Changing perspectives on professional selling: How buyers and sellers perceive each other’s role
Haaga-Helia Julkaisutoiminta 23.11.2017

The Academy has widely recognized dramatic changes in the field of professional selling over the past decade. Sales approaches evolved from an early transactional sales process, then to need satisfaction and relationship selling models, and most recently to a more complex collaborative and value co-creating sales process (Borg & Young 2014, Haas et al. 2012; Töytäri & Rajala 2015, Töytäri et al. 2011, Weitz 1981). Recent studies suggest that sales happen through exploring customer needs and finding suitable solutions together. Several author teams have delineated these changes (e.g. Dixon and Tanner 2012, Sheth and Sharma 2007). It seems fairly well accepted a shift to value co-creation and a more collaborative selling approach characterize the academic perspective of selling today.  

In the traditional sales approach, such as in product-based sales, both the seller’s sales skills, as well as their response to the customer’s immediate needs, are important. In this kind of selling, the product, the presentation of the product’s characteristics and the price are highlighted. The aim is to get as much income as possible by selling as many pieces as possible. Neither the seller nor the buyer put in more resources than necessary for this kind of sales process; rather, the value is built up from cost-effectiveness, an affordable price, and ease of purchase (Johnston & Marshall 2013). The traditional sales approach still fits some situations today, for example when the company is able to differentiate its products from the conventional offering and thus gain a competitive advantage (Cron & DeCarlo 2010).  

However, today, in many fields, the traditional sales approach is not enough to guarantee success. Companies have developed other kinds of sales models to gain a competitive advantage in the market. For example, customer-based sales emphasizes building and maintaining long-term profitable customer relationships. (Johnston & Marshall 2013). Customer-based sales are ideal for customers who would also benefit from other sales-related investments, not just from the value of the product itself, and who are willing to pay for them. In this type of sale it is typical that the vendors understand the customer’s business and problems. They see opportunities in a new way, they are creative, and they are able to bring solutions that customers would never have thought of themselves. The modern selling method requires co-operation between the various activities of the organizations of the seller and the buyer, where interaction is important in creating value. Value creation, then, is often a prerequisite for the success of the business.  

Customer-based or value-based selling is not only centered around the products and the customer’s needs, but rather how the delivered whole will impact on customer’s business results. The seller must have superior knowledge of the offered product and service package, but also of the customer’s process. Basically, it is about what kind of economic impacts are achieved by a solution which is suited to the customer organization. The key in value-based sales is not a discussion of the price, but the emergence of an overall solution sold by the supplier which brings value in the long term. This kind of selling requires a deep level of trust between the seller and the customer, as well as true interaction between the seller and the customer (Kaario et al. 2004). 

Despite these new perspectives on professional selling that characterize both the academic and practitioner literature, little is known about how pervasive this “new” selling is in practice, and more importantly if it has permeated to the point where buyers and sellers have come to expect this type of selling interaction. This is important because our expectations about another’s role will shape how we actually perceive that other person. Meeting or exceeding buyer expectations may shape perceptions about certain dimensions such as value and loyalty (Herington & Weaven 2007). Perceptions in turn shape overall assessment of a product or service (e.g. Zeithaml 1988), and thus success. Similarly, the salesperson expectations of the buyer may shape the behaviors they use (e.g., Manolis et al. 1998). 

The purpose of this study then, is to investigate the role expectations that buyers hold of sellers, as well as those that sellers hold of buyers. To explore the current expectations sellers hold about buyers and buyers hold about sellers, we begin with an exploratory study, using qualitative methods. 


Research strategy and method 

Our study was part of a larger data collection.  We interviewed 59 sales representatives and 19 purchasing representatives. The interviews of the representatives of the sales organizations were collected from 8 different companies in Finland; from three different business sectors (the ICT sector, consultation and industrial services). The companies have been described in table 1. 

Company  Size, Revenues  Business Sector  Sales Interviews, pcs 
      160m EUR  Consultation  14 
        89m EUR  ICT  12 
          2m EUR  Consultation  9 
       0.3m EUR  Consultation  1 
      110m EUR  Industrial Services  11 
          2m EUR  ICT  4 
      308m EUR  ICT  3 
      112m EUR  Industrial Services  5 

Table 1. The interviewed companies (the sellers’ interviews).

A total of 19 purchasing representatives from the purchasing organizations were interviewed. The buyers’ interviews were carried out in 10 companies that represented several different business sectors. The companies have been described in table 2. 

Company  Size, Revenue  Business Sector  Buyer Interviews, pcs  
1        300m EUR  Logistics  5 
2        110m EUR  Industrial Services  1 
3       140m EUR  Technical Service  2 
4         35m EUR  Support Service Activities  1 
5       200m EUR  Public Sector  1 
6         55m EUR  Education  3 
7           5m EUR  ICT  2 
8       126m EUR  Retail  1 
9     1,400m EUR  Technical Service  1 
10       138m EUR  Industry  2 

Table 2. The interviewed companies (the buyers’ interviews).

The interviewees were chosen from both the purchasing and sales organizations from different levels of the company. The interviews were done as half-structured theme interviews, in which the interviewer and the interviewee were present. The framework of the interviews was relatively wide and the questions were set to encourage the interviewees to talk about the topic freely. The interviews were very conversation-like by nature, and each of them took 50-70 minutes, during which the interviewees were able to concentrate on the topics they considered important. Interview questions asked the interviewees to discuss such issues as what they thought of buyers (salespeople) and what they expected during a buyer-seller meeting, as well as asking them to describe successful and unsuccessful sales interactions. 

We analyzed the wide range of material using data-based content analysis methods. Our approach was open ended and exploratory. A robust qualitative data analysis includes findings that are done in the context of the setting (Eisenhardt 1989; Eisenhardt & Graebner 2007). Content analysis strives to describe the content of the material verbally. The data processing is based on dismantling the data and then assembling the pieces into a new logical entity (Savi-Baden 2012). When conducting research based on data, i.e. inductively, the main focus is on the data and the classification process proceeds from single observations to general arguments (Eisenhardt & Graebner 2007). 

In practice, the process of data-based content-analysis consists of three different phases. First, the data is reduced, or in other words, simplified. In the second phase, the reduced material is clustered, searching for similarities or dissimilarities. The third phase includes conceptualization of the data, from classification to theoretical concepts and conclusions.  Interpretation occurs throughout the whole research process (Eskola & Suoranta 2008). 



In order to determine what buyers and sellers expected of each other, we have analyzed the parts of the interviews relating to buyers’ perceptions of sellers, and sellers’ perceptions of buyers. Both sellers and buyers described their work and profession in depth, as well as their perceptions of each other.  

Views of salespeople 

In this study, the interviews with buyers contained questions related to interaction. The respondents’ attitudes towards salespeople were essentially positive, however the interviews contained both negative and positive views.   

The expectations of salespeople found in this study can be divided into three categories: salespeople’s actions during the sales process, the salesperson’s professional role, and the age of the salesperson. Several expectations developed across a majority of the buyers interviews.  Specific findings are shown in table 3, along with example quotes supporting the findings. Please note, although we provide one example, we chose a quote that was highly representative of expectations as communicated across a majority of interviews. 

Expectation  Example quote 
Salespeople often don’t recognize customer’s needs.  It’s really the biggest challenge for the seller. That you really know how to listen and begin to understand what’s the matter with them, that’s what’s really rare. Because I think it would be better to maybe, at least I would like it, if you would ask do you need this or have you taken this into consideration, or now it would be good to do this and…Maybe the case oftentimes is that you don’t quite know how to recognize the need anyway. 
Salespeople only present a ready-made solution (prepared in advance, not co-created on the spot).   Yeah, mostly I think it all boils down to attitude that, others have a certain standard package and, they just stick to it and, they’re not really interested in what the customer really needs, rather just in what they are offering. 
Sellers are competent and professional in regards to what they are offering.  I feel convinced that they really know what they’re doing, and really know how to sell it and they are professionals in what they’re offering. 
Sellers are generally open and laidback.  All in all, communication has improved and advanced, it has become more open and relaxed. 
Younger sellers are enthusiastic, inexperienced, and aggressive – so-called “hot-shot” salespeople.  It’s very challenging or offensive the way they act, certainly that can be pretty annoying. 


Well it feels like it’s more common for the younger sellers to be too enthusiastic, to be like aggressive. 

Older salespeople are experienced, calm, and respectful of the customer, but are also more cunning when it comes to up-selling.    Those old-timers, they know pretty well how to pick up on those things. The other side of the coin is that they are also sneaky at selling those add-ons that aren’t necessarily needed in the long run. 

Table 3: General expectations of sellers and example quotes.

The study highlighted negative expectations of salespeople, although some positive expectations were also found. For the most part, negative expectations were related to the sellers’ actions during the sales process, as well as to the younger sellers’ professional skills and older sellers’ slyness. In turn, positive expectations were related to the sellers’ knowledge of their own products and services.  The negative expectations associated with the sellers’ actions, such as being unprepared for meeting with the customers, poor understanding of the customers’ needs, or offering what buyers saw as ready-made solutions, are representative of situations which adhere to the structure of the traditional product sale. The result is surprising and at odds with the fact that the buyers’ expectations of salespeople directly opposes the prevailing view in the current trend of value-based sales theory.  

However, this study also revealed positive expectations regarding the sellers’ professional role. They were described as being professional and technically proficient when it came to offering their company’s products and services. Both these positive and negative expectations, with the exception of the kinds of open and relaxed stereotypes which seems more consistent with value-based selling, can be grouped as stemming from traditional product selling.  

Despite the fact that over the years the understanding of sales theory has changed from traditional product sales to the present day value-based sales, negative expectations have not changed much.  


View of sellers 

Interviews with the sellers highlighted a generally open-minded attitude towards their customers. They considered it important to not make assumptions about the customer beforehand, but rather to listen to them and try to get to know them, find common ground, and to interact on a personal level. Personal chemistry was seen as an important factor and many salespeople preferred to have a variety of different personalities among their co-workers, to be able to connect with as many customers as possible.  

Although the general attitude towards buyers was to consciously refrain from forming expectations, the interviews revealed that they do in fact hold a number of embedded expectations about customers. There were definite differences in expectations for professional buyers versus customers not in a professional buyer role. One seller summarized it like this: 

When we go into to those bigger cases there are usually those really educated, buyers, professionals, and they sure know how to challenge and how it’s done. That’s actually the extreme version of it. It’s pretty nice to work with them…. And then again at the other extremity are again those where there are really big differences, they aren’t then professional buyers and they don’t necessarily have the experience about what they are buying, which, on the other hand could, or will, make it a challenge.   

Expectations fell into two main categories: how buyers performed their roles, and how they made their decisions.  Differences were seen in expectations on desired approach, decision criteria and openness. Specific findings are shown in table 4, along with example quotes supporting the findings. Please note, although we provide one example, we chose a quote that was highly representative of expectations as communicated across a majority of interviews.   

Expectation  Example Quote 
Negotiating with professional buyers was considered to be clear and more straightforward.  I don’t know, at the moment the same consultant probably trains all the bigger Finnish industrial companies’ procurement organizations, so at the moment everything comes with pretty much the same method in Finland. Pretty much the same maneuvers, are gone through with everybody.   
Professional buyers make decisions based on price.  They couldn’t care less about the practicalities, they only care about lowering the price just that much because they know that then this much money will show up in their bank account. It doesn’t matter what the quality is. 


It’s just like that, when you get to discuss with the buyers it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s all the same. They’re not interested in anything else than price, no ergonomics or Finnishness, it’s like talking to a brick wall. 

Professional buyers were perceived as very secretive, whereas customers not in professional buying roles were perceived as very open.  No. No they never open up that much. Yeah it more like turns in that direction that no matter how hard you try, possibly, you bring out very openly that now we are being open and now, we are showing our cards on the table, well it’s not like that. It’s not like that. 


Customers are a bit similar [to children]. When you ask outright, even if they have decided they’re not going to tell, they anyways start blabbing, so from that you can read quite a lot. Even if they don’t say it outright, that it was this and this and this company, but you are able to read between the lines quite a lot. And the more you chat, the more information comes out. 

Personal contact, finding common ground, trust and interaction was considered to be important with most customers except those in professional buying roles.  And if you can build up the trust then this kind of a therapy relationship will absolutely form at some point, especially when you have a long customer relationship. 


It’s pretty much like this. Absolutely nothing, like not even a coffee mug in your hand at the beginning or anything like what cloudy weather or beautiful weather or the like, instead it’s straight, straight into business. Obviously you know that beforehand when you go in there and that’s the attitude you go in there with. The fact that oftentimes, when you hear that there’s a buyer involved then too often I myself maybe take it with an, “oh shit there’s a buyer”-attitude. 

Professional Buyers are out of touch with what is really going on in the business.  There’s the purchasing department which is completely out of touch with the whole industry. 


Often the case is that then the people in bigger plant production units people are even very disappointed with the solutions made by their own procurement team. 

Table 4: General expectations of buyers and example quotes.

Overall, expectations of professional buyers are very negative and very different from those of other customers in the organization. Interestingly, most of the expectations of the professional buyers were not conducive to value-based selling approaches. It seems likely that salespeople are not approaching professional buyers utilizing these new selling theories. On the other hand, it does seem that they may be more likely to attempt this process with other customers in the organization.  



Our research showed that the expectations that buyers and sellers have of each other are sometimes positive, but more often negative. Similarly, while there are some aspects which might be conducive to value-based selling, most of the expectations uncovered in this study seem more consistent with more traditional selling approaches. These expectations frame perceptions during sales interactions, and as such can affect effectiveness and ability to reach goals. Reading through transcripts, especially of the seller interviews, revealed a real expectation that sales interactions would be treated in a transactional manner, especially when dealing with professional buyers. This is likely to inhibit and true value co-creation between parties.   

Although at the beginning of the buyer-seller interactions expectations can be useful for quickly understanding the other person’s behavior, they can easily lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, shaping the nature of the sales process.   


Implications of Findings 

The effect of expectations on the interaction between buyers and sellers, and how they achieve their goals, should be taken into account by management when it comes to the company’s buying and selling operations. Assuming that overall value is an objective, then the modern value-based approach to sales is superior, placing an emphasis on long-term, profitable customer relationships. It would be important for companies to be aware of how expectations could potentially impact results.  For that reason it would be worthwhile to add this to the buyers’ and sellers’ training, so that they can understand this topic more in depth. Re-setting expectations to be more in line with value-based selling, and/or making buyers and sellers aware of the impact of expectations as barriers to meeting objectives might be a useful exercise.  

The results of our study also provide descriptive evidence of what buyers and sellers are thinking about their interactions. Understanding the other side of the equation can help buyers and sellers better prepare for interactions and potentially initiate interaction in a different way, so as to change expectations. One key observation is that both wish for interaction between the two parties, but the desired level of interaction is not expected to be achieved, and so the deep sense of trust and cooperation which is necessary to the value-based sales process never materializes. It is as if both parties, in the absence of expectations for positive, are forced to act according to the product-based sales process. Although we cannot draw any solid conclusions regarding the impact of these expectations from this study, it certainly provides a fruitful area for future investigations. Awareness though this exploratory and descriptive study could be a step toward additional work on how to achieve mutually beneficial interactions.  

The other perhaps surprising insight was that both buyers and sellers criticized each other for their poor knowledge of the customer’s circumstances. In the buyers’ opinion, the sellers presented ready-made solutions which did not properly fit the customer’s needs. The sellers, on the other hand, believed that the buyers were not even interested in finding a proper solution, but merely focused on short-term savings. This contradiction makes one wonder if the problem could, at least in part, be due to expectations and a lack of interaction. If there is not enough interaction and the other party is already expected to be ignorant, could this affect one’s willingness to listen and their ability to ask the right questions? In the worst case scenario, both parties may never be understood by each other.  

It is remarkable that, regardless of how negative the expectations were and how clear the dissatisfaction was, both sides still described each other as professional. It would seem that their understanding of professionalism is based on the expectation that they will act according to the principles of traditional product-based sales. A certain kind of behavior would be expected from buyers or sellers who are already regarded as professional, regardless of whether it even works or is appropriate for the modern value-based sales approach. Outdated understanding regarding professionalism could be guiding the behavior of both parties and therefore shaping the situation, even though a different approach could perhaps achieve better results. 

Being aware of the presence of a professional buyer brought out the sellers’ prejudices, which influenced how they prepared for the meeting, and at least one seller suspected that they allowed these expectations too much influence over their attitude before the interaction had even begun. We believe that in this situation, for example, being able to recognize expectations can be beneficial for both parties and help them to stand out in a positive way. When buyers and sellers are aware of what kinds of expectations they hold of each other, they can use them to anticipate and explain each other’s behavior. They can also deliberately avoid the negative and highlight the positive expectations of their behavior, or even try to change the prevailing expectations of their own behavior.  

Our study provides many opportunities for further research. It would be particularly interesting to look into the expectations that buyers and sellers hold for themselves, i.e. how they perceive themselves, their profession, and their work. This study showed that buyers and sellers have very strong expectations about each other, and it would be interesting to compare how they differ from each other.  Another interesting aspect derived from this study would be professional identity. Professional identity is linked to stereotypes, in that the professional role and how one works within that will have an influence on general stereotypes about the profession, as well as the individual’s perception of how well or poorly they fit in with these stereotypes.  



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Ellen Bolman Pullins 

Timo Kaski 

Anne Ailio 

Päivi Tervonen   


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