Despite acknowledgment that performance failure among new salespeople is a prevalent issue for organizations, researchers do not fully understand the consequences of repetitive periods of failure on new salespeople’s unethical selling behaviors. Further, little is known about how a sales force’s reward structure and managerial attempts to intervene following failure affect new salespeople’s behavior. Combining an experiment with longitudinal growth models, we show that repetitive periods of failure increase unethical behaviors, and interventions intended to remind the salesperson to behave in the customer’s best interests attenuate this effect under a non-contingent reward structure. However, counter to managerial assumptions, under a contingent reward structure these customer-oriented interventions actually backfire by amplifying the original relationship between repetitive failure and unethical behaviors. The results have potentially important managerial implications for those who manage new salespeople learning how to sell or during other failure-prone periods.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
While not included in the model for the sake of parsimony, three stress-related variables were measured by external raters: exasperation, frustration, and withdrawal. Each of these variables exhibit correlations with cumulative failure ranging from 0.68 to 0.72, providing substantial evidence that stress is the mechanism driving the relationship between cumulative failure and unethical behavior.
In actuality, the first group of study participants were exposed to 10 rounds or selling attempts. After this first group, it became apparent that seven rounds would be a sufficient number of rounds moving forward.
Ahearne, M., Lam, S. K., Mathieu, J. E., & Bolander, W. (2010). Why are some salespeople better at adapting to organizational change? Journal of Marketing, 74(3), 65–79.
Ahearne, M., Boichuk, J. P., Chapman, C. J., & Steenbugh T. J. (2012). Earnings Management Practice in Sales and Strategic Accounts Survey Report. Retrieved June 22, 2014, from http://ssrn.com/abstract=2324325%5D.
Armstrong, M. B. (1987). Moral development and accounting education. Journal of Accounting Education, 5(1), 27–43.
Badovick, G. J., Hadaway, F.J., & Kaminski, P.F. (1992). Attributions and emotions: The effects on salesperson motivation after successful versus unsuccessful quota performance. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 12(3), 1–11.
Bateman, C., & Valentine, S. (2015). The impact of salesperson customer orientation on the evaluation of a salesperson’s ethical treatment, trust in the salesperson, and intentions to purchase. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 35(2), 125–142. doi:10.1080/08853134.2015.1010538.
Beatty, S. E., Mayer, M., Coleman, J. E., Reynolds, K. E., & Lee, J. (1996). Customer-sales associate retail relationships. Journal of Retailing, 72(3), 223–247.
Bhatti, N., Maitlo, G. M., Shaikh, N., Hashmi, M. A., & Shaikh, F. M. (2012). The impact of autocratic and democratic leadership style on job satisfaction. International Business Research, 5(2), p192.
Boichuk, J. P., Bolander, W., Hall, Z. R., Ahearne, M. Zahn, W. J., & Nieves, M. (2014). Learned helplessness among newly hired salespeople and the influence of leadership. Journal of Marketing, 78(1), 95–111.
Bolander, W., Bonney, L., & Satornino, C. (2014). Sales education efficacy: Examining the relationship between sales education and sales success. Journal of Marketing Education, 36(2), 169–181.
Boseman, G. (2008). Effective leadership in a changing world. Journal of Financial Service Professionals, 62(3), 36–38.
Brown, T. J., Mowen, J. C., Todd Donavan, D., & Licata, J. W. (2002). The customer orientation of service workers: Personality trait effects on self-and supervisor performance ratings. Journal of Marketing Research (JMR), 39(1), 110–119.
Brown, S. P., Westbrook, R. A., & Challagalla, G. (2005). Good cope, bad cope: Adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies following a critical negative work event. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90(4), 792–798.
Carson, T. L. (2003). Self-interest and business ethics: Some lessons of the recent corporate scandals. Journal of Business Ethics, 43(4), 389–394.
Cravens, D. W., Ingram, T. N., LaForge, R. W., & Young, C. E. (1993). Behavior-based and outcome-based salesforce control systems. Journal of Marketing, 57(4), 47–59.
Dixon, A. L., & Schertzer, S. M. B. (2005). Bouncing back: How salesperson optimism and self-efficacy influence attributions and behaviors following failure. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 25(4), 361–369.
Dixon, A. L., Spiro, R. L., & Forbes, L. P. (2003). Attributions and behavioral intentions of inexperienced salespersons to failure: An empirical investigation. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 31(4), 459–467.
Donnellan, M. B., Oswald, F. L., Baird, B. M., & Lucas, R. E. (2006). The mini-IPIP scales: Tiny-yet-effective measures of the big five factors of personality. Psychological Assessment, 18(2), 192.
Evans, K. R., McFarland, R. G., Dietz, B., & Jaramillo, F. (2012). Advancing sales performance research: A focus on five underresearched topic areas. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 32(1), 89–106.
Gigerenzer, G., & Goldstein, D. G. (1996). Reasoning the fast and frugal way: Models of bounded rationality. Psychological Review, 103(4), 650–669.
Gonzalez, G. R., Douglas Hoffman, K., & Ingram, T. N. (2005). Improving relationship selling through failure analysis and recover efforts: A framework and call to action. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 25(1), 57–65.
Gonzalez, G. R., Douglas Hoffman, K., Ingram, T. N., & LaForge, R. W. (2010). Sales organization recovery management and relationship selling: A conceptual model and empirical test. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 30(3), 223–237.
Gray, B. J., Matear, S., & Matheson, P. K. (2002). Improving service firm performance. Journal of Services Marketing, 16(3), 186–200.
Hawes, J. M., Mast, K. E., & Swan, J. E. (1989). Trust earning perceptions of sellers and buyers. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 9(1), 1.
Honeycutt, E. D., Glassman, M., Zugelder, M. T., & Karande, K. (2001). Determinants of ethical behavior: A study of autosalespeople. Journal of Business Ethics, 32(1), 69–79.
Honeycutt, E. D., Siguaw, J. A., & Hunt, T. G. (1995). Business ethics and job-related constructs: A cross-cultural comparison of automotive salespeople. Journal of Business Ethics, 14(3), 235–248.
Howe, V., Douglas Hoffman, K., & Hardigree, D. W. (1994). The relationship between ethical and customer-oriented service provider behaviors. Journal of Business Ethics, 13(7), 497–506.
Hunt, S. D., & Vasquez-Parraga, A. Z. (1993). Organizational consequences, marketing ethics, and salesforce supervision. Journal of Marketing Research, 30(1), 78–90.
Jaworski, B. J., & Kohli, A. K. (1993). Market orientation: Antecedents and consequences. Journal of Marketing, 57(3), 53–70.
Johnston, M. W., & Marshall, G. W. (2013). Sales force management: Leadership, innovation, technology. London: Routledge.
Kalra, A., Shi, M., & Srinivasan, K. (2003). Salesforce compensation scheme and consumer inferences. Management Science, 49(5), 655–672.
Kohlberg, L. (1984). Essays on moral development. vol II. The psychology of moral development. New York: Harper and Row.
Kurland, N. B. (1995). Ethics, incentives, and conflicts of interest: A practical solution. Journal of Business Ethics, 14(6), 465–475.
Kurland, N. B. (1999). Ethics and Commission, Business & Society Review (00453609), 104(1), 29.
Lagace, R. R., Dahlstrom, R., & Gassenheimer, J. B. (1991). The relevance of ethical salesperson behavior on relationship quality: The pharmaceutical industry. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 11(4), 39–47.
Lane, M. S., Schaupp, D., & Parsons, B. (1988). Pygmalion effect: An issue for business education and ethics. Journal of Business Ethics, 7(3), 223–229.
Li, N., & Murphy, W. H. (2012). A three-country study of unethical sales behaviors. Journal of Business Ethics, 111(2), 219–235.
Loe, T. W., Ferrell, L., & Mansfield, P. (2000). A review of empirical studies assessing ethical decision making in business. Journal of Business Ethics, 25(3), 185–204.
Loe, T. W., & Weeks, W. A. (2000). An experimental investigation of efforts to improve sales students’ moral reasoning. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 20(4), 243–251.
Lopez, T. B., Hopkins, C. D., & Raymond, M. A. (2006). Reward preferences of salespeople: How do commissions rate? Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 26(4), 381–390.
Mallin, M. L., & Mayo, M. (2006). Why did i lose? A conservation of resources view of salesperson failure attributions. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 26(4), 345–357.
Mayo, M., & Mallin, M. L. (2010). The impact of sales failure on attributions made by “Resource-Challenged” and “Resource-Secure” salespeople. Journal of Marketing Theory & Practice, 18(3), 233–247.
McDevitt, R., Giapponi, C., & Tromley, C. (2007). A model of ethical decision making: The integration of process and content. Journal of Business Ethics, 73(2), 219–229.
McFarland, R. G. (2003). Crisis of conscience: The use of coercive sales tactics and resultant felt stress in the salesperson. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 23(4), 311–325.
Mischel, W. (1973). Toward a cognitive social learning reconceptualization of personality. Psychological Review, 80(4), 252–283.
Morris, M. H., LaForge, R. W., & Allen, J. A. (1994). Salesperson failure: definition, determinants, and outcomes. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 14(1), 1–15.
Murphy, W. H. (2004). In pursuit of short-term goals: Anticipating the unintended consequences of using special incentives to motivate the sales force. Journal of Business Research, 57(11), 1265–1275.
Narver, J. C., & Slater, S. F. (1990). The effect of a market orientation on business profitability. Journal of Marketing, 54(4), 20–35.
Piercy, N., & Lane, N. (2007). Ethical and moral dilemmas associated with strategic relationships between business-to-business buyers and sellers. Journal of Business Ethics, 72(1), 87–102.
Plouffe, C. R., Bolander, W., & Cote, J. A. (2014). Which influence tactics lead to sales performance? It is a matter of style. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 34(2), 141–159.
Plouffe, C. R., Hulland, J., & Wachner, T. (2009). Customer-directed selling behaviors and performance: A comparison of existing perspectives. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 37(4), 422–439.
Ponemon, L., & Glazer, A. (1990). Accounting education and ethical development: The influence of liberal learning on students and alumni in accounting practice. Issues in Accounting Education, 5(2), 195–208.
Port, M. (2008). The contrarian effect (1st ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Radin, T. J., & Predmore, C. E. (2002). The myth of the salesperson: Intended and unintended consequences of product-specific sales incentives. Journal of Business Ethics, 36(1/2), 79–92.
Raudenbush, S. W., & Bryk, A. S. (2002). Hierarchical linear models: Applications and data analysis methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
Rest, J. R. (1986). Moral development: Advances in research and theory. Santa Barbara: Praeger Publishers.
Rest, J. R. (1994). Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics. Hove: Psychology Press.
Rest, J., Cooper, D., Coder, R., Maanz, J. A., & Anderson, D. (1974). Judging the important issues in moral dilemmas—An objective measure of development. Developmental Psychology, 10(4), 491–501.
Rest, J. R. (1979). Revised manual for the defining issues test: An objective test of moral judgment development: Minnesota Moral Research Projects.
Rodriguez, M., Ajjan, H., & Peterson, R. M. (2014). CRM/Social media technology: Impact on customer orientation process and organizational sales performance. Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness, 8(1), 85–97.
Román, S., & Munuera, J. L. (2005). Determinants and consequences of ethical behaviour: An empirical study of salespeople. European Journal of Marketing, 39(5/6), 473–495.
Román, S., & Ruiz, S. (2005). Relationship outcomes of perceived ethical sales behavior: The customer’s perspective. Journal of Business Research, 58(4), 439–445.
Ross, W. T., & Robertson, D. C. (2003). A typology of situational factors: impact on salesperson decision-making about ethical issues. Journal of Business Ethics, 46(3), 213–234.
Saxe, R., & Weitz, B. A. (1982). The SOCO scale: A measure of the customer orientation of salespeople. Journal of Marketing Research, 19(3), 343–351.
Schulman, P. (1999). Applying learned optimism to increase sales productivity. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 19(1), 31–37.
Schwepker, C. H. (1999). Understanding salespeople’s intention to behave unethically: The effects of perceived competitive intensity, cognitive moral development and moral judgment. Journal of Business Ethics, 21(4), 303–316.
Schwepker, C. H, Jr. (2003). Customer-oriented selling: A review, extension, and directions for future research. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 23(2), 151–171.
Schwepker, C. H. (2013). Improving sales performance through commitment to superior customer value: The role of psychological ethical climate. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 33(4), 389–402.
Schwepker, C. H., & Good, D. J. (2007). Exploring sales manager quota failure from an ethical perspective. Marketing Management Journal, 17(2), 156–168.
Schwepker, C., & Good, D. (2011). Moral judgment and its impact on business-to-business sales performance and customer relationships. Journal of Business Ethics, 98(4), 609–625.
Schwepker, C. H., & Ingram, T. N. (1996). Improving sales performance through ethics: The relationship between salesperson moral judgment and job performance. Journal of Business Ethics, 15(11), 1151–1160.
Selart, M., & Johansen, S. (2011). Ethical decision making in organizations: The role of leadership stress. Journal of Business Ethics, 99(2), 129–143.
Seligman, M. E., & Schulman, P. (1986). Explanatory style as a predictor of productivity and quitting among life insurance sales agents. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 832–838.
Silver, L. S., Dwyer, S., & Alford, B. (2006). Learning and performance goal orientation of salespeople revisited: The role of performance-approach and performance-avoidance orientations. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 26(1), 27–38.
Simon, H. A. (1972). Theories of bounded rationality. Decision and Organization, 1, 161–176.
Simon, H. A. (1990). Invariants of human behavior. Annual Review of Psychology, 41, 1–19.
Singer, J. D., & Willett, J. B. (2003). Applied longitudinal data analysis: Modeling change and event occurrence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snodgrass, J. E. (1993). Business ethics: A comparative study of undergraduates. Moscow: University of Idaho.
Stevens, H., & Kinni, T. (2007). Achieve sales excellence. Avon, MA: Platinum Press.
Strutton, D., Hamilton, J., & Lumpkin, J. (1997). An essay on when to fully disclose in sales relationships: Applying two practical guidelines for addressing truth-telling problems. Journal of Business Ethics, 16(5), 545–560.
Sujan, H. (1999). Commentary: Extending the learned helplessness paradigm: A critique of schulman’s “learned optimism”. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 19(1), 39–42.
Terho, H., Eggert, A., Haas, A., & Ulaga, W. (2015). How sales strategy translates into performance: The role of salesperson customer orientation and value-based selling. Industrial Marketing Management, 45, 12–21.
Treviño, L. K., Brown, M., & Hartman, L. P. (2003). A qualitative investigation of perceived executive ethical leadership: Perceptions from inside and outside the executive suite. Human Relations, 56(1), 5–37.
van Dierendonck, D. (2011). Servant leadership: A review and synthesis. Journal of Management, 37(4), 1228–1261.
Verbeke, W., & Bagozzi, R. P. (2000). Sales call anxiety: Exploring what it means when fear rules a sales encounter. Journal of Marketing, 64(3), 88–101.
Weeks, W. A., Loe, T. W., Chonko, L. B., Martinez, C. R., & Wakefield, K. (2006). Cognitive moral development and the impact of perceived organizational ethical climate on the search for sales force excellence: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 26(2), 205–217.
Weeks, W. A., & Nantel, J. (1992). Corporate codes of ethics and sales force behavior: A case study. Journal of Business Ethics, 11, 753–760.
Widmier, S., & Jackson, D. W. (2002). Examining the effects of service failure, customer compensation, and fault on customer satisfaction with salespeople. Journal of Marketing Theory & Practice, 10(1), 63.
Wotruba, T. R. (1990). A comprehensive framework for the analysis of ethical behavior, with a focus on sales organizations. Journal of Personal Selling & Sales Management, 10(2), 29–42.
Yilmaz, C., Alpkan, L., & Ergun, E. (2005). Cultural determinants of customer- and learning-oriented value systems and their joint effects on firm performance. Journal of Business Research, 58(10), 1340–1352.
Willy Bolander, William J. Zahn, Terry Loe and Melissa Clark have contributed equally to this manuscript.
All measures utilized Likert-type scales, ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), unless otherwise noted.
Emotional Stability (Donnellan et al. 2006).
I have frequent mood swings.
I have a hard time relaxing.
I get upset easily.
I frequently feel “blue.”
If I had a sales job, having empathy for customers would come naturally to me.
If I had a sales job, I would enjoy responding to my customers’ requests.
If I had a sales job, I would get satisfaction from making my customers happy.
If I had a sales job, I would really enjoy serving my customers.
If I had a sales job, I would achieve my own goals by satisfying customers.
If I had a sales job, I would always keep the best interests of the customer in mind.
About this article
Cite this article
Bolander, W., Zahn, W.J., Loe, T.W. et al. Managing New Salespeople’s Ethical Behaviors during Repetitive Failures: When Trying to Help Actually Hurts. J Bus Ethics 144, 519–532 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-015-2817-8
- Repetitive performance failure
- Reward structure
- Growth models