This paper examines trust, communication and social bonds in marketing relationships in professional services in a business-to-business market. The context of our empirical research is the marketing research industry in Slovenia. The results show that social bonds in the examined context are present to a low extent. The analysis revealed two groups of companies on the basis of developed social bonds. The first group ('strictly business' relationships) consists of 62.7% of companies, which have a lower level of social bonds between individuals than 37.3% of companies that belong to the second group ('business friends' relationships). Analysis also revealed that social bonds positively influence openness of communication and trust.
Providers of professional services on business-to-business markets comprise a significant segment of the economy; however, there is a lack of published research regarding marketing in the professional services context (Day and Barksdale, 2003). Due to increased competition and more sophisticated and informed clients, it has become very important for service providers to understand key factors that influence the development of close client-supplier relationships (Boughton et al., 1996).
Interpersonal relationships and human factors play an important role in professional services. Therefore, management of interpersonal relationships is important for the development of a marketing relationship (Halinen, 1997). However, there is not much published research on social bonds between employees in two organizations (e.g. Bolton et al., 2003; Halinen, 1997; Haytko, 2004; Murry and Heide, 1998; Rodriguez and Wilson, 2002; Swan et al., 2001). Bolton et al. (2003) point out that business customers discriminate between aspects of service attributable to the service agent and to the company. While a service agent can create goodwill for the organisation, the other aspects of service delivery are attributable to the company. This is in line with the findings of Dwyer et al. (1987) about social and economics resources having different effects on relationships. This paper aims to extend the body of knowledge relating to professional services marketing by presenting results from a study that researched relationships between marketing research providers and their clients. The primary research objectives were to examine social bonds in relationships between professional service providers and their clients and determine their importance for openness of communication and trust in the provider. The context of this study is the marketing research industry in Slovenia.
2. CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK
Social bonds are defined as 'the degree of mutual personal friendship and liking shared by the buyer and seller' (Wilson, 1995, p. 339). Perry et al. (2002, p. 76) define social bonds as 'investments of time and energy that produce positive interpersonal relationships between the partners'. In the context of business services, social bonds refer to the human side of the business service, including personal contacts, liking and trust (Thunman, 1992). Social bonds include familiarity, friendship and personal confidence that are built through the exchange process (Rodriguez and Wilson, 2002). They are developed through social interaction and individuals can develop strong personal relationships that can bond the relationship between two firms (Wilson, 1995). Some authors (McCall, 1970; Perry et al., 2002; Wilson and Mummalaneni, 1986) include attachment, commitment, trustworthiness, conflict, benevolence and equity as social bonds. This study follows Wilson's (1995) definition and limits the concept of social bonds to friendship and liking between boundary personnel at the buyer's and seller's firms.
Haytko (2004) and Swan et al. (2001) propose three categories of interpersonal relationships. According to Haytko (2004), interpersonal relationships can be categorised as 'strictly business', 'business friends' and 'personal'. …