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Rethinking Marketing: Michael Ahearne

Michael Ahearne

Michael Ahearne
University of Houston

Sales is an interesting area for the “better world” topic. Recent data from North America show $1.2 trillion spent on salesforce, versus $165 billion on traditional marketing and $35.9 billion on digital. This is an area where more research is needed on how to do things better.

In 1982, Saxe and Weitz distinguished between sales-oriented and customer-oriented behaviors. A sales orientation is focused on short-term outcomes and closing the deal. A customer orientation, however, is focused on the long-term relationship and value creation. Several studies have been conducted documenting this difference, but little has been done in practice to change these behaviors in many organizations.   

The market is shifting in this direction. Today’s customers are more informed; there is a greater symmetry of information. When you buy a car now at a dealership, you have information in advance and don’t have to rely only on the information provided by a salesperson.  How has this shift in information symmetry changed the way salespeople sell?  Are salespeople now held to a higher ethical standard?  


About 20 years ago, researchers were anticipating that the internet could reduce sales jobs. Rather than sales disappearing, transactional business has moved online, and valued-added business occurs through salespeople. Industries like automotive sales now make most of their money from long-term customer relationships (e.g., by selling financing and service).  So companies are now asking, is it advantageous to sell in a customer-oriented way? How do you diffuse that mindset? 

Control systems and incentive structures may encourage attitudes and behaviors that align with a customer orientation. Ultimately, such approaches may foster schemas that promote such behaviors even in the absence of such institutional components. In an era in which employees, including salespeople, tend to move quickly between firms (i.e., job-hopping), they may view a long-term customer orientation as disadvantageous. However, a customer orientation could be a panacea for many firms, helping to reduce the revolving door phenomena by encouraging salespeople to establish stronger ties that create incentives to stay in their current role. 

Finally, sales is foundational in emerging markets, and building sales skills is important to helping people in such markets flourish. Sales presents an opportunity for individuals to develop entrepreneurial pursuits that can enrich both their own lives and their communities. Firms entering emerging markets should arguably consider how to jointly maximize the welfare of individuals, communities, and the firm by identifying and training people with high sales potential. 

Researchers may further consider the extent to which great salespeople in emerging markets are born versus made, as well as examine the broader societal benefit of success in sales. For instance, there may be specific characteristics of new salespeople in emerging markets, such as characteristics of their social networks that translate into both personal benefit and communal benefit. Furthermore, creating sales opportunities for men versus women, or for larger versus smaller families may have different implications both for the recipients of these opportunities and the social groups to which they belong. These are just a few examples of how we might consider the power of sales to benefit lives within emerging markets. Given the importance of emerging markets to the myriad of firms seeking opportunities for growth, now seems an especially suitable time to consider these types of questions​.

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Michael Ahearne is C.T. Bauer Professor of Marketing and Executive Director, Sales Excellence Institute, University of Houston, USA.