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Why We Need An Ecosystems View of Selling

Why We Need An Ecosystems View of Selling

Nathaniel N. Hartmann, Heiko Wieland and Stephen L. Vargo

Do changes in markets (e.g., increasing rate of technological developments, access to information, buying and selling centers, globalization, customer demands, number of offerings) alter what selling entails or the importance of selling? A recent study published in the Journal of Marketing says no.

Traditionally, selling was generally perceived to facilitate the transfer of value from sellers to buyers. This transactional view often emphasized short-term outcomes, a clear winner in the exchange, and the salesperson’s ability to manage buyers to produce self-serving results. More recent, relational views of selling, however, emphasize the role of salespeople in developing and maintaining mutually-beneficial relationships. These approaches, such as consultative and enterprise selling, provided an important refocusing of selling activities. Our study extends relational views to show that selling can only be fully understood by looking at buying and selling processes as being embedded in broader ecosystem of social systems that influence their meaning and effectiveness.


Specifically, our research highlights that selling must consider value assumptions, beliefs, norms, rules, and practices—that is, institutions—that guide sellers and buyers during exchange. This systemic view differs from the traditional and relational focused views in two ways. First, it emphasizes the importance and participation of many people and organizations (i.e. customers, firms, users, journalists, government agencies, etc.) in constructing the social context that influences how selling and buying unfold. Second, it redefines selling as the interactions aimed at creating and maintaining the alignment of institutions and the optimization of relationships related to exchange.

Viewed from this systemic perspective, changes to markets and technologies do not fundamentally alter what selling entails or its importance. That is, selling has been, and continues to be, a critical component of exchange and value creation. In order for exchange and value creation to occur, institutions will always have to be aligned and mutually-beneficial relationships will always have to be developed and maintained.

What does this perspective mean for practitioners? First, we describe how changes to institutions influence buyers’ and sellers’ thinking and behaviors. We explain, for example, that critical to the success of Salesforce’s SaaS (software as a service) solution were not only technological advancements (e.g., mobile phones, laptops, wireless speeds, etc.), but also concerns about storing customer proprietary information in the cloud and changes in buyer expectations regarding ease of accessing data and solution flexibility, scalability, and accessibility. We point to the many participants shaping institutions which altered perceptions of weaknesses and strengths of the SaaS solution, increasing the attractiveness of the SaaS solution and decreasing the attractiveness of non-SaaS solutions. Sellers and organizations should therefore consider which institutions can be shaped to improve the attractiveness of their solutions and which institutions may make their solutions vulnerable to competitors. Just as solutions “ahead of their time” can gain widespread acceptance as institutions change, so can widely accepted solutions become disfavored. 

Second, our approach reveals that sellers can never be the master storyteller. Many firms have long recognized the importance of communicating with prospects and customers through various tools (e.g., product descriptions, testimonials, case studies, competitive comparisons). However, buyers are also subject to broader narratives (e.g., online product reviews, conference presentations, social media posts) of many people and organizations. We discuss how Salesforce identified and sowed the communications of credible people and organizations (e.g., users, journalists, industry experts) to improve perceptions regarding the safety of storing sensitive data in the cloud and accentuate the advantages of the SaaS solution. We make the case for the importance of expanding communication efforts to a broad range of people and organizations, many of whom are not prospects or customers, and to use the gained insights to continually improve offered solutions.

Third, our approach illustrates that evaluations of seller performance should, in many cases, be broader and occur over longer periods. Stated alternatively, short-term goals (e.g., monthly or quarterly quotas) often misalign with long-term organizational interests because selling outcomes involve many people and organizations and occur over extended periods of time. Evaluations of seller performance should recognize changes to institutions that may influence selling outcomes. Consider, for example, that short-term sales goals may lead a salesperson to encourage a buyer to continue using an inferior solution. The salesperson, in this case, is likely to lose the customer’s business and damage his or her reputation as an industry expert. Such reputational damage may prevent the salesperson from being able to regain the customers’ business later or to acquire knowledge that aids his/her organization in creating a new and better solution.

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From: Nathaniel Hartmann, Heiko Wieland, and Stephen Vargo (2018), “Converging on a New Theoretical Foundation for Selling,” Journal of Marketing, 82 (March).

Go to the Journal of Marketing

Nathaniel N. Hartmann is Associate Professor and Distinguished Faculty Fellow, University of Hawai’i.

Heiko Wieland is Assistant Professor, California State University, Monterey Bay.

Stephen L. Vargo is Professor of Marketing, Shidler College Distinguished Professor, University of Hawai’i.