Publication details [#420]

Blocker, Christopher P., Mark B. Houston and Daniel J. Flint. 2012. Unpacking What a “Relationship” Means to Commercial Buyers: How the Relationship Metaphor Creates Tension and Obscures Experience. Journal of Consumer Research 38 (5) : 886–908. 23 pp.
Publication type
Article in journal
Publication language
Place, Publisher
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press


Commercial exchanges between consumer and seller, or business buyer and supplier in business-to-business (B2B) contexts, are generally analysed by making reference to the dominant paradigm of the interpersonal relationship metaphor, which foregrounds aspects such as frequency, duration, self-disclosure, and intimacy. B2B contexts, however, seem to present inherent limitations to the establishment of personal relationships between buyers and suppliers: for instance, professional buyers may not feel free to reveal personal inclinations and motives. The authors question the theoretical framework used in previous B2B research, were 'relationship' is often conceived of as a unitary concept and measured with reductionist scales. They also argue that the relationship metaphor may conceal instrumental motives lying behind buyers' behaviour, while falling short of explaining apparent contradictions (e.g. the fact that buyers claim "good relationships" with a supplier but then refuse to meet a salesperson to save time). In their analysis of a set of interviews with 38 informants, the authors find that commercial buyers are more concerned with achieving professional goals than with cultivating social bonds with sellers, although they frequently use the relationship metaphor; furthermore, buyers' narratives reveal tensions for the notion of expressive relationships with suppliers. An alternative framework is thus proposed, in which B2B interactions are re-conceptualised as transient connections: these may be marked by the simultaneous presence of affective or expressive language and instrumental orientations, and include insincere ties. The connections model also accounts for the fact that commercial interactions may be personally meaningful for buyers, but not interpersonally (as the relationship model would imply).