stages which presumably take place over time and a number of meetings of the dyad:

1. Source legitimization - the buyer establishes whether the salesperson is a representative of a qualified source of supply

2. Problem identification and information exchange - the salesperson identified problem and seeks in- formation from the buyer

3. Attribute delineation - buyer-seller determine product attribute sets which may solve problems

4. Attribute value negotiation - negotiation of the attribute set and the exchange rate for each

5. Relationship maintenance - the dyad members maintain and build upon their business relationships; perhaps the relationship becomes personal.

The duration of the stages overlap each other as a number of activities may be carried on simultaneously among buyer-seller interactions. However, the requirements of the basic stages must be met in order to move to the advanced stages (steps 4 and 5) of the model (Wilson and Bambic, 1977).

Additional research evidence is reported here in an attempt to support the general hypotheses that a few models of buyer-seller interactions can be developed to describe the stages in the decision processes.


Buyer-seller interactions in the field of life insurance was selected for analysis because of previous survey and laboratory research in this field (Evans, 1963; Gadel, 1964; Busch and Wilson, 1976), the large financial in-investment for life insurance by the buyer, and the multiple meetings and generally complex nature of the interactions. The general purpose of the research is to build upon prior life insurance research of buyer-seller interactions, and the work of Cyert, et al. (1956), Olshavsky (1976), and others (Woodside and Fleck, 1977; Bettman, 1974; Tucker, 1967) who advocate the need to know the decision process of each member involved with the buying center with respect to the task at hand.

The research approach is an application of inductive model building instead of the more widely used deductive method of theory construction of buyer-seller interactions. Olshavsky (1976), Newell and Simon (1972), and Cyert, et al. (1956) advocate an inductive approach as an initial step to theory development through the development of descriptions and programs of decision processes. This inductive approach begins with observing buyer-seller interactions and attempts to construct anatomies of decision processes, while the deductive approach begins with insight and attempts to test conceptualizations to behavior later observed. Sheth's (1976) model of buyer-seller interaction is an example of the deductive approach to theory construction. The work by Tucker (1967) is an early example of the inductive approach.


The national, regional, and local headquarters of an insurance company agreed to participate in an observation study of selling and buying centers in Columbia, South Carolina. Forty prospective life and health insurance buying centers agreed to cooperate and permit tape recordings of the meetings with members of the selling centers (two buying centers contacted refused to have the meetings tape recorded). In 17 (43%) buying centers, two persons met with the salesperson (s) during the encounters; while in 23 (57%) encounters only one person met with the salesperson (s). Thus, a total of 57 buyers actually met with salespersons. Ten buying centers met with the salesperson two separate times, while 30 buying centers met with the salesperson one time each.

Buying centers were selected for the study on the basis of convenience by the three salespersons in the regular course of their selling duties. The buying centers participating appeared to the local sales manager and researchers to be representative of the type of client normally sought by the participating salespersons. Twenty-two (55%) of the buying centers were contacted initially by the salesperson via telephone, six (15%) by direct mail, and twelve (30%) by "cold call." A "cold call" refers to a salesperson's unannounced visit to a prospect's place of business or home.

The three salespersons selling experience ranged from 1 to 5 years with the cooperating company and their ages from 28-34. None of the salespersons sold insurance for any other firm. Two salespersons were white males and one was a black male. All had at least some college training ranging from a degree in insurance at a local technical school to a Masters in Business Administration.

Data Collection Procedure

Two types of data were collected. First, encounters between salespersons and prospects were tape recorded, and second, postpurchase in-depth interviews were conducted with members of three selling and buying centers. The selection of centers from in-depth interviews was done randomly among the 40 buying centers.

The in-depth interviews following the meetings of the buying-selling centers permitted a "retrospective analysis'' (Olshavsky, 1976) of persons in each center, i.e., the tape recording was played back to the buying and selling centers separately and the participants were requested to comment on the meanings and strategies behind their own statements in the interactions.

The conversations between salespersons and buyers were recorded by the researchers while accompanying the salespersons when calls were made on potential clients. In 32 (80%) of the initial meetings the buyer(s) did not know that a researcher would be accompanying the salesperson before arrival. This was a result of the difficulty in synchronizing work schedules. Additionally, the salespersons believed that permission to record the transaction was better obtained when the buyer(s) could meet and evaluate the researcher in person.

The participating buying centers were told by the researchers that the researchers were interested in determining if people who meet for the first time or who have known each other for a short time communicate differently than persons who have known each other for a long while.

All three buying centers contacted for the retrospective analysis agreed to meet with the researchers for separate interviews. Members of these three buying centers were first asked a series of open-ended questions, e.g., "When did you first come into contact with (the salesperson)?'' What were your feelings when the salesperson first contacted you?" Answers to these open-ended questions were tape recorded. Then, small segments of the original transaction was played back to the buying center members. Individuals were questioned as to their thoughts, feelings, goals, and strategies after listening to each of these tape segments of their previous conversation with the salesperson. Buying center members were also informed to stop the recording at any point that they desired to make a comment.

Buying center members who were not present when the salesperson-prospect encounter took place (e.g., neighbors, friends, family), were identified by asking subjects what other persons they had discussed their purchase decision with. These buying center members were then contacted and interviewed by the researchers. Two such persons were interviewed by telephone.

Salespersons involved in the chosen interactions were interviewed in a similar manner. The salespersons were first asked (1) how they became aware of the prospect(s), (2) how they contacted the prospects(s), and (3) what their initial goals and strategies were when making first contact. Then, the original transaction was played back after instructing the salesperson to stop the recording at any point to comment on goals, strategies, thoughts and feelings. The recorder was stopped after playing small segments to probe for these mental processes.


Protocol analysis and correlational analysis were utilized to analyze the data. Verbal and graphic process models were developed for three buying centers and for three selling centers using protocol analysis.

Protocol analysis for the purpose of this study includes the modification suggested by Olshavsky (1976). Generally, a protocol is a transcript of the verbalized thoughts and actions of a subject when the subject has been instructed to think or problem solve aloud (Alexis, Haines and Simon, 1968). A protocol in this study is a transcript of verbalized thoughts and actions obtained by asking subjects to relive their mental processes through recorded conversations. In either approach, the transcript is a record of the subject's thought processes while engaged in making a decision.

The theory of human thinking and problem solving from which protocol analysis sprang postulates that the human operates as an information processing system (Newell, Shaw and Simon, 1958). The theory posits that there exists: (1) a memory, (2) search and selection procedures, and (3) a set of rules or criteria which guide the decision making process.

The tasks in the protocol analysis were to reveal the individual's mental processes through in-depth interview and to reproduce the process in the form of a graphical decision net. Similar applications of the technique to marketing problems have been reported (Cyert and March, 1963; Morgenroth, 1964; Howard and Morgenroth, 1968; Woodside and Fleck, 1977).

Decision processes are described in terms of inputs, information processing decision rules and outputs (Howard, Hulber, and Farley, 1975). The models in this study are represented graphically as a set of decision nodes with arcs (lines connecting pairs of nodes). Each decision node represents a test on a particular decision cue (such as, should I meet with this salesperson?) and the arcs represent the processing sequence taken (yes or no), depending on the values of the cues.

Generalizations and hypotheses about buyer-seller behavior in insurance exchanges were inferred from the decision models. The findings of the protocol analysis are not meant to be conclusive, but may provide a platform to the development of theory and future research. These decision models of buyers and sellers interacting, along with similar models, may serve as valuable data points from which more universal generalizations about consumer and salesperson decision-making in naturalistic environments can be made.

The findings which follow refer only to the interactions and decision processes of the buying and selling centers included in the retrospective analysis.


Buying center A consisted of one prospect, Kathy Berryman, and two other persons who participated in this prospect's decision-making process. Only Kathy Berryman interacted with the salesperson representative from the selling center. Selling center A consisted of the salesperson Jed Sutton, and the agency manager, Stan Trotter. Only Jed Sutton interacted with the buyer. Stan Trotter's influence on the transaction was indirect through the advice provided Jed as to the need of being flexible in the sales encounter. This advice was offered at a sales meeting one week prior to Jed's meeting with Kathy.

Two separate one-hour in-depth interviews were conducted with both the salesperson and the buyer. Both interviews with Kathy Berryman were conducted in her home; one interview with Jed Sutton was in his home and another in his business office. The two members of the buying center who did not meet with the salesperson were contacted and interviewed by telephone. Conversations with these latter buying center members lasted approximately 10-15 minutes.

Verbal and graphical process models for both Jed Sutton and Kathy Berryman were developed from the retrospective analyses. The models first were developed from the interview data and then presented to the salesperson and buyer for possible revision. Both parties indicated necessary revisions and then, that the models accurately represented the content of their mental activity during the sales encounter.

The verbal process models for the salesperson and buyer are included in Table 1. The words expressed in the verbal models are generally those of the participants. Some editing was required, however, for purposes of brevity and clarity. The graphical models of salesperson and buyer are shown in Figures 1 and 2 respectively.





The Salesperson

Jed Sutton is a 30-year-old white male who is married and has a two-year-old son. Jed has been a salesperson with the cooperating company for one year.

Jed graduated from the University of South Carolina with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering and economics. After graduation, he served four and a half years in the U.S. Navy as a submarine officer. The rank of Navy Lieutenant was obtained while on active duty. Jed is still a member of the Navy Reserve.

After completing military service, Jed returned to the University of South Carolina and earned a master's degree in business administration (MBA). He then worked for Proctor and Gamble as a production manager for two years. Jed left Proctor and Gamble to go to work as a salesperson for the cooperating company. He also serves as an ACE consultant for the Small Business Administration.

The Buyer

Kathy Berryman is an unmarried white female who is 50 years old. She works as a nurse for the American Red Cross and attends the University of South Carolina on a part-time basis. She is working toward a master's degree in public health service at the University. Kathy owns her own home which is valued at approximately $46,000.

Preexchange Activity

Kathy Berryman had previously purchased a mortgage protection (term insurance) policy from the cooperating company. The salesperson who had sold her the policy had left the company and Jed Sutton had been assigned to handle her case. Jed had reviewed her coverage and decided that the policy she was carrying was not appropriate to her needs. Jed called to set up an appointment in order to discuss changing her insurance coverage. Kathy had never met Jed before this time.



The Process Model

The verbal and graphical process models shown in Table 1 and Figure 1 reflect the prior knowledge of the buyer possessed by the salesperson. He had reviewed the buyer's insurance coverage and believed he had uncovered an unrecognized need. Thus, the salesperson had formulated a well-defined goal to convert the buyer's mortgage policy into a $10,000 whole life policy. Kathy, on the other hand, had no prior knowledge of the salesperson and had no well defined goals or strategies. Vague goals of "finding out more about the salesperson" and "seeking information" were cited to the researcher.

Jed's strategy for accomplishing his goal was also explicit. His strategy required that he first get an appointment with the buyer; then establish rapport with his potential client; then show the buyer that the present policy carried was not needed; and finally convince the buyer that a whole policy would better meet her insurance needs. References to familiar others were relied on to establish rapport. Thus, for the salesperson, decision nodes 4, 6, 8 and 10 in Figure 1 were critical points in attempting to achieve his original goal.

Kathy attempted to accomplish her goal of learning about the salesperson during the first five minutes of the sales encounter. Questions directed to the salesperson for this purpose centered on (1) the salesperson's place of residence, (2) his place of education, and (3) persons known to both parties. This initial evaluation of the salesperson is reflected in decision node 3 in Figure 2. Such evaluations are consistent with social exchange theory.

The models in Figures 1 and 2 reflect the impact that actions by one party had on the other person's decision network. For example, a decision path compatible with the salesperson's original goal and strategy would have been: 1->2->4->5->6->7->8->9->10->22. The buyer, however, raised questions that required the salesperson to revise his original goal and strategy. Specifically, Kathy wanted to know (1) if the whole life policy would be compatible with other endowment policies (Figure 2, node 12), and (2) whether she should consider purchasing a disability income policy (Figure 2, node 13). The salesperson also reported detecting nonverbal cues as to Kathy's price expectations. This feedback represented a new array of cues to be faced by the salesperson, with the result that Jed's actual decision path was: 1->2->4->5->6->7->8->9->10->11->13->14->15->16->17->19->20->22. That is, the salesperson had to be flexible in changing his sales approach to include the selling of a disability income policy or a lesser valued whole life policy. Professional advice provided by Stan Trotter, the agency manager, to be flexible in the sales encounter was applicable with this buyer.

The salesperson, on the other hand, apparently exerted influence on what the buyer evaluated in her decision process. The salesperson initiated evaluations of whether the mortgage insurance was needed and whether a whole life policy should be considered as an alternative. The salesperson provided information on cash value and paid-up insurance features of the whole life policy that became part of the buyer's decision net. Finally, the buyer's purchase decision was made immediately following information on social security benefits that was provided by the salesperson (Table 1). Thus, decision nodes 5, 7, 9, 11, and 18 in the buyer's decision network may be attributed to the salesperson's influence.

Extensive problem solving behavior seems to characterize Kathy's decision process for insurance. She did not have a well-formed set of choice criteria and had low familiarity and high search needs when considering an insurance purchase. She admitted to being confused with information provided by Jed on policy options. High search needs led Kathy to seek information from her brother-in-law and a friend. Both of these persons were contacted by the researcher, but no additional insight into their influence was gained. The brother-in-law did not advise against the whole life plan, but recommended that she explore the merits of a disability income policy first. The friend that Kathy contacted thought that she was worried that the insurance agent might be trying to sell her something unnecessary. He provided assurance that she need not worry, the basis on which this assurance was given was the reputation of the cooperating company.

In Kathy's decision net, nodes 18 and 20 were important turning points. As soon as Kathy discovered that she would be able to receive social security benefits if disabled, the purchase decision was made contingent upon her being able to keep monthly premiums below $20. The salesperson did not detect her willingness to purchase and continued the sales presentation for approximately 15 minutes before attempting to close. Jed accurately perceived Kathy's concern for the price, however, and modified his own expectations to reflect this. Kathy admitted to the researcher that she did not want to tell the salesperson that she wanted to limit her premium to $20 or less. Thus, she continued interaction without informing Jed of her purchase decision. This behavior suggests that the sale may have been lost if not for the correct reading of nonverbal cues and the willingness to be flexible by the salesperson. The reasons for Kathy's willingness to reveal her concern for the premium costs to the researcher and not to the salesperson were not determined.

Attempts by Jed at the end of the sales encounter to develop the long term relationship between customer and agent suggest that developmental selling may characterize the life and health insurance selling process. Jed's efforts were compatible with similar observations by the researcher of other salespersons.

Buyer-Seller Compatibility

Kathy was asked several questions concerning characteristics of the salesperson and the sales approach used in the retrospective analysis. Kathy described Jed as a person much like herself in respect to personality and values. When asked if he was similar in terms of social class and economic status, Kathy stated that she had not considered these factors. Kathy based her evaluations of Jed on information solicited as to where he lived and where he had gone to school.

Jed was considered by Kathy to be knowledgeable about insurance and a person to be trusted. His sales presentation was described as being unstructured and nonpressuring. Kathy particularly liked the concern she believed Jed expressed for her personally. She summarized her evaluation of Jed this way:

I do not think he was really out to sell the policy. I might have misinterpreted it, but he made me feel that the policy itself was for my betterment.


Decision process models for two additional buying centers and two additional selling centers were constructed following one to two hours of retrospective analysis with each center. These models are not described here because of the complexity of the models and space requirements. Buyer center B consisted of two buyers, Charles and Pam Trout. Unlike the case of Kathy Berryman, the Trouts met with the salesperson only one time and decided to purchase. Selling center B consisted of one salesperson. Excerpts of the interaction between the centers are reported elsewhere (Woodside, et al., 1977).

Selling center C consisted of two salespersons. Two buyers, Seaborn and Barbara Sellers, made up the buying center. A single sales encounter between these two centers took place in the Sellers home, the buying center consulted no outside sources before making a decision to purchase. Details of the process models for centers. B and C may be found elsewhere (Taylor, 1977).

The process models for centers B and C generally support the pattern of communication and problem solving described for center A. The results provide additional support to the Wilson and Bambic (1977) model of a multiple stage sequence of decision process in buyer-seller interactions. Wilson's model was formulated from the tenets of Homan's (1961) social exchange theory. Thus, the finding that the selling process proceeded through stages as posited by Wilson supports the view of life insurance buying-selling as social exchange. This is also supported by the observation that salespersons and buyers spent a relatively large amount of time engaged in social commentary that was unrelated to the product per se. Salespersons typically spent a relatively large part of the sales encounter in attempts to develop rapport and to establish a continuing relationship with the buyer. Similarly, buyers spent much effort attempting to learn more about the salesperson. In the retrospective analyses, the buyers emphasized the importance of salesperson characteristics on their willingness to purchase from a particular salesperson. One salesperson, on the other hand, informed the researchers that he did not try to sell to professional people because he never felt comfortable with professionals. To this salesperson, the social costs of interacting with businessmen, lawyers and other professionals apparently outweighed potential rewards of making a sale. Thus, the study findings reflect the importance of compatibility between buyer and seller such that the rewards of exchange are high relative to the social costs of exchange. Compatibility between buyer and seller was suggested by Sheth (1976) in his conceptualization of a successful buyer-seller interaction. Thus, the study also provides some support to Sheth's deductive model.


The feasibility of using recorded conversations in which participants know that they are being recorded was demonstrated in the study. Conversations with buyers following the sales encounter indicated that the researcher and recorder's presence was usually forgotten after a few minutes. Future research of this type, however, should attempt to supplement the audio recordings with video recordings. By doing so, measures of nonverbal communication behavior can be devised and results correlated with the buyer's verbal communication behavior. Results so obtained might lead to a richer understanding of the content of interaction between buyers and sellers.

This study conducted would be classed by Holbrook and O'Shaughnessy (1976) as interaction synchronization research; that is, the focus was on communications variables and a two-way perspective was taken. This is an improvement over past personal selling research that either focused on static characteristics of the buyer or seller or adopted a one-way perspective. Nevertheless, important independent variables in the study were not under the researcher's control. Future research of this type should attempt to manipulate the frequencies of using the bargaining and selling variables in order to ascertain the impact of their use on purchase. Salespersons might, for example, be provided with questionnaires that involve high and low levels of question usage. The different treatments (high versus low levels of asking questions) could be assigned to different customers in an attempt to evaluate their influence on sales success. Similar manipulations could be used for the other independent variables in the study.

A large number of salespersons and prospects should be used in future studies of this type. By using a larger number of buyers, more sophisticated statistical analyses can be conducted. Multiple regression could be used, for example, to determine the relative influences of the selling variables on purchase. Additionally, interaction effects between the independent variables could be studied. By using a larger number of salespersons, individual differences between salespersons can be examined; thus, leading to a greater confidence in generalizing study results.


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Arch G. Woodside, University of South Carolina
James L. Taylor, Texas A & M University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05 | 1978

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