The role of gender in salesperson perception

The role of gender in salesperson perception

Retail is changing. Customer frequency is declining, and customer acquisition is presenting a new challenge. The situation is made more difficult by extended customer requirements, product information from Internet platforms and influences from the social environment. As a result, customer loyalty is a significant means of maintaining profitability for sellers, and a qualified sales workforce is an important factor in achieving company goals. This empirical study provides a critical assessment of this topic. Different sales styles and mood factors, distinct sales negotiations and gender were used for the evaluation. A video experiment was used as the basis for the empirical study which investigated whether the genders of the salesperson and the customer influenced the customer’s orientation, wishes and ultimately the conclusion of the purchase. The question of how a salesperson should behave towards customers is of considerable commercial relevance. The use of salespersons is an expensive instrument of sales policy and sales behaviour is a significant starting point for increasing sales and profit. Therefore, this paper analyses the most appropriate behaviour of salespersons affecting the perception of gender in the sales process, alongside possible differences in approach, and offers practical as well as theoretical conclusions.

Introduction

“Good sales representatives have a major impact on the success of a company that offers its product on the market, because they are the main actors in the retail sector” (Solomon 2016, p. 343). The behaviour of a salesperson in personal interactions has a decisive influence on the customer’s decision to buy. In the very first encounter, the initial perception of a seller’s appearance leaves a lasting impression on the customer. In general, the importance of sales is increasing while, simultaneously, personal interactions between salespersons and customers make a significant impact on the effectiveness of selling. The buyer has the option to choose from among any of the large number of suppliers on the market. Consequently, the pressure of having the right attitude towards customers is increasing. For this reason, many companies constantly seek effective training methods for their sellers (see Stros, Heinze and Riha 2017, p. 33).
The question arises as to what kind of personal interaction between customer and salesperson is the most appropriate, as well as the most effective. The personal interaction takes place through different forms of communication, such as emotional expression, body language and the spoken word. Gender also plays an important role. To ascertain which features appeal to customers in personal interactions, a study was conducted in the United States in December of 2014. The intention was “to determine the personal factors in sales that are most relevant to the formation of positive consumer impressions and resulting sales effectiveness” (see Stros, Heinze and Riha 2017, p. 33). Inspired by this study, the subject matter is taken up and elaborated for the German market in this research. Moreover, this research aims to discern the most appropriate behaviour for salespersons and to analyse possible differences in the perception of gender in the sales process.

Sales process and personal interaction

The general theoretical base of this study is personal selling, which is a form of selling which focuses on personal, face-to-face contact between a salesperson and a customer. During the resulting personal interaction, both participants can interact freely and have a determining influence on the process (Bänsch 2006).
The process of personal interaction is made up of the following six stages: first contact, assessment of demand, information and presentation, value proposition, objection handling and deal (Bittner 2015, p. 119). The role of the salesperson is to capture the attention of the customer, to address the needs of the customer, to present the product, to obtain a positive evaluation of the product and to complete the transaction (Becker 2004).
The process starts with a first contact between salesperson and buyer. Usually, the salesperson can positively connect with the customer by greeting them in a friendly way. Furthermore, the salesperson can promote a pleasant, personal atmosphere with the aid of a friendly demeanour, empathic behaviour and some questions about the customer’s interests.
Impressions created in the very first seconds are important for the success of further sales conversations. An assessment of demand follows, during which the salesperson must inquire about the customer’s needs. In this context, favoured product characteristics and the perceptions and expectations of the customer need to be ascertained by means of an interview (Bittner 2015, p. 120 ff.). In this way, salespersons are able to adapt their sales approach to the customer’s requirements.
The next step in a sales process is the information and presentation stage, where customers should be informed about the product or the service. As a result of the many different suppliers of products on the market, customers have various options to choose from. Therefore, salespersons need to showcase their product as much as possible. The expertise shown here is intended to make the selection easier for the customer (Solomon 2016, p. 343), and the salesperson must respond to the needs previously identified. In this way, the salesperson can prevent the customer from cancelling the contact and choosing another salesperson (Bänsch 2006, p. 4).
Product presentation is always focused on customer benefits. This means that the benefit of a product must be emphasized during the value proposition. Profound arguments which suggest an emotional benefit for the customer must be chosen by the salesperson. According to sources in the literature, a salesperson can also use arguments concerning cost efficiency, time savings, security and validity, etc. to convince the customer of the benefits of the product (Becker 2004, p. 66). This procedure has a decisive influence on the success of sales conversations. Afterwards, the product is evaluated by the customer using relevant decision criteria. Possible examples of decision criteria could be the attitude to a particular brand or even certain requirements concerning a product which can lead to questions and objections from the customer’s point of view. To conclude the sales conversation successfully, purchasing decision conflicts have to be resolved and the salesperson is encouraged to be friendly and confident about any objections the customer may have.

Communication in personal sales

To successfully conduct sales negotiations, the salesperson must influence the customer by demonstrating good communication. She or he can communicate in a verbal or non-verbal manner, but nevertheless, it is important that neither method of communication interferes with the negotiation (Becker 2004, p. 58).
In general, verbal communication includes spoken language, voice and style of speaking, e.g., speaking rate and the rhythm of speaking. The following aspects of spoken language can determine the understanding of verbal communication: simplicity, structure, succinctness and how stimulating it may be. Short sentences, the use of many nouns and active sentence constructions generate simplicity. Structure and succinctness influence whether the content of speech is comprehensible and using rhetorical stimulants such as stimulus words or humorous formulations can be particularly effective in creating a varied and personal conversation.
Body language (facial expressions, gesticulation or posture), clothes, objects and the space of the salesroom, are elements of non-verbal communication. This form of communication supports verbal communication and expressions of feelings and can also affect the behaviour of others. The facial expression of the seller and his or her eye contact with the customer are important elements of non-verbal communication that generate authenticity for the customer.

Authenticity of a salesperson

The authenticity of a salesperson is the foundation of a positive perception and part of the success of a sales conversation. To identify the features that have an influence on perceiving a salesperson as authentic, Solomon’s ABC hierarchy of consumer behaviour can be used (Solomon 2016). This model consists of three levels and emphasizes the changing interrelationships between affect, behaviour and cognition. Concerning personal interaction in sales conversations, the level called affect includes emotions like pleasure, anxiety or affect. Here, the customer assesses the behaviour of the salesperson very quickly. The second level is called behaviour and, according to this level, a salesperson also communicates with body language to create authenticity.
The third level, cognition, concerns the content of the conversation. Often, the emotional level is crucial for a positive perception (Stros, Riha and Heinze 2015). Some factors that also influence a salesperson’s role include age, gender, appearance, level of education and sales motivation (Solomon 2016, p. 343). Regarding the current study and its main objectives, the next section examines the influence of gender
roles in the sales process more closely.

Influence of gender identity on the sales process

If gender identity influences the sales process, this is called gender sales and the gender identities of the customer, the sales consultant and the product are all considered (Jaffé 2014, p. 140). Men and women differ significantly from each other regarding their decision-making and the way they process information when purchasing a product (Kreienkamp 2009, p. 98). While men prefer male sales consultants, women often buy products from female salespeople. They also prefer to buy female products such as jewellery or fashion over other products (Jaffé 2014, p. 71). This is mainly due to a different kind of communication, rate of sale or presentation of product information, and it means that there may be difficulties in sales conversations between genders.
The purchase decision for men runs in a linear way, also commonly known as the five-phase model. As a rule, the male consumer runs through the following five phases: problem identification, information search, evaluation of alternatives, purchase decision and behaviour after the purchase (Kotler 2015, p. 213).
After a consumer wish has been created, male customers tend to seek a great deal of information about the desired product and to set between one and three decision criteria first. Before the customer enters a store, he has already made a preselection of products (Jaffé 2014, p. 147). It is mainly the technical facts about the product, for example its top speed or horsepower, which play an important role in a car purchase. The personal interaction between salesperson and customer seems not to be relevant to the male customer. These customers try to come to a purchase decision independently and only consult experts if necessary.
Before male customers make the decision to buy, they often reach an expert level, where they can exchange professional knowledge with the salesperson. Therefore, they like to simply evaluate alternatives with the help of a sales consultant (Kreienkamp 2009, p. 98). According to the literature at hand, some salespersons tend to find this difficult, because they cannot restrict themselves to the selection of products previously defined by the male customer. Since male customers are said to buy the bare necessity only, no additional purchases are made after the purchase decision (Jaffé 2014, p. 147).
In contrast, the purchase decisions of female customers are usually more unstructured. They need more time to arrive at a decision than men, and women often have no special requirements and depend more often on the expertise of a sales consultant. During the process of making the decision to buy, a large majority of female customers are looking for a detailed consultation. They may ask many questions to gather information to determine their numerous evaluation criteria, not only enquiring about the technical facts but all the information about a product. Often, a female customer goes through all the advantages and disadvantages of the product until she decides whether to buy it or not (Jaffé 2014, p. 144 ff.). For example, when buying a car, storage space, security or fuel efficiency are also relevant aspects. It is often difficult for a male salesperson to communicate with a female customer on the same emotional level. In contrast, female salespersons communicate on a personal level, especially with female customers, and when doing so, they share their personal experiences, making it easier for them to interact personally with female customers (Kreienkamp 2009, p. 100). This assertion is also supported by Nigel et al. (2003) who examined the sales manager gender issue across multiple companies. They revealed that sales units led by female managers displayed higher effectiveness (see also McNeilly and Russ 2000, Moncrief et al. 2000). In addition to this, the results of an empirical study using a sample drawn from insurance sales by Dwyer et al. (1998) indicated that salespeople are primarily attracted to prospects who are similar to themselves in terms of age and gender. However, contrary to predictions, buyer/seller age similarity was found to have no impact on sales performance, while gender mismatch in the sales dyad was found to actually enhance performance.

Research questions

Following the research question and considering the literature, three hypotheses are formulated.
The first hypothesis relates to the assessment of the female proband. This hypothesis investigates whether assessments prove to be better when they are made by persons of the same gender. In doing so, the relationship between female participants and the saleswoman/salesman is examined with regard to their perception of sympathy. More specifically, it explores the fact that the female salesperson is perceived as more authentic than the male salesperson and it is presumed that the female experimenter assesses the female salesperson as more sympathetic than the male salesperson. The prerequisite for corroborating the hypothesis is that the female saleswoman receives a recognizably better rating from the female probands than the male salesperson. This speculation emerges as a consequence of the assumption that women are always regarded as friendlier and more sympathetic by the female participant. Consequently, it is proposed that:
• H1: Female participants consider the female salesperson to be more authentic than the male salesperson.

The second hypothesis clarifies whether the female salesperson is more likely than the male salesperson to be influenced by a third party. In this case, the experimenter must determine whether, and if so to what extent, the salesperson seems to influence, rather than be influenced by, the potential buyer.
• H2: The female salesperson is influenced more strongly by the sales conversation than the male salesperson.

The tone has a significant impact on the course of a sales conversation, and question 18 asks whether the tone relates to the overall impact. If it is compatible, it may have a positive effect on the sales conversation. The third hypothesis presumes that the female participants are more sensitive regarding the voice. Therefore, it is proposed that:
• H3: The male participants evaluate the characteristic “tone does relate to the overall impact” more critically than the female participants.

Research methodology

To support or to reject the above proposed hypotheses, the study uses a quasi-experiment as a research method: a video observation with a subsequent questionnaire. In the social sciences, the use of videos in experimental design has become popular (Erickson 2011, Jewitt 2012), especially for “observational research”. Furthermore, Goldman and McDermott (2009, p. 110) highlighted the fact that “video is fundamental to its (observational research’s) focuses on the description of the structures of interaction order, the social and behavioural mechanisms and the regularities that people use to coordinate and organize their activities with others: to making sense of and to revealing the structures at work”. It is of the utmost importance that the researcher chooses the method which will provide him/her with an answer to the research question. Moreover, the choice of a suitable research method is needed to ensure reliability and validity (see also Broda 2006, Crowther and Lancaster 2008).
The participants in this survey are students at a cooperative state university in Germany. To test the study’s hypotheses, four two-minute videos were shown consecutively to 103 students. Furthermore, in order to ensure that the results can be compared with the earlier US study (see Stros, Riha and Heinze 2015) the same video material and questionnaire were used.
To measure authenticity perception, Wood (2008) and Barret-Lennard (1998) described the manner in which individuals perceive others as authentic. Wood’s (2008) conceptual model of authenticity is primarily driven by (1) authentic living, (2) acceptance of external influence and (3) self-alienation. Wood developed a set of 12 Likert-scale questions. To minimize the total number of questions, the current study reduced Wood’s scale to eight questions that covered all relevant items. Furthermore, though extant communication scales do exist (see Wiemann 1977), these scales are not properly suited to sales-dialogue scenarios. The evaluation of spoken content in sales scenarios is not specifically covered in the literature, and consequently, a new scale was developed for the current study (see Table 1).

Table 1: Definitions and measurement items of authenticity perception variable and spoken word
Source: Authors

Overall, the questionnaire can be divided into four main parts: part one deals with the personal impression of the retail salesperson. All participants are directed to choose one box on the Likert adjective scale, which best fits their feelings (see also DeVellis 2012). In the following part of the survey, a Likert scale (Likert et al. 1993) is used with 1 indicating a strong disagreement and 8 corresponding to “strongly agree”. With the help of this scale, the participants evaluate a statement sentence. Part three focuses on authenticity perception and, as in part two, the participants must tick the appropriate box with the statement they agree with most. The last part includes two open questions so that participants can give their opinions.
For the production of the four short videos for the initial US study (Stros, Riha and Heinze 2015), two professional actors were hired, enacting a female and a male salesperson. Each video illustrates a car-buying process in which a salesperson is talking to a customer with different emotional expressions, body language and spoken words. Table 2 shows the different attitudes expressed in each video. In the videos, one can see only the upper body of the salesperson and none of the customer’s facial expressions. Every video contains the following narrative sequence: welcome and introduction, product presentation pitch and application information, a final phase and a pre-close attempt. Prior to filming, each script was reviewed by subject matter experts. The videos were filmed at an automotive dealership in the US. A standard video camera and microphone were used for the recordings.

Table 2: Video scheme
Source: Authors

According to Mayer (2013 p. 59), survey research is an important instrument for determining the opinion of collectives, and therefore it is best to consult all members of a collective or a group. However, it is nearly impossible to examine all elements of a population, and for this reason, one is dependent on a sample or a partial survey. The sample size should not be too small because then the chance that the results are not transferable is very high and the study would then be unrepresentative (Schumann 2011, p. 84). The sample size in this survey is 103 persons, made up of students from a cooperative state university in Germany, including students from very different courses of study. Moreover, it should be clarified that the students are potential automotive customers and could find themselves in a similar situation at some point in the future. Personal data such as the ages of the participants and their origins are disregarded in this survey. It is essential only that the participants state their gender, so that the sample includes male and female participants.
During the survey period from August to September, 413 questionnaires were completed. Data collection took place in the classrooms of the cooperative German state university. There, the four different videos were shown, and the participants were asked to mark their personal impressions of the sales process with a cross. Immediately after watching each video, the participants were encouraged to fill out a 26-item questionnaire (for questionnaire design and content, please refer to Stros, Riha and Heinze 2015). The viewers rated the appearance of the salespersons and were instructed to spontaneously assess the different characteristics and questions with a number between one and eight.

Data analysis and interpretation

Data obtained from the survey and video coding were merged and standardized for further analysis on SPSS. The quality of the data was assessed, and outliers, missing values, skewness and kurtosis were all checked. No abnormalities were observed. Though the data were normally distributed, several participant comments revealed that one question was misunderstood. Therefore, the question was removed. Its removal did not negatively affect the study results.
A total of 413 questionnaires were analysed, using SPSS and Excel. Videos 1 (male), 3 (female) and 4 (female) were seen by 103 participants, while video 2 (male) was seen by 104 study participants. However, no statistical impact on the study results appeared. Regarding the gender of the participants it can be concluded that 14.3% (absolute number: 59) of the questionnaires were ticked as “male”. The number of female participants is significantly higher at 343 (83.1%). It must also be noted that on 11 questionnaires (2.6%) the participant’s gender was not indicated.
The first hypothesis was investigated on the basis of the answers given by the female participants regarding “authenticity perception”. In doing so, the hypothesis focused on the relevant questions of the questionnaire including statements concerning the authenticity of the saleswoman/salesman, outside influences and their self-confidence. All the answers from the four videos were added together and a t-test on independent variables was performed. After that, an analysis for the mean value equilibrium on both sides was executed and the difference between the mean values calculated (see Table 3).

Table 3: Mean average and t-Test of the criteria authenticity perception and spoken word
Source: Authors

Three of the most relevant statements were identified as follows:
• “He/she is aiming to be himself/herself rather than to be popular”
• “He/she is true to himself/herself”
• “He/she is giving his/her own opinion”

These three, out of a total of eight statements given in the questionnaire, are of high significance (all are below 0.005). In summary it can be said that, as Table 3 indicated, for two out of three questions, the mean values of the scores for the female salesperson are higher than for the male salesperson. Therefore, it can be said that the female participants evaluate the female salesperson as more authentic than the male salesperson. Consequently, hypothesis 1, addressing whether female participants assess the female salesperson as more sympathetic than the male salesperson, is corroborated.
In contrast to the judgement of the female participants, the male participants showed a clearly different judgement. The female salesperson was clearly judged better for female participants, while for the male participants, the judgements were quite similar. However, it needs to be stated at this point that due to the rather small sample size of male participants, no final conclusion can be drawn.
The intention of hypothesis 2 was to find out whether the female seller could be more easily influenced by the sales conversation than a male salesperson. The data have not shown any evidence that this might be the case (difference of judgements given by the female participants: 0.23; male participants: -0.43). However, it should be noted that there is a possible distortion of the results, since the number of male subjects is very low.
In order to evaluate hypothesis 3, the statement variable “tone does relate to the overall impact” was tested for its significance and a high significance was noted. In the subsequent t-test, the variable was tested for the mean value (see Table 3). The mean values for the male participants were 5.97 for the female salesperson and 5.20 for the male salesperson, while the mean values for the female participants were 4.92 for the female salesperson and 4.70 for the male salesperson. Therefore, it can be said that the female participants evaluated the element “tone does relate to the overall impact” more critically, and hypothesis 3 is rejected.

Discussion of the results

From the general analysis it can be recognized that for some questions, videos 1 and 3 as well as videos 2 and 4 were similarly classified. For videos 1 and 3, positive characteristics were selected by the participants, while videos 2 and 4 were classified more negatively. Therefore, it can be said that the intention of the differently classified videos (both positive and negative aspects), was largely recognized and perceived by the subjects. Verbal and non-verbal communication played a particularly important role.
From hypothesis 1 it can be stated that women consider a female salesperson to be more authentic than a male one. Various factors could play a role in this, such as the fact that the actress in the video played her role as a “positive seller” particularly authentically. Another reason for assuming hypothesis 1 could be that the subjects perceive the seller to be more authentic than the male seller because they can identify themselves with her better, because they are of the same gender. As the survey involves a larger proportion of women than men, the assumption could be based on this majority.
The intention of hypothesis 2 was to find out whether the female seller could be more easily influenced by the sales conversation than a male salesperson. The data have not shown any evidence that this might be the case. However, it should be noted that there is a possible distortion of the results, since the number of male subjects is very low.
For hypothesis 3, it can be stated that women perceived the criterion “tone does relate to the overall impact” more sensitively. As a result, it can be said that that women are more influenced by the “tone” in non-verbal communication than men, which is why female subjects rated this aspect more critically than their male counterparts. These results support a previous sales study (Říha, Heinze and Stros 2017) which revealed that for a female customer, “spoken words” and “authenticity perception” are the most relevant factors.
In addition to this, it can be concluded that the female salesperson was more critically judged by the female participants (potential customers) than by the male participants. No difference was found for the male salesperson. However, the female salesperson was better rated by the female participants than the male salesperson. These results also support the findings of Dwyer et al. (1998).
Consequently, it is suggested that, in order enhance the sales conversation and increase the probability of a sales decision, a female salesperson might be preferred.

Limitations of this study and future research

Following the analysis of the results and hypotheses, it is important to critically consider the methods of the survey, as well as the questionnaires.
In general, the survey, carried out along with the corresponding questionnaire, was beneficial for the study of this subject. Overall, the questionnaire was clearly structured and comprehensible and the three survey areas of personal impression, spoken word and authenticity perception were distinctly separated and could easily be edited by the check-in principle. In accordance with international studies which have already been carried out in numerous countries such as the USA, the Czech Republic and Switzerland, the questionnaire was submitted to the German participants in English. This meant that during the development of the experiment, English terms had to be clarified repeatedly, as they caused difficulties for participants in understanding all the content of the questionnaire and of the videos shown. As a result of this, there is a possibility that the volunteers could have given their assessment by instinct only. For instance, sometimes contradictory answers were given, and the final open question was answered in only 5% of all questionnaires.
The participants in this video experiment were selected from students at a German cooperative state university. Consequently, the experiment was limited to one age bracket, as the only study participants were students of this institution. Therefore, the results of the study cannot be extended to the total population of Germany. Although the four videos, each with a different sales scenario, were shown in a relaxed atmosphere, all students were interviewed within their courses of studies, which meant that none of the participants were surveyed alone. This could have left students feeling under pressure from the experimenter.
Despite great interest in the experiment, some of the volunteers cancelled their involvement during the process. The questionnaires already completed on the previously shown videos by these participants could not be eliminated and had to be added to the total, forming part of the result. For this reason, the number of participants for video 2 differs from the total number for the other three videos, and an exact total number of participants cannot be determined. The experimenters conducted the experiment very quickly and in 11 cases the participants forgot to mark their gender with a cross. For this reason, no precise gender distribution can be identified either.
Due to the high number of female students at the cooperative state university, there were more female study participants. Approximately 13% of the surveyed persons were male. In further surveys, the proportion of male participants should be reconsidered.
To gather further information on this subject, future research should study the influence of other marketing factors. By incorporating these issues into the study, a more profound result can be achieved. Moreover, a comparison with other markets or other parts of Germany could provide further and more explicit conclusions.

Literatúra/List of References

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Kľúčové slová/Key Words

personal sales, personality of the sales representative, affect, behaviour, cognition, authenticity, gender, intercultural
osobný predaj, osobnosť obchodného zástupcu, vplyv, správanie, poznanie, pravosť, pohlavie, medzikultúrne

JEL klasifikácia/JEL classification

M31, C44

Résumé

Význam pohlavia vo vnímaní predajcu

Predaj sa mení. Okruh zákazníkov sa znižuje a získavanie zákazníkov predstavuje novú výzvu. Situácia sa komplikuje širšími požiadavkami zákazníkov, informáciami o produktoch z internetových platforiem a vplyvmi zo sociálneho prostredia. V dôsledku toho je vernosť zákazníkov významným prostriedkom na udržanie ziskovosti predajcov a kvalifikovaná predajná sila je významným faktorom v dosahovaní cieľov firiem. Empirická štúdia ponúka kritické zhodnotenie tejto témy. Na hodnotenie boli zvolené rozdielne predajné štýly a faktory nálady, samotné obchodné rokovania a pohlavie. Videoexperiment bol použitý ako základňa pre empirickú štúdiu, ktorá zisťovala, či pohlavia predajcu a zákazníka ovplyvnili orientáciu zákazníka, želania a nakoniec záver nákupu. Otázka ako by sa mal predajca správať ku zákazníkom má značný komerčný význam. Využívanie predajcov je nákladným nástrojom predajnej politiky a predajné správanie je významným východiskovým bodom pre zvýšenie predaja a zisku. Preto tento príspevok analyzuje najvhodnejšie správanie predajcov ovplyvnené vnímaním pohlavia v predajnom procese spolu s možnými rozdielmi v prístupe a ponúka praktické a teoretické závery.

Kontakt na autorov/Address

Dr. Michael Stros, University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Southern Switzerland (SUPSI), Fernfachhochschule Schweiz, Überlandstrasse 12 – Postfach 689,
CH-3900 Brig, Switzerland, e-mail: [email protected]

Ing. David Říha, Ph.D., MBA, University of Economics, Faculty of Business Administration, Department of Marketing, Winston Churchill Sq. 4, 130 67 Prague 3, Czech Republic, e-mail: [email protected]

prof. Dr. Bodo Möslein-Tröppner, Duale Hochschule Ravensburg, Weinbergstraße 17, Raum 221, 88214 Ravensburg, Germany, e-mail: [email protected]

Recenzované/Reviewed

8. september 2018 / 12. september 2018