When salespeople act questionably, buyers take revenge

Robert Dahlstrøm

Hell hath no fury like a buyer scorned, according to a new study on salesperson behaviour and their influences on buyer-seller relationships.

The recurrent interactions occurring over a span in a buyer-seller relationship are complex exchanges. Salespeople may have the best of intentions, but a buyer might perceive their behaviour as innocuous or even hostile.

Other aspects of the relationship, most notably dedicated investments, contracts and dependence, influence the likelihood of buyers making these critical judgments. How one buyer assesses a seller’s behaviour may lead to generalization about the partner’s motivation (i.e. opportunism) and their strategies for continuing the relationship (i.e. retributive opportunism).

Buyers often struggle to understand the motives behind certain equivocal salesperson actions (e.g., ambiguous, vague, questionable). When these individual acts are viewed as nefarious, overall judgments of the trading partner’s motivations are also deemed as miscreant. Consequently, the buyer’s first evaluation of the incident can lead to degradation of the whole relationship.

This begs the question: How can firms structure their sales activities in a way that prevents these equivocal behaviours? 

Reciprocal responses to perceived negative behaviour

In our research to answer these questions, we first sought to gain a better understanding of how buyers evaluate certain behaviours undertaken by their salesperson. In our first study, we collected data from 213 medical buyers in the U.S. health industry. Our follow-up study assessed data provided by 285 industrial buyers representing multiple industries.

The two studies resulted in numerous interesting insights with implications for sales organisations and managers. First, we found that certain conditions make buyers more likely to view salesperson behaviour negatively and act accordingly, with reciprocal guileful, self-interest seeking behaviour.

Put differently, when the buyer thinks the seller is acting opportunistically, they will act the same way in return and thus reduce their commitment to the existing relationship.

Positive measures

Fortunately, we also found factors that have a desirable influence on how buyers perceive salespeople behaviour. For example, sales managers can put operational guidelines in place that stipulate the necessity of well-documented agreements in order to safeguard their salespeople from unwanted negative attributions.

Likewise, managers should cultivate a culture where the benefits of long-term strategic partnerships are promoted. These activities encourage and facilitate salespeople and organizations to be more customer-oriented in their approach to selling, resulting in more solidarity-based buyer-seller relationships.

Salespeople should consider how facets of the relationship could influence how buyers evaluate their behaviour. If a buyer has invested heavily in unique procedures or products, they are also more likely to perceive equivocal acts as nefarious. Salespeople can quell these misperceptions with contractual agreements that reduce the risk of buyers viewing future behaviour as opportunism.

All in all, these measures could be vital for any manager interested in increasing the quality of an existing exchange-based relationship.


This article is written for BI Marketing Magazine 2020.

Jody Crosno, Robert Dahlstrom & Scott B. Friend (2020): Assessments of equivocal salesperson behavior and their influences on the quality of buyer-seller relationships, Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, DOI: 10.1080/08853134.2020.1742134

Published 3. June 2020

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