JOURNAL OF EDUCATION FOR BUSINESS, 89: 13–19, 2014 Copyright C© Taylor & Francis Group, LLC ISSN: 0883-2323 print / 1940-3356 online DOI: 10.1080/08832323.2012.740520
Business Students’ Perception of Sales Careers: Differences Between Students in Switzerland,
Turkey, and the United States
Fahri Karakaya University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dartmouth, Massachusetts, USA
Charles Quigley and Frank Bingham Bryant University, Smithfield, Rhode Island, USA
Juerg Hari Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Winterthur, Switzerland
Aslihan Nasir Bogazici University, Istanbul, Turkey
This research measures perceptual differences between sales and sales careers among business students studying in the United States, Switzerland, and Turkey. Earlier studies indicate that selling and a sales career are not viewed favorably by students in the United States and several other countries. This study expands on prior studies by comparing perceptions of students in the United States to students in two European nations. A total of 867 business students were sur- veyed in the three countries using variables identified in previous research. The findings indicate that nationality is associated with students’ perception of sales jobs and feelings about selling.
Keywords: cultural differences in selling, perception of sales, sales career, sales education, sales job
The U.S. Department of Labor forecasted significant growth in professional selling positions through 2016 (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2009). Firms look to colleges and univer- sities for qualified recruits to fill their need for salespeople and as a source for future sales managers. Although a ca- reer in sales provides many opportunities for qualified stu- dents, evidence suggests that many college graduates have a negative perception of selling and avoid sales as a career choice (Burnett, Pettijohn, & Keith, 2008). Previous research indicates that there are differences among students in differ- ent countries (Barat & Spillan, 2009; Friestad & Wright, 1994; Stevenson & Bodkin, 1998). We extend the previous research by comparing students from Switzerland, Turkey,
Correspondence should be addressed to Fahri Karakaya, Univer- sity of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Department of Management/Marketing, 285 Old Westport Road, Dartmouth, MA 02747, USA. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
and the United States in their perception of sales jobs, sales- people, feelings about selling, and their intentions about a sales career. The study contributes to the marketing literature by extending prior cross-cultural studies comparing percep- tions of selling and salespeople to two additional countries, Switzerland and Turkey. Identifying perceptual similarities and differences among the three different countries and na- tionalities shows characteristics and traits that an educator may be able to reinforce or dispel to ensure accurate percep- tions are created and reinforced among students.
The reluctance of many college students to consider a career in sales may stem from a misperception of selling and a sales career. Although several studies conducted in the 1970s and 1980s found that college students were more positive toward
14 F. KARAKAYA ET AL.
a career in personal selling (Dubinsky, 1980; Muehling & Weeks, 1988), the present perception of selling among stu- dents appears to have returned to that of the 1960s and 1970s (Manning, Reece, & Ahearne, 2010). Negative perceptions of selling may be attributed to a lack of student knowledge about the profession (Dubinsky, 1980; Stevenson & Bodkin, 1998).
Ethical concerns have been indicated as reasons why some students are hesitant to select personal selling as a career (Burnett, Pettijohn, & Keith, 2008; Stevenson & Bodkin, 1998). Similarly, Sparks and Johlke (1996) and Lysonski and Durvasula (1998) argued that individuals may not select personal selling as a career choice due to the perceived inher- ent unethical behaviors. With the recent focus on violations of ethical principles, exemplified by the alleged behavior of salespeople at AIG, Lehman Brothers, Freddie Mac, and Fanny Mae, many business students may feel that unethical behavior is the norm rather than the exception. Several re- searchers argue that this sends students into the job market with a cynical attitude; that unethical behavior in business is expected, to get ahead (Klein, Laczniak, & Murphy, 2006; Pettijohn, Pettijohn, & Taylor, 2006).
Although the nature of selling has changed significantly over the years, there is concern that students have not yet recognized it. Several marketing educators have suggested that accurate classroom information is necessary to correct the negative image of selling (Luthy, 2006a; Swenson, Swin- yard, Langrehr, & Smith, 1993). Newly hired individuals who have had sales related courses during their college years are likely to be more optimistic about a selling career. They are also more confident of their sales-related skill set, along with their ability to perform well at selling (Ford, Honeycutt, & Joseph, 1995; Honeycutt & Thelen, 2003; Lupton, Hon- eycutt, & Ford, 1997). Luthy (2006b) provided benchmarks for faculty in designing and delivering a professional selling course in a postsecondary environment and student advis- ing guidelines on how to better prepare for entry-level sales positions. Students who had taken a course in sales have a significantly more positive image of selling and salespeople and are more optimistic about selling than students who had not taken a sales course (Bristow, Gulati, Amyx, & Slack, 2006; Ford et al., 1995; Honeycutt & Thelen, 2003; Lupton et al., 1997).
Several researchers have examined the perception that stu- dents in other cultures have of selling. Student perceptions of salespeople, selling, and sales careers have been examined in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines, Peru, and Guatemala. The findings of these studies indicate that cultures influence perceptions of salespeople and selling (Barat & Spillan, 2009; Friestad & Wright, 1994; Stevenson & Bodkin, 1998). Cultural impact on perceptions of sales- people and of selling is postulated to result from the role culture has in establishing, defining, and reinforcing stereo- types. Although the attributes associated with the stereotypes may differ between nations, the overall image of the sales-
person is consistent across many cultures (Lee, Sandfield, & Dhaliwal, 2007).
Cross-national studies of perceptions of salespeople and of selling reinforce the negative image of salespeople (Ford et al., 1995; Honeycutt, Ford, Swenson, & Swinyard, 1999; Lupton et al., 1997). The reason for the negative sentiment may be embedded in the perception that selling involves ma- nipulating others and is not considered a reputable activity (Lee, Sandfield, & Dhaliwal, 2007; Lysonski & Durvasula, 1998). Although students generally have a negative view of salespeople, Honeycutt et al. (1999) studied students’ percep- tions in New Zealand and the Philippines and found that New Zealand students had favorable perceptions of international sales careers.
The literature indicates that students generally have nega- tive perceptions of selling, salespeople, and careers in sales. Cross-national studies have found culture influences stu- dents’ perceptions of salespeople and their interest in pur- suing a sales career. Much of the cross-national research has focused on comparisons among the United States and Pa- cific Rim nations. This study extends previous cross-national research by comparing students in the United States with stu- dents in Switzerland and Turkey. The three countries selected are different in their cultures. Turkey is predominantly a Mus- lim country (99% of the population are Muslim), Switzerland is mainly a Christian country in the middle of Europe, and the United States is a melting pot of many cultures and reli- gions. The three nations demonstrate large differences on the five dimensions used by Hofstede (2012) to classify national cultures. Turkey is rated as high on the power and distance di- mension while the United States and Switzerland score low. The United States scores high on the individualism dimen- sion. Turkey scores low and Switzerland scores mid way on the scale. Turkey scores high on the uncertainty avoidance dimension. The United States scores low and Switzerland scores between midway on the scale.
A questionnaire was developed using measures developed in previous studies of student perceptions of selling, sales- people, and sales careers (Bristow et al., 2006; Churchill, Ford, & Walker, 1985; Dubinsky, 1981; Karakaya, Quigley, & Bingham, 2011; Muehling & Weeks, 1988). The initial questionnaire was distributed to colleagues in Turkey and Switzerland and to undergraduate students in the U.S. uni- versities. Feedback from colleagues and students resulted in the rewording of several items and using a 7-point bal- anced scale instead of the 5-point scale on the original items.
BUSINESS STUDENTS’ PERCEPTION OF SALES CAREERS 15
TABLE 1 Constructs Means by Nationality
Constructs United States Switzerland Turkey Overall M
Perception of sales job (α = .84)
4.20 4.12 4.26 4.20a
Salesperson attributes (α = .82)
4.19 4.25 4.19 4.21
Feelings about selling (α = .87)
4.67 4.44 4.46 4.58
Intentions about a sales career (α = .88)
3.36 3.30 3.47 3.38
aMeasured on a 7-point Likert-type scale ranging from 1 (very strongly disagree) to 7 (very strongly agree).
Table 1 presents the descriptive statistics for the constructs and the reliability coefficients.
The revised questionnaire was distributed to students who were enrolled in the capstone course in business (e.g., strate- gic management) during regular class sessions at two univer- sities in the United States, one university in Switzerland, and one in Turkey. The four institutions were selected based on contact with researchers at the universities and their willing- ness to participate in this type of research. One U.S. insti- tution is a private four-year university that draws its student population from 37 states and has a racially- and gender- diverse population. The other U.S. institution is a four-year public university that serves primarily residents of the state. The student population is predominately white and nearly equally split between men and women. The U.S. universities were located in different states. The Swiss university was a private institution, and the Turkish university was a pub- lic institution. Both the Swiss and the Turkish universities provided instruction in multiple languages, including En- glish. All students participating in this research were studying business.
Based on the advice of the instructors who taught the capstone courses in business, all questionnaires were admin- istered in English. Course instructors were provided a set of detailed administration instructions and asked to administer the survey during the first two weeks of the fall term. Re- spondents were told that the survey was intended to measure their perception of selling, and were assured anonymity. Data were returned to researchers in the United States and entered into a SPSS data set for analysis. An analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to compare responses of subjects from the three nations on the measures used.
A total of 867 students completed the questionnaire. Of this total, 496 were from the two U.S. universities, 170 from Switzerland, and 201 from Turkey. Fifty-four percent of the students were men. The average age of students was 23. The largest major was marketing with 33%, followed by finance with 16%, management with 15%, and 15% in general busi-
ness. Thirty-four percent of the students in the total sample had taken a sales course.
Perceptions of Sales Job
Seventeen items measuring perceptions of sales job attributes were used in the study. These 17 items were combined and the differences among the three different nations were ex- amined using an ANOVA. The combined sales job attributes construct was used as the dependent variable, and nation- ality, gender, and student enrolment in a sales course were used as independent variables. Nationality and gender had a significant effect on student perceptions of attributes as- sociated with sales jobs. No interaction effects were sig- nificant. Further examination using a one-way ANOVA and Tukey’s post hoc tests indicated a significant differ- ence, F(2, 866) = 5.93, p < .01, η2 = .014, between Turkish students (M = 4.26) and Swiss students (M = 4.12).
Perceptions of Salespeople Attributes
Twenty items measuring perceptions of salespeople were combined to examine the impact of student nationality, gen- der, and enrollment in a sales course. Students from all three nations have a positive perception of salespeople, and they perceive the salesperson attributes about the same (U.S. = 4.19, Switzerland = 4.25, Turkey = 4.19). Furthermore, male students (M = 4.24) perceived salesperson attributes more positively than female students (M = 4.17), F(1, 866) = 7.00, p < .01, η2 = .008.
The three-way interaction effect (gender, nationality, and sales course) was also statistically significant for the to- tal sample. An examination of the interaction plots pre- sented in Figures 1 (students who have taken a sales course, 34% of the total sample) and 2 (students who have not taken a sales course) indicate that taking a sales course has a large negative impact on the perceptions Swiss fe- male students have of salespeople, a large positive impact on the perceptions of Turkish female students, and little ef- fect on the perceptions of U.S. female students. Taking a sales course has little effect on male students, regardless of nationality.
Feelings About Selling
Nine items measuring students’ feelings about selling were combined and used as the dependent variable in the ANOVA while including nationality, gender, and sales course as fac- tors. The overall model is statistically significant and that nationality and enrolment in a sales course impact student feeling toward selling. No interactions effects are statistically significant. The one-way ANOVA and Tukey’s post hoc tests
16 F. KARAKAYA ET AL.
FIGURE 1 Interaction effect of gender and nationality on student perceptions of salesperson attributes for students enrolled in a sales course. (color figure available online).
show that U.S. students (M = 4.67) felt significantly more positively about selling, F(2, 866) = 7.05, p < .01, η2 = .016, compared with Swiss (M = 4.44) and Turkish students (M = 4.46).
Five items related to student intentions to go into sales upon graduation were combined to represent student intentions to select sales as a career. Although, the overall model is sta- tistically significant, student nationality is not statistically significant in impacting student intentions to select sales as a career. Gender and enrolment in a sales course do signif- icantly impact student intention to select sales as a career. Male students (M = 3.53) are more likely to select sales as a career compared to female students (M = 3.20), F(1, 866) = 24.01, p < .01, η2 = .027. Similarly, students who have taken a sales course are more likely to select sales as a career than those who have not (M = 3.57 vs. 3.27 respectively). The observed differences are statistically significant, F(1, 866) = 19.21, p < .01, η2 = .022.
Generally students in all three nations have a positive per- ception of a sales job, salespeople, and selling. These posi- tive perceptions and feelings do not, however, translate into positive intentions toward pursuing a sales career. The four universities studied did not have a sales program or major or certificate in sales. At universities where such programs ex- ist, it is quite possible for the positive perceptions to impact their intentions to select sales as a career.
Although there is a generally favorable perception of sell- ing and of salespeople, this study found significant differ- ences in the perceptions that students from the three na- tions have of a sales job and their feelings about selling. Nationality was not, however, significantly related to their perceptions of salespeople or of their intention to pursue a sales career. Students in the United States view selling most positively. Swiss students have the least positive percep- tion of a sales job and selling. Turkish students’ perceptions and feelings are between the U.S. students and the Swiss students.
BUSINESS STUDENTS’ PERCEPTION OF SALES CAREERS 17
FIGURE 2 Interaction effect of gender and nationality on student perceptions of salesperson attributes for students not enrolled in a sales course. (color figure available online).
This suggests that nationality influences students’ per- ceptions of and feelings toward selling. The cause of these differences may be the underlying cultural values of each nation and the manner in which students acquire knowledge about selling. According to Hofstede’s cultural classification system, the United States scores lowest on the uncertainty avoidance dimension, suggesting that U.S. students are more willing to take chances and work in ambiguous situations, which describe selling situations. Swiss and especially Turk- ish students are less comfortable taking risks and tend to avoid ambiguity. The U.S. culture scores high on the indi- vidualism dimension indicating an emphasis on individual accomplishments and rewards. Turkey scores low on this dimension indicating a collective culture where group and family identity are important. Switzerland scores between the individualistic nature of the U.S. culture and the collec- tive culture of the Turkish culture. This suggests that selling is perceived as an activity that stresses individual activity and accomplishment.
The United States is often referred to as a materialistic society where material possessions signify an individual’s
position in society. Selling and the sales function often pro- duce large incomes, which translate into material goods. Sell- ing would be expected to be a more acceptable profession than in other nations and cultures. The Swiss are known as the world’s bankers. Switzerland is a neutral country with a blend of Swiss, French, German, and Italian cultures. The University involved in this study is located in the section of Switzerland were German influence is strongest. The per- ceptions of the outgoing aggressive salesperson may not be esteemed by the reserved Swiss. Turkey is at the cross roads of Europe and Asia. The university is located in the European side of Istanbul and it is in a cosmopolitan area. There is a great deal of Western influence, especially American influ- ence, in the values of the new generation. Another explana- tion for national differences in the perceptions and feelings of students may be associated with the educational material that they were, or were not exposed to in their business discipline.
Consistent with prior research (Ford et al., 1995; Honey- cutt & Thelen, 2003; Lupton et al., 1997), findings of this study indicate that having taken a course in sales is posi- tively associated with student feelings about sales and their
18 F. KARAKAYA ET AL.
intentions toward a sales career. However, having taken a sales course does not appear to be associated with student perceptions of sales jobs or their perceptions of salespeople. The relationship to student feelings may be associated with the prior attractiveness of sales as a possible career choice. It may be expected that students who choose to take a sales course would be more interested in sales than students not choosing this course. Therefore, this relationship may be an indication of a prior interest in sales and not a result of having taken the course.
Although blocking variables were found to be signifi- cantly related to several of the student measures, only one significant interaction effect with nationality was found. Gen- der, having taken a sales course, and nationality were found to interact with students’ perceptions of salespeople. The most notable relationship was on Swiss and Turkish women. Turkish women who have taken a sales course have a bet- ter perception of salespeople than those who have not taken a sales course. The opposite relationship occurs for Swiss women. There was no significant relationship between hav- ing taken a sales course and perception of salespeople for U.S. women and all male students. The explanation for these relationships may be in the pedagogy used in the respective sales courses. Turkey scores low in the masculine–feminine dimension of Hofstede’s (2012) system indicating a femi- nine orientation, which values cooperation and consensus. Switzerland scores in the masculine range on this dimen- sion suggesting an emphasis on competition and winning. If group selling and relationship building is emphasized, Turk- ish students may be more accepting of salespeople while Swiss students may perceive the opposite.
These findings suggest that the students’ perceptions of selling and salespeople and the attractiveness of a sales career may be influenced by the value systems of their cultures. In the United States, selling may be a more socially acceptable career path, providing freedom of action and excitement. The competitive nature of the sales job may be attractive to the U.S. student. Swiss students perceive selling as a job that offers less security and personal satisfaction, a career that lacks fun and status. The competitive nature of the job may not be perceived as an attractive professional career. Turkish students’ perceptions of selling lie between those of U.S. students and those of Swiss students.
Although nationality is related to perceptions of selling and feelings about selling, students in the three nations have similar intentions toward pursuing a sales career. Overall, student responses suggest that they are not enthusiastic about the prospects of a sales career. The less than strong desire to pursue a sales career reinforces findings from prior studies in the United States and in other nations (Ford et al., 1995; Honeycutt et al., 1999; Lupton et al., 1997).
Interestingly, the magnitude of their responses to career intention questions suggests that students’ negative view of a sales career may possibly be softening compared to some of the earlier studies (Ford et al., 1995; Honeycutt & Thelen,
2003; Lupton et al., 1997). Similarly, the findings of this study are consistent with Luthy’s (2006b) study of U.S. students, which indicates students’ view of a sales career may be im- proving. There are a number of possible explanations for this possible change, including a generally negative economic environment which may make students more amenable to career opportunities that were previously not appealing.
MARKETING EDUCATOR OR MANAGERIAL IMPLICATIONS
A career in sales offers college graduates opportunities for employment and for career advancement, yet many lack in- terest or desire in pursuing sales as a career. This study found that perceptions of sales job attributes and feelings about sell- ing differ by nationality. These findings suggest that culture impacts the perceptions students have of sales and of selling. Selling appears to be a more socially acceptable activity and career in the United States than it does in Switzerland. These perceptions of sales and salespeople may reflect deep-seated cultural values in a society. The Swiss may view salespeople in the stereotypical Willy Loman and Death of a Salesman role. In the United States and to a lesser extent in Turkey, the nature of compromise and negotiation may be culturally acceptable and reflect more positively on the role of salespeo- ple. This suggests that material that presented students and the pedagogy employed may have to adjust to the culture of the nation. For some students, U.S. students for example, the rewards from successful selling and the freedom of ac- tion may be key points to develop interest. Role-playing and competitive gamesmanship may be incorporated into sales, marketing, and general business courses. Turkish students may be more receptive to material emphasizing group sell- ing and teamwork. Pedagogy that employs group activity and consensus building may be appropriate. For Swiss stu- dents, the social position of selling and salespeople may be elevated by demonstrating the experiences of corporate ex- ecutives with prior selling experience and using role models to disseminate and discuss the attraction of sales.
LIMITATIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH
Although we indicated that the differences found among the three different nations might be due to culture, we have no solid evidence that the students represent their cultures. Therefore, the perceptual differences observed might stem from country-specific or university-specific issues despite the fact that the three countries selected appear to be vastly different in religion and customs. The study came from two universities in the Northeastern United States, one university in Switzerland, and one university in Turkey. The students at these universities may not necessarily represent the student populations in the respective countries. This may be most
BUSINESS STUDENTS’ PERCEPTION OF SALES CAREERS 19
applicable to the Swiss and Turkish universities where stu- dents selecting instruction in English, as all subjects in this study did, might be more representative of a better educated and more selective group. The instructors and the content of the sales courses may influence the impact of taking a sales course on student perception and intention to select sales as a career. The present study did not produce any information on this issue. Therefore, the results of this study need to be interpreted with caution. It is hoped that future studies will take the shortcomings mentioned here into consideration. We believe that future studies need to be performed to understand why student perception of sales as a career is not as positive as the sales organizations and marketing educators would like.
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