Nonverbal Language

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Can You Trust a Customer’s Expression? Insights into Nonverbal Communication in the Retail Context Nancy M. Puccinelli
Sa¨ d Business School, Oxford University and College of Business Administraı tion, Northeastern University

Scott Motyka
Brandeis University

Dhruv Grewal
Babson College

ABSTRACT
Synthesizing knowledge from psychology and marketing research, an understanding of nonverbal communication can help address when and how customers express their underlying feelings in retail interactions that are not evident in direct verbal expressions. Examining nonverbal behavior as an indirect measure of consumer response can enable retailers to better understand the needs of their customers. Nonverbal communication theory is used to develop a conceptual framework that builds on prior research on the situation, expressivity, social status, display rules, and their effects on customer expression. Lay wisdom suggests that customer expression should be revealing (e.g., “the eyes are the windows to the soul”). However, research reveals a myriad of situational factors that may lead customers to mask their true feelings. This paper offers nine theoretical propositions and summarizes research evidence related to these pro-positions from various substantive domains for marketing research. © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Psychology & Marketing, Vol. 27(10): 964–988 (October 2010) View this article online at wileyonlinelibrary.com © 2010 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. DOI: 10.1002/mar.20368 964

Imagine that, after months of Internet research and casual discussions with friends and family members, you finally decide to visit the dealership to purchase the car you want to buy. Imagine too that it is a little pricey, but it is your dream car and you’re excited by the prospect of driving it home that very day. However, as you approach a salesperson, you realize that expressing your excitement would put you at a significant disadvantage in negotiating the best sales price. As a result, you make a conscious decision to restrain your expression of excitement by showing a sense of indifference about the car and its features, in the hope of driving down the price. Whether the salesperson takes your expression of indifference at face value or examines your behavior more closely to detect your underlying feelings may have a substantial impact on the outcome of the negotiation and the salesperson’s ability to satisfy you as a customer. Retailers that can indirectly assess consumer mind-set by evaluating their nonverbal behavior stand to gain more insight into underlying consumer attitudes than what might be gleaned from explicit measures (e.g., a survey). This paper examines the complexities of customer nonverbal behaviors and their meanings to better understand how marketing professionals might use extant research on nonverbal behavior to inform retailers’ and service providers’ sales strategies, as well as to enhance customer satisfaction. The challenge of understanding a customer’s purchase intent seems well confirmed by the increase in number of in-house market research teams (Puccinelli et al., 2009). Firms now view this challenge as so formidable they are reluctant to outsource efforts to address it. This challenge becomes even greater when customers attempt to mask their true feelings. For example, customers may report an intention to buy a product but not actually make the purchase (Morwitz, Steckel, & Gupta, 2007). In other cases, customers may respond to demand characteristics that lead them to favor the brand sponsoring the research, when in fact they do not like the brand at all. Various research tools attempt to capture customers’ true feelings and circumvent biased evaluations resulting from consumer attempts to conceal their attitudes (Puccinelli & Mast, 2002; Zaltman et al., 2001). For example, work on priming allows consumer researchers to study the effect of brands and logos on consumer perception in a nonconscious way...
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