Barbara Bickart: Does it Pay to Beat Around the Bush? The Case of the Obfuscating Salesperson.

One important objective for retailers and other service providers is to manage the performance of [...]their salespeople. We investigate how salesperson communication efforts affect customers' purchase intentions. Specifically, we examine the effectiveness of strategies that can be used by salespeople when they do not know the correct answer to a prospective customer's question. Our main interest lies in an obfuscation response—that is, clouding the issue by providing irrelevant information. Are obfuscatory responses more or less effective than simply admitting to not knowing the answer to a customer's question? Does the effectiveness of obfuscation depend on how salient the concept of honesty is among customers? We report the results of three studies conducted in different selling contexts (retailing and professional services) to explore these issues. Our findings suggest that customers' purchase intentions are significantly undermined by an obfuscatory response from a salesperson only when honesty concepts are salient—due to customers' awareness of the salesperson's motives or due to individual difference factors. Under no conditions do we find that obfuscation "pays" -- thus we conclude it does not pay to beat around the bush, and in fact may backfire. We demonstrate that customers' trust perceptions mediate this process. Implications are discussed in terms of persuasion theory and the effectiveness of salesperson influence tactics.

Tags: faculty, boston university, research, School of Management, faculty research day, barbara bickart

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