Why Are Some Salespeople Better at Adapting to Organizational Change?

Michael Ahearne, Son K. Lam, John E. Mathieu, & Willy Bolander
Journal of Marketing
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Executive Summary
Given that organizational change efforts are often won or lost in the frontline employees, salespeople are constantly called on to perform in the face of change. Sometimes, sources external to the firm introduce change (e.g., competitor actions, market turbulence), but the primary source of change is a salesperson’s own organization (e.g., new products, updating technology, implementing strategy). Furthermore, although the purpose of introducing change is to obtain some performance benefit, there is often some combination of performance gain and performance loss that unfolds over time. So far, researchers have not examined this time-varying performance pattern during a period of organizational change, leaving managers with little guidance when they attempt to gauge the success or their change efforts. Unanswered questions include the following: (1) Should a manager worry about performance loss initially following the change? (2) Is there a relationship between the amount of performance loss a salesperson experiences in the short run and the amount of performance gain they experience in the long run? (3) Can determinants of salespeople’s adaptation to change be identified, and if so, (4) What can managers do to help the adaptation process?

This study examines the performance of 400 pharmaceutical sale representatives over an entire year before, during, and after the introduction of a disruptive new customer relationship management (CRM) system. The results indicate that the average salesperson displays an initial performance decline following an organizational change and that, though performance improves after the decline, it does not always exceed preintervention levels. The results also indicate that managers need not necessarily worry when a salesperson’s performance declines following a change, because a larger initial decline is associated with a larger increase in the long run. The key to identifying which salespeople adapt better to change lies in identifying salesperson attributes that have a shared meaning with the nature of the change. In the context of this article (learning a new technology), the authors find that salespeople’s goal orientations (i.e., how salespeople fundamentally view challenging situations) predict their performance over time. Specifically, those who are predisposed to approach a new challenge as an opportunity for personal development and skill mastery (i.e., people with a strong “learning orientation”) experience a deeper initial performance decline but a greater performance recovery over time. This occurs because these salespeople invest time early on to master the complicated performance-enhancing aspects of the CRM system and position themselves for success later. A manager interested in long-term performance should identify and encourage these salespeople. In contrast, salespeople who are predisposed to engage in shallow learning to economize their visible effort and maintain performance (i.e., people with a strong “performance orientation”) tend to experience less of an initial performance loss but are unable to reap a substantial performance gain in the long run. This occurs because their focus on current performance distracts them from investing the time required to master the new system. A manager can mitigate these negative effects by including change implementation behaviors into the definition of performance.

Biography
Michael Ahearne (PhD, Indiana University) is Professor of Marketing and Executive Director of the Sales Excellence Institute. Mike’s research examines factors influencing the performance of salespeople, sales teams, and sales organizations. Mike is a coauthor on one of the leading professional selling textbooks, Selling Today: Creating Customer Value. The book has been translated into numerous languages and is currently used to teach professional selling in more than 30 countries. He has published in Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Management Science, Journal of Applied Psychology, as well as several other journals.

Son K. Lam (PhD, University of Houston) is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia. His current research focuses on salesperson behavior and performance. Son also conducts research on corporate identity and organizational identification in the context of internal marketing and customer–brand relationship. Son’s work on sales management, internal marketing, and the service profit chain has appeared in Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Marketing, and Journal of Retailing.

John E. Mathieu (PhD, Old Dominion University) is Professor of Management and the Department Head of Management at the University of Connecticut. He also holds the Cizik Chair in Management at University of Connecticut. His primary areas of interest include models of training effectiveness, team and multiteam processes, and cross-level models of organizational behavior. He has conducted work with several Fortune 500 companies, the armed services, various federal and state agencies, and numerous public and private organizations. He is a fellow of both the American Psychological Association and the Society for Industrial/Organizational Psychology. He serves on numerous editorial boards and has guest edited special volumes of top-level journals.

Willy Bolander is a doctoral candidate at the University of Houston. His current research focuses on personal selling and sales management. Specifically, he is interested in the performance of people in sales teams and how salespeople react and adapt during organizational change implementation.

Journal of Marketing, Volume 74, Number 3, May 2010
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Michael Ahearne, Son K. Lam, John E. Mathieu, & Willy Bolander
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