Trust in the B2B Marketing Context

Among marketers there is a consensus that trust plays a central role in a variety of relationships: This includes buyer/seller relations in industrial marketing settings (e.g., Anderson & Narus, 1990; Ganesan, 1994; Morgan & Hunt, 1994) and consumer/seller relationships in relational retail marketing (e.g., Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Kennedy, Ferrell & LeClair, 2001; Young & Albaum, 2003) - but also in consumer/consumer relationships. The latter is a more recently discussed topic, acknowledging that the role of interpersonal interactions between shoppers is increasing in importance due to the evident trends towards social online shopping. In essence, trust has been found to play a pivotal role in holding a relationship between buyers and sellers together (Berry, 1995; Dwyer & Oh, 1987; Moorman et al., 1993). Most efforts of marketing research have focused their attention on trust in a particular interaction partner, its meanings and its effects in buyer-seller relationships. This literature stream has produced several definitions of trust. Here, a large proportion directly stems from earlier trust conceptualizations made in other disciplines, such as organizational research. Some of these definitions can be attributed to trust research in the B2B marketing context. Various trust researchers have focused on salespersons as a prominent object of trust (see Swan, Bowers & Richardson, 1999 for a review). This is due to the fact that salespersons have always been regarded as the primary source of communication and as organizational representatives. This makes their boundary- spanning role critical in relationship success (Sharma & Stafford, 2002). However, the supplier firm itself has also become a target of research, as Doney and Cannon (1997) state that individuals “can trust the supplier, its salespeople, or both” (p. 36).

According to Dwyer and Oh (1987), the introduction of the trust concept to marketing literature can be credited to Schurr and Ozanne (1985). Their research was guided by the proposition that trust takes an important role in exchange relationships, as it results in constructive dialogue among participants and cooperative problem-solving. This argument is well supported in other disciplines. More specifically, Schurr and Ozanne especially enhanced our knowledge of how trust as well as bargaining influences buyer-seller interactions. They conceptualize trust as an expectation that the relationship partner will fulfil his/her expected commitments. So for them, reliability seems to be the key component. Moorman et al. (1992) state that Anderson and Narns (1990) share the similarity that they describe trust as a causing factor of the amount of cooperation and the functionality of conflict between parties. Hence, trust is viewed in terms of perceived benefits of dealing with another company. Here, trust is conceptualized as a critical antecedent of relationship quality (Bramall et al., 2004). The authors define trust as “the firm’s belief that another company will perform actions that will result in positive outcomes for the [trusting] firm, as well as not take unexpected actions that would result in negative outcomes for the firm” (p. 45). Here, it appears that the predictability of the interaction partner’s behaviours is an essential element of trust development. The strength of this belief ultimately determines the trusting response or action of the firm (e.g., the willingness to trade), whereby the company commits itself to a potential loss, depending upon the further actions of the other firm. To trust implicitly means here to make oneself vulnerable to the actions of others.

Similarly to some organizational researchers, various marketing scholars have equated trust with confidence. For instance, Crosby, Evans and Cowles (1990) conceptualize trust in a salesperson as a “customer’s confident belief that the salesperson can be relied upon to behave in a manner that serves long-term customer interests” (as cited in Swan et al., 1999, p. 95). Likewise, Morgan and Hunt’s (1994) examination of the nature of relationship marketing characterizes trust as one party’s confidence in an exchange partner’s reliability and integrity, which can be linked with qualities such as consistency, competency, honesty, fairness, responsibility, helpfulness, and benevolence. This definition shows parallels to the definition of Moorman, Deshpande and Zaltman (1993), but also draws on Rotter’s (1967) classic view of trust as a generalized expectancy held by an individual. Nevertheless, Morgan and Hunt’s (1994) definition excludes the trustee’s behavioural intention of “willingness”, as they state that genuine confidence that a partner can rely on another will automatically include the behavioural intention to rely. They further say that “if one is confident, then one would be willing; if one is not willing, then one is not genuinely confident” (p. 23-24). Therefore, they propose that for a measure of trust, such willingness is irrelevant because it is redundant.

In contrast, Moorman and his colleagues (1992) together with Ganesan (1994) both emphasize the need to bring “willingness to rely on” into a trust definition and do not see this type of redundancy. According to Morgan and his colleagues (1993; 1992), trust is the “willingness to rely on an exchange partner in whom one has confidence” (1992, p. 315). As trust typically involves some form of vulnerability and uncertainty on the part of the truster, the scholars advance the view that behavioural intention is a necessity for trust to exist. Without vulnerability, trust is meaningless because the outcomes of the interaction are inconsequential for the trusting partner. Trust would shrink to a metaphor. Morgan and his colleagues stress that this view builds on the insights of earlier research in the field of interpersonal trust (Deutsch 1962; Giffin 1967; Schlenker et al 1973; Zand 1972). They further suggest that both belief and behavioural intention must be present in order to have trust, because “if one believes that a partner is trustworthy and yet unwilling to rely on that partner, the trust is limited. However, if one is willing to rely on a partner without holding a belief about that partner’s trustworthiness, reliance may be more a function of power and control than trust” (1992, p. 315). By extending this view, one could say that a willingness to rely without a corresponding belief of trust indicating characteristics could also indicate pure faith in the interaction partner. Nevertheless, Morgan and Hunt (1994) as well as Moorman and his colleagues (1992, 1993) both emphasize the relevance of confidence and reliability for the concept of trust in a similar manner. Moorman, Zaltman and Desphande (1992) view trust as a confident belief, sentiment, or expectation about the exchange partner’s trustworthiness. They further theorize that this attribution is mainly based on the partner’s extent of expertness, reliability, or intentionality. It hence focuses only on the belief dimension.

The question of whether trust in a business relationship is a unitary or multi-dimensional construct is not meaningful nor consistently answered. Exemplars can be identified for both schools of research. F or instance, trust has been regularly treated as a uni-dimensional construct (e.g., Anderson & Weitz, 1989; Gefen et al., 2003; Guenzi, 2002; Kennedy et al., 2001) typically measured by a limited number of items (e.g., Anderson & Narus, 1990). By drawing on literature in social psychology (Larzelere & Huston, 1980) as well as prior marketing insights, Doney and Cannon (1997) include the concept of reputation as part of the definition of trustworthiness. They describe trust as the perceived credibility (i.e., the expectancy that the partner’s word or written statement can be relied upon) and benevolence of a target of trust (i.e., the extent to which one partner is genuinely interested in the other partner’s welfare and motivated to seek joint gain). Nevertheless, the authors conclude that, even though trust can be conceptualized by two distinct concepts, the concepts may be so intertwined that in practice they are operationally inseparable.

In contrast, various other authors were able to identify multiple dimensions of trust. For instance, Ganesan (1994) and Ganesan and Hess (1997) explicitly describe two major ingredients of trust: benevolence and credibility. More specifically, Ganesan (1994) draws on the definition by Moorman and his colleagues (1992) and defines trust as the willingness to rely on an exchange partner in whom one has confidence. Credibility is one of the underlying trusting beliefs that focus on the extent to which the retailer believes that the partner has the required expertise necessary to fulfil the job effectively and reliably. The belief in the trustee’s benevolence, as the second dimension, is best described as “the extent to which the retailer believes that the vendor has intentions and motives beneficial to the retailer when new conditions arise, conditions for which a commitment was not made” (Ganesan, 1994). Later, Ganesan and Hess (1997) propose the same trust dimensions, however, with slightly different descriptions. According to them, credibility refers to the main “partner’s intention and ability to keep promises and deals with partner characteristics such as task specific competencies, reliability in the delivery of goods and services, and predictability in terms of job related behaviours”. Hence, it appears to be a theoretically multifaceted construct. In contrast, benevolence relates to the belief of genuine concern that the interaction partner strives for a purely egocentric profit motive. Benevolent trustees strive for fairness within the interaction. They further advance the view that trust can have multiple referents.

Kumar, Scheer and Steenkamp (1995) conceptualize trust with two essential components, namely (1) trust in the partner’s honesty (i.e., the belief that the partner stands by his/her words, fulfils promised role obligations, and is sincere); and (2) trust in the partner’s benevolence (i.e., the belief that the partner is interested in the firm’s welfare and will not take unexpected actions that will negatively affect the firm). By developing the Organizational trust inventory to quantitatively assess trust in business relationships, Cummings and Bromiley (1996) propose a multi-dimensional conceptualization of trust in terms of three belief dimensions: keeping commitments, negotiating honestly, and avoiding taking excessive advantage. The first two beliefs seem to be attributable to the honesty dimension. However there seem to be some differences concerning the time frame (i.e., negotiating commitments precedes keeping commitments).

Aforementioned research provides the basic insights that trust in the context of business relationships has been frequently treated as a cognitive process. The role of social emotions is only implicitly acknowledged. Nevertheless, there are various researchers that also take the affective dimension of trust explicitly into account. For instance, Swan et al. (1988), and Young and Albaum (2003) emphasize that trust consists of a cognitive dimension together with an affective dimension. Others have included “likeability or positive affect toward the party” as an affective component of trust (e.g., Andaleeb & Anwar, 1996; Doney & Cannon, 1997). In general, likeability is defined as the extent to which a trusted party is friendly, pleasant, and likeable (Andaleeb & Anwar, 1996). By investigating trust from the buyer as well as the seller side, Hawes et al. (1989) discovered that both parties agree that a trusted salesperson has to be likeable, competent, and dependable. Other scholars describe affective trust as an emotional security or confidence in the relationships (e.g., Johnson & Grayson, 2005; Swan et al., 1988). Swan et al. (1988) have investigated how customers grant their trust to industrial sales persons. They explicitly contend that trust consists of the emotion of a buyer feeling secure about relying on the salesperson as well as specific beliefs about the trustworthiness of a salesperson. To be perceived to be trustworthy, they conclude, salespersons have to exhibit a full arsenal of positive characteristics: They have to be dependable, honest, likeable, and have to possess a dedicated customer orientation. Young and Albaum (2003) conceptualize trust as an evolving psychological state consisting of both emotional and cognitive components that result from the trustee’s perceptions of competence and a well-meaning, caring motivation in the relationship partner. To recapitulate, one has to learn that trust includes social-emotional aspects even in highly “formalized” and “rationalized” contexts.

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