When (Not) to Use Humor in a B-to-B Relationship: The Role of the Exploration Relationship Phase in the Effects of Humor on Business Performance: An Abstract
How salespeople communicate with their business partners helps to build strong relationships (Boorom et al., 1998). A communication trait that salespeople can use is humor or “any event shared by an agent with another individual that is intended to be amusing to the target and that the target perceives as an intentional act” (Cooper, 2008, p. 1090). In the context of business-to-business relationships, humor makes easier obtaining the other agent’s attention, developing rapport and group solidarity, reducing anxiety and hostility, softening the meeting of objections, or distracting the other agent from the objection (Wagle, 1985). It is thus the overall quality of the relationship between two agents that might be positively affected by the use of humor.
We posit that these effects should be examined under the lens of the four relationship phases (exploration, buildup, maturity, and decline; Jap & Ganesan, 2000) that characterize business relationships. Specifically, exploration is a phase in which each party begins to uncover the goal compatibility and performance of the other. During this period of search, business agents weigh the likely benefits, costs, and obligations associated with working with the other agent. This phase is thus one whose goal is mainly to reduce uncertainty and assess potential benefits from continued interaction. Since using humor can sometimes be risky (Tremblay & Gibson, 2016) and given the prevalence of risk aversion during the exploration phase (Kusari et al., 2013), the relationship phase (exploration versus other) may moderate the effects of humor used by an agent on the other agent’s trust.
From a sample of 177 salespeople who received an email with a cover letter that manipulated the relationship phase and a link to an online questionnaire, we show a significant interaction between humor and the exploration phase. Hence, humor has a positive effect on trust when the business made between the two parties does not occur during the exploration phase, while it has a negative effect when the business made between the two parties occurs during the exploration phase. We also show a significant indirect effect of humor on business performance, as well as a significant moderated mediation indicating that when the business is not in the exploration phase, humor mediates the effect of humor on the amount of business made with the other party, while it is not the case when the business is in the exploration phase.