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Exploring personal selling as a career option: a case study of the perceptions of African-American students.


Companies need to build a talented sales force to successfully compete in the marketplace. University graduates provide a rich source for recruiting for entry level sales positions (Terpstra and Sarathy, 1997). Many university graduates start their careers in the sales field and, therefore, there has been a continued interest in measuring students' perceptions of the sales field as a career direction. Stevens and Macintosh (2002-2003) indicate that companies, recruiters and the universities are all interested in this issue (p. 23). A company's interest is fueled by the fact that college students make up a large and attractive pool of job candidates. The recruiters are interested in it because they would like to know the reasons why students are, or are not, attracted to careers in sales. University professors want to know the role that education plays in shaping students' attitudes and perceptions of sales as a career. Considerable research has been conducted to help understand U.S. students' perceptions of personal selling. Historically, students' perceptions of those who practice personal selling have not been positive. It is likely that the negative impression of selling is rooted in anecdotes, stories, novels, stage productions and mass media (Lysonski and Durvasula, 1998).

There is scant research on the attitudes of African-American students toward personal selling. The companies may want to create a diverse sales force as part of their human resource policy. They may want their sales force to reflect the diversity in their market or to meet their goal for diversity in their workforce. The purpose of this study is to identify attitudes and interests of African-American students in the professional selling career. How strongly are the African-American students interested in sales careers? What factors affect their attitudes and interest in personal selling as a career? This study investigates these issues using data from one public state university. It also looks at whether there are any differences in the attitude towards a sales career by gender, class rank or having family members in sales profession of the African-American students.


According to Martin (2005), Caucasian (white) males tend to dominate the field of professional selling (p. 285). Despite the diversity goals of companies, less than five percent of all sales force members, excluding retail positions, are held by African-Americans (Lucas 1996). DelVecchio and Honeycutt (2000) in a study of African-American and white students found that African-American students perceive sales career options as offering a great many important attributes. However, even with these higher ratings, African-American students did not find sales careers attractive. African-American students may well have a negative perception of a sales career for different reasons than those of Caucasian students. Lucas (1996) found trade press indicating that the African-American community takes a dim view of the sales jobs and does not encourage children to pursue sales careers. Alican Kavas (2003) found that students at a historically Black university held a negative image of personal selling as a career option though few differences between business and non-business majors or between men and women students were identified (p. 36). However, DelVecchio and Honeycutt (2000) found no difference between African-American and Caucasian students with regard to their interest in several different sales careers (pp. 49-50). In a follow-up study, DelVecchio and Honeycutt (2002) concluded that "racial group membership does not affect the importance of salary, autonomy, or education in evaluating sales careers (p. 59)."

Some information suggests that African-American college students are averse to engage in careers that do not completely use their educational investment (Lucas, 1996). The extent to which certain characteristics differentially affect African-American and white students' perception of the sales career, has not been fully addressed. It appears that African-Americans seek jobs that use their college education and that education is employed to overcome barriers (DelVecchio and Honeycutt, 2002). Studies explicitly suggest that African-Americans draw on their educational attainment to surmount barriers in public sector employment more frequently than private sector occupations such as sales careers (Cohen, 1993). These findings suggest that there might be ethnic differences regarding the role of education in career preferences.

Honeycutt and Ford (1995) noted that the educational level of a candidate is an important criterion for companies hiring personnel for global sales forces. Therefore it is important to know the beliefs and perceptions students attach to personal selling. If these notions are negative, this is likely to be reflected in their career inclinations regarding personal selling; as such a firm wishing to recruit educated candidates may be challenged in finding qualified and enthusiastic students for these positions (Lysonski and Durvasula, 1998). Marketing educators have suggested developing a better understanding of the attitudes of students about the selling profession (Luthy, 2006; Lysonski and Durvasula, 1998; Sohail and Bradmore, 2003).

Both men and women are involved in personal selling. Studies on gender differences in students in perception and interest in selling have mixed results. Amin, Hayajneh, and Nwakanma (1995) found that all students held a negative view of sales job, but there were no differences by sex. Cook and Hartman (1986) found no gender based differences in the students' ratings of sales job attributes, but female students held a more negative view on a career in sales. Muehling and Weeks (1988), on the other hand, found female students more favorably disposed towards personal selling that the male students.


The Marketing Lens Model (MLM), applied by Dennis Bristow and his research group to personal selling careers in two recent studies (Bristow, Gulati, and Amyx, 2006; Bristow, et al. 2006), is the conceptual framework applied to this study. Bristow (1998) constructed the MLM framework from Brunswik's (1952) Lens Model in psychological theory. This theory focused on how the perception of one's environment (in this case, the salesperson) is influenced by one's experiences, expectations, and knowledge.

In the intervening time, Kavas (2003) modified a series of attitudinal statements for use in his study of African-American students' attitudes toward personal selling. He found 13 attitudinal statements that had been consistently used in research over the past 35-45 years (The American Salesman, 1958; Paul and Worthing, 1970; Dubinsky, 1980; Dubinsky and O'Connor, 1993; Lagace and Longfellow, 1989). Kavas then added three other statements, making a total of 16 attitudinal statements recommended by Lucas (1996) to make a complete questionnaire.

Upon our comparison, Kavas' attitudinal statements match up, though imperfectly, with three of Bristow, et al. (2006)'s four components: elements of a sales career (RQ1), customer orientation of the salesperson (RQ3), and others' perceptions of salespeople (RQ4). We propose that gender and ethnicity affect the cognitive lens through which both business and non-business students perceive the sales profession as a possible career path in an earlier study (see Spillan, Totten, and Ziemnowicz (2007) and Figure 1).



As we explore and analyze the literature on personal selling, we find that there are certain factors that affect people's entry into the field of personal selling. Three of those are part of our investigation and have a major impact on decisions regarding whether a student enters the profession of personal selling.

Both men and women are involved in personal selling. Historically, most salespeople have been men. However, over the last 25 years this has changed, as women entered the field (Fugate, Decker, and Brewer 1988). Because of the fact that women have entered the sales field and are viewed as being important human resources in that profession, and since we are focusing only on African-American students, we posit that:

[H.sub.1] There is no significant difference between African-American males and females with regard to their desire to work in sales.

Second, tradition is strong in many families. Often children will choose to follow in the footsteps of their parents or relatives in terms of career paths. Numerous examples can be presented where sons and daughters have pursued the same professional sales careers as their mothers, fathers, or other relatives. However, Sojka, et al. (2000) found that previous sales exposure through family members (as well as internships) did not affect perceptions of sales careers (p. 59). Despite their result and assuming African-Americans are no different in terms of this tradition, we believe that:

[H.sub.2] There is a significant difference between African-American students who have family ties to professional selling and those without family ties, in their desire to work in sales, with desire being stronger for those with family ties to selling.

The perception of personal selling by a student may be formed or affected by what they study in their sales and marketing classes. Non-business majors may have a different perspective than those who have been exposed to a knowledge base about the selling profession. Nonbusiness majors, not being exposed to the field in the classroom, may still subscribe to the stereotypical view of the sales profession held by the African-American community. As such we state that:

[H.sub.3] There is a significant difference between business and non-business African-American students in their desire to work in the sales profession, with desire being stronger for business students.

Our proposed model mentions the influence of ethnicity on students' perceptions and there should be a hypothesis related to this influence. However, a limitation is that data for this study was collected only from African-American students at a diverse, public, regional university (as recommended by Kavas, 2003), thus prohibiting the testing of a hypothesis of no difference. [Other ethnicities accounted for such a small portion of the university's population that we decided to limit the ethnic groups to one.]


Data for this paper was collected from African-American students through a self-administered survey, obtained directly from Dr. Kavas (2003) via e-mail. The meaning and definition of personal selling was explained in the instruction part of the survey. The first part (Part A) of the survey required the students to state three thoughts that came to mind about sales people. Next to these thoughts, the students were asked to evaluate these thoughts as positive, neutral or negative. The second part (Part B) requested that the students indicate whether after graduation they would be interested in selling as a career. The possible answers for this question ranged from definitely would (5) to definitely would not (1). The third part of the survey consisted of the 16 attitudinal statements developed by Kavas (2003), using a five-point Likert type scale with anchors of strongly disagree (5) and strongly agree (1). The fourth part of the survey related to questions associated with socio-demographic characteristics of the respondents.

Data was collected among African-American business students who had taken various marketing courses, including the personal selling course. A colleague of a co-author distributed the surveys to African-American students in marketing classes, in student campus organizations, during advising sessions, and at campus-wide minority social get-togethers sponsored by the university. The respondents were able to complete the survey in about 15 minutes. A total of 146 African-American respondents completed the survey.


Table 1 provides a list of the attitudinal statements along with responses, and the demographic profile of the respondents. Respondents tended to be women (64.6%), sophomores (28.3%) or seniors (35.9%), and business majors (55.6%). Just over half of the respondents (51.1%) indicated that they had family members involved in sales.

Cross-tabulations and chi square analyses were conducted to look for statistically significant differences (at a [less than or equal] .05) among the demographic variables and with the open-ended thoughts. Several notable differences were found. Male students tended to have family members with careers in sales while female students did not have such family members. This may lead to a more positive perception of sales careers among male students than among female students. Male students also tended to be general business, management or marketing majors, while female students tended to be accounting, finance or non-business majors. Business majors tended to have family members involved in sales careers which may also lead to a positive view toward personal selling among them.

The three thought statements written by students provide a glimpse of how they view sales people. As indicated in Table 1, more than 40% of the open-ended thoughts generated by the respondents were positive. Table 1 also presents the results of students' ratings of the 16 attributes of the sales job. Students tended to disagree with these perceptions of sales jobs: "uninteresting/no challenge" and "no need for creativity." Students tended to agree with these perceptions: "much traveling" and "personality is crucial." For the remaining 12 attitudinal statements, students tended to be uncertain about the extent of their agreement or disagreement with these descriptions, as means ranged between 2.5 and 3.5.

In general, the male students in the sample had positive thought statements (all three statements) compared to those of female students. The female students made negative (first statement) or negative or neutral (second and third statements). The students' evaluations of their thought statements were analyzed using the chi-square test. Statistically, the first thought about sales was rated to be negative for women while positive for men ([alpha] = .029); the second thought tended to be negative or neutral for women, while positive for men ([alpha] = .018); and the third thought tended to be negative or neutral for women versus positive for men ([alpha] = .032). All three thoughts tended to be significantly positive for business majors while being negative (first thought [alpha] = .000) or negative and neutral (second thought [alpha] = .000 and third thought [alpha] = .001) for non-business majors. Regarding family ties to sales, the first thought tended to be positive for students with family members involved in sales while negative for those without family in sales ([alpha] = .000). The second thought tended to be positive or neutral for those with family in sales and negative for those with no members in sales ([alpha] = .000). The third thought was not significant at [alpha] [less than or equal to] .05. It appears that those African-American students who do not have family members in sales tend to have negative first/second thoughts about the profession.

Independent T-tests and ANOVA

Three significant differences were identified with regard to gender. Men were somewhat more interested in a sales career after graduation than were women (t = 3.20, [alpha] = .002, 3.27 vs. 2.48). Therefore, we reject Hypothesis 1 of no difference between genders. Men tended to agree more with the statement: "I associate a job in personal selling with much traveling" (t = -2.943, [alpha] = .004, 1.82 vs. 2.30). Women tended to agree more with: "I associate a job in personal selling with high pressure forcing people to buy unwanted goods" (t = 2.608, [alpha] = .01, 2.41 vs. 3.0).

As indicated in Table 2, students with family ties to professional sales careers were more interested in sales careers themselves than students who did not have such family ties. Therefore, we do not reject Hypothesis 2; family sales career history has a favorable impact on student interest in selling as a career. Furthermore, students with family ties to selling tended to disagree more with these statements/perceptions: insincerity and deceit, low status and low prestige, low job security, "just a job" not a "career," uninteresting/no challenge, no need for creativity, too little monetary reward, interferes with home life, "easy to get" job, inappropriate career option, and difficult to advance into upper management positions. Students with no family ties tended to agree more with these perceptions: frustration, salespeople being "money hungry," and high pressure forcing people to buy unwanted goods.

Finally, with regard to the third hypothesis, business majors were more interested in selling as a career after graduation than were non-business majors (see Table 3). Hypothesis 3 is therefore not rejected; there is a significant difference between business and non-business students, with the former having more interest in a sales career than the latter. Furthermore, business majors tended to disagree with the same 11 statements/perceptions that students with family ties to selling did, and non-business majors tended to agree with the same three perceptions that those without family ties also agreed with (see Table 3).

Principal Components Analysis

The sixteen items in Kavas' scale were subjected to principal components analysis (PCA) using SPSS version 14. Prior to performing PCA the suitability of data for factor analysis was assessed. Inspection of the correlation matrix revealed the presence of many coefficients of 0.30 and above. The Kaier-Meyer-Olkin Measure of Sampling Adequacy value was .912, exceeding the recommended value of .6 (Pallant, 2005, p. 182). In addition, Bartlett's Test of Sphericity was significant at p = .000; therefore, factor analysis was supported.

Principal components analysis resulted in the extraction of two factors, both with eigenvalues greater than 1, and explaining 58.0% and 9.6% of the variance respectively. An inspection of the scree plot supported the presence of two components. The Varimax rotation produced two factors that explained 67.625% of the variance. Table 4 sets forth the specific description of these factors and their loading values.

While the Cronbach's Alpha reliability coefficient for the first component, Negative Stereotype of Salespeople, was very good at .9605, the coefficient for the other component was below the acceptable .7 level (Pallant, 2005, p. 92). Factor 2, Job Realities, had a coefficient of .504. The reliability test could not recommend item deletion; therefore, Factor 2 remained weak.

Even though the professional selling career presents opportunities to earn high levels of income, there remains among African-American students the notion that selling is a negative profession. African-American students also perceive that a sales career involves long hours of travel and having the right personality for the job, which may or may not be correct or true all of the time.


The results of this study have demonstrated, through the identification of two factors, that the overall sales career perception scale is a valid and a reliable measure of African-American students' perception of sales as a career. We know that people have differing perceptions of sales as a professional career. We have demonstrated in this study that difference perceptions exist among students. Specifically we found out that there is no significant difference in African-American male or female students' perception of the profession. However they differ on their interest in selling as a career and also on two thought statements, where men and women had significant differences of opinion. That is an important finding because it means that both genders believe essentially that the same ideas exist among professionals in the selling field. The proposed gender influence linkage in the model (Hypothesis 1) is not supported.

African-American students who have family members affiliated with the sales profession also had some major differences in opinion on several factors (see Table 2). This suggests that the influence of selling from ideas about the job presented in family discussions may have affected their thinking about this profession, unlike the findings of Sojka, et al. (2000). The results support Hypothesis 2 that there is a significant difference between African-American students who have family ties to professional selling and those without family ties, in their desire to work in sales, with desire being stronger for those with family ties to selling.

Perceptions do differ by student major (see Table 3). Based upon our data analysis, Hypothesis 3 is not rejected and that there is a significant difference between business and non-business students, with the former having more interest in a sales career than the latter. The proposed model lens of major (business or non-business) does appear to modify perceptions of characteristics and other factors relating to sales as a career choice.


One major limitation of this study is the small sample size. As noted in the hypothesis section, our proposed model mentioned the influence of ethnicity on students' perceptions; however, data for this study was collected only from African-American students. Also, the time frame for the data collection was longer than anticipated, which may have introduced time-based biases.

The framework used in this study can and should be used to replicate it in settings with more diversity in student population. This will permit testing of differences in attitudes and perceptions across gender and ethnicity.

In addition, designing a similar study across many universities would allow researchers to study whether student perceptions vary geographically. Use of a larger and diverse sample, covering multiple campuses will allow us to better study the perceptions of students toward personal selling as a career option. It will also enable the researcher to study differences by a student's field of study, class status or family background. Any significant difference by class status may point to the effect of education and exposure to, or lack thereof, sales and marketing classes.


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John E. Spillan, University of North Carolina at Pembroke

Jeff W. Totten, McNeese State University

Manmohan D. Chaubey, Penn State University DuBois
Table 1: Descriptive Statistics

Interest & Attitudinal Statements               Mean *    SD       N

Interest in a selling job after graduation       2.77    1.418    142
I associate a job in personal selling with:
Frustration                                      2.87    1.314    146
Insincerity and deceit                           3.04    1.275    146
Low status and low prestige                      3.36    1.307    146
Much traveling                                   2.12    0.964    144
Salespeople being "money hungry"                 2.76    1.289    143
Low job security                                 3.04    1.214    146
High pressure forcing people to buy unwanted
  goods                                          2.63    1.312    145
"Just a job" not a "career"                      3.23    1.200    145
Uninteresting/no challenge                       3.52    1.214    145
No need for creativity                           3.76    1.235    143
Personality is crucial                           1.71    1.003    146
Too little monetary reward                       3.23    1.109    142
Interferes with home life                        3.01    1.086    146
"Easy to get" job                                3.06    1.053    145
Inappropriate career option                      3.39    1.144    145
Difficult to advance into upper management
  positions                                      3.23    1.153    145

Open-Ended/Demographics       Top       %     Next     %      N

Thoughts #1 (+ = positive,
  n = neutral, -= negative)      +      44.4      -     40.8   142
Thoughts #2                      +      42.3      -     38.7   137
Thoughts #3                      +      41.6      -     33.7   101
Gender                         Female   64.6    Male    35.4   144
Class Rank                     Senior   35.9    Soph.   28.3   145
Student Major
  (Business or Non-Business)    Bus.    55.6     N-B    44.4   144
Family in Sales                 Yes     51.1     No     48.9   137

* Five-point rating scale where 5 = "Definitely would like"
(Interest) or 5 = "Strongly Disagree" (16 statements).

Table 2: Independent t Tests & Family Ties to Selling

          Items              Family Ties:   Family Ties:
                             Yes (Mean)#     No (Mean)

Interest in sales career         3.46           1.97
Frustration                      3.44           2.22
Insincerity                      3.46           2.63
Low status                       3.89           2.78
"Money hungry"                   3.07           2.43
Low job security                 3.46           2.57
High pressure                    3.11           2.09
"Just a job"                     3.67           2.71
Uninteresting                    4.03           2.94
No need for creativity           4.30           3.14
Too little monetary reward       3.68           2.76
Interferes with home life        3.49           2.49
"Easy to get" job                3.32           2.76
Inappropriate                    3.84           2.93
Difficult to advance             3.67           2.78

          Items              Levene's Test       t-value   Sig.

                             F-value     Sig.

Interest in sales career      2.446      .120     7.040    .000
Frustration                   2.532      .114     5.998    .000
Insincerity                   0.087      .768     4.001    .000
Low status                    7.926     .006 *    5.431    .000
"Money hungry"                0.215      .644     2.912    .004
Low job security              0.029      .865     4.512    .000
High pressure                 11.628    .001 *    4.859    .000
"Just a job"                  4.827     .030 *    4.949    .000
Uninteresting                 22.728    .000 *    5.810    .000
No need for creativity        33.297    .000 *    6.025    .000
Too little monetary reward    5.098     .026 *    5.211    .000
Interferes with home life     0.767      .383     5.872    .000
"Easy to get" job             2.066      .153     3.124    .002
Inappropriate                 15.513    .000 *    4.954    .000
Difficult to advance          10.478    .002 *    4.837    .000

# Five-point rating scale where 5 = "Definitely would like"
(Interest) or 5 = "Strongly Disagree" (16 statements);
* Levene's test for variance equality is significant
(cannot assume equal variances).

Table 3: Independent t-Tests & Major

          Items                Business      Non-business
                             Major (Mean)#   Major (Mean)

Interest in sales career         3.40            1.98
Frustration                      3.24            2.39
Insincerity                      3.46            2.55
Low status                       3.81            2.78
"Money hungry"                   3.25            2.13
Low job security                 3.46            2.53
High pressure                    3.13            2.00
"Just a job"                     3.68            2.64
Uninteresting                    4.10            2.76
No need for creativity           4.29            3.06
Too little monetary reward       3.65            2.70
Interferes with home life        3.39            2.53
"Easy to get" job                3.30            2.73
Inappropriate                    3.80            2.87
Difficult to advance             3.64            2.73

          Items                Levene's       Levene's
                             Test(F Value)   Test (Sig.)

Interest in sales career         2.312          .131
Frustration                      0.001          .977
Insincerity                      2.566          .111
Low status                       5.628         .019 *
"Money hungry"                   0.346          .557
Low job security                 2.128          .147
High pressure                    7.137         .008 *
"Just a job"                     4.295         .040 *
Uninteresting                   10.250         .002 *
No need for creativity          30.304         .000 *
Too little monetary reward       2.624          .108
Interferes with home life        0.044          .834
"Easy to get" job                1.296          .257
Inappropriate                   10.618         .001 *
Difficult to advance             5.958         .016 *

          Items              t-value   Sig.

Interest in sales career      6.677    .000
Frustration                   4.023    .000
Insincerity                   4.580    .000
Low status                    4.968    .000
"Money hungry"                5.601    .000
Low job security              4.907    .000
High pressure                 5.632    .000
"Just a job"                  5.613    .000
Uninteresting                 7.533    .000
No need for creativity        6.317    .000
Too little monetary reward    5.581    .000
Interferes with home life     5.054    .000
"Easy to get" job             3.314    .001
Inappropriate                 5.037    .000
Difficult to advance          4.899    .000

# Five-point rating scale where 5 = "Definitely would like"
(Interest) or 5 = "Strongly Disagree" (16 statements);
* Levene's test for variance equality is significant
(cannot assume equal variances).

Table 4: Two-Factor Analysis Results

             Factor Descriptions                Loading   Variance %

Factor 1--Negative Stereotype of Salespeople                58.022
Too little monetary reward                       .881
Low status and low prestige                      .854
Difficult to advance into upper management       .850
Frustration                                      .838
Insincerity and deceit                           .832
"Just a job" not a career                        .826
Inappropriate career option                      .825
High pressure forcing people to buy unwanted
  goods                                          .817
Low job security                                 .809
Uninteresting/no challenge                       .807
No need for creativity                           .791
Salespeople being "money hungry"                 .787
Interferes with home life                        .786
"Easy to get" job                                .667

Factor 2--Job Realities                                     9.603
Much traveling                                   .849
Personality crucial                              .750

Total Variance explained by two factors                     67.63%
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Author:Spillan, John E.; Totten, Jeff W.; Chaubey, Manmohan D.
Publication:Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
Article Type:Case study
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2011
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