Interview with Mark Houston was conducted by Linda Nasr

What attracted you to marketing/service research as a discipline of study?

Prior to entering my PhD program, I wrestled with whether to apply to Org Behavior or Marketing programs. One of my MBA marketing professors, Al Wildt, took the time for in-depth talks with me about the academic career path, and how research keeps your mind alive, while also making you a better teacher. From his course and his life advice, I decided that marketing gave me the most freedom to explore – and that has proved to be true as my interests have evolved throughout my career. Regarding services, I’ve always approached problems from a strategy lens, but I’ve always been fascinated by the interpersonal aspects of strategy, such as intergroup interaction during new product development, strategy formulation, and relationship marketing. So I read a ton of services work on service encounters, relationships, and the like. Plus, earning my PhD at Arizona State, the Center for Services Leadership was a huge part of my academic heritage, so I always was shaped by people like Steve Brown and Mary Jo Bitner and tuned into service issues.

What surprises/obstacles did you experience in your early career?  How did you address them?

I graduated in 1995, and at that time, really learning how to battle the review process tended to happen in your first year years as an assistant professor, not as a doc student. The biggest surprise to me was how critical persistence turned out to be for succeeding as a research scholar. Going in, I assumed that good ideas and solid methods were all you needed. And while those things are necessary, I now have seen that persevering in the face of adversity is perhaps the main differentiator between smart people who succeed in this career and smart people who don’t. I’ve learned that you’ve got to be willing to outwork the review team – take everything seriously and do your best to go above-and-beyond whenever you can.

What has been your most memorable publication/project?

I would have to say the 2012 Journal of Consumer Research paper with Chris Blocker and Dan Flint. I’m a huge believer in relationship marketing, but in that paper, we pushed back on how uncritically the relationship metaphor is fully accepted in scholarly research. The ways that a metaphor fits can make it hard to notice the ways in which it does NOT fit. It is fun to have one of the few papers in JCR that focuses on business buyers. Beyond the contribution, that project was memorable just for the joy of getting to know Chris and Dan – I had met Chris at a conference when he was a PhD student and we didn’t really know each other well prior to the project. He is a great scholar and an even better person and father – and now a close friend.

Is there a contribution that makes you feel exceptionally proud?

Two things. On the research side, the 2000 JMR was one of the earlier applications in marketing of the event study method, but I’m probably most proud of the contribution of the 2015 JM paper on Transformational Relationship Events. That paper was based on Colleen Harmeling’s dissertation, and working with her, Rob Palmatier, Mark Arnold, and Steve Samaha was a ton of fun. Although the disconfirmation theory space is well worn, that paper showed that there are actually two types of customer expectations – relational and product – that have differing effects and should be disentangled. That paper blended secondary data (showing that something like our ideas worked in the real world), experiments (showing that the proposed mechanisms hold), and a multi-source survey (embedding the constructs in a nomological network and testing moderators). It was a good project and a great team. Colleen is truly a rising star and a great friend.

Houston, Arnold, Harmeling, and Palmatier hiding in the shadows at Summer AMA Atlanta.

On the marketing discipline side, I’m proud of my contributions to doctoral students. Sandy Jap and I, as members of AMA Academic Council, poured in a ton of work to help stabilize the AMA/Sheth Foundation Doctoral Consortium when it was in danger of losing its relevance and recruit host schools. I’ve co-chaired the consortium (with Bob Leone and Eric Yorkston) and have had the privilege of serving as a consortium faculty 10 times, plus have gotten to do a ton of events at conferences over the years with DocSIG, the PhD Project, and various consortia (AMS, SME, MMA, Marketing Strategy Consortium – and the upcoming 2018 Frontiers Doctoral Consortium). It is pretty cool getting to meet and encourage people who are excited about their work and their future.

Photo from the “Welcome From Chairs” letter from the 2010 consortium program.

With mentor Mike Hutt at graduation (1995).

Was there a pivotal moment or key person in your career?

Wow. Several of each, but I’ll focus on people because people make this career the really cool thing that it is. Mike Hutt and Beth Walker were my mentors when I was a PhD student and are still mentoring me today. If I could only name one person, it would be Mike – I particularly remember him telling me to keep my eyes on the standards of the discipline instead of the tenure standards of my first school. At that first school, an assistant professor in Finance, Shane Johnson, was a real research role model. We coauthored several papers (a JMR and a JFQA) and are close friends to this day – connecting with Shane changed the trajectory of my career. As an associate professor at University of Missouri, I had the great fortune of getting to work with two doctoral students who have gone on to have a big impact, Rob Palmatier and Hari Sridhar.My main job was to encourage them and then stay out of their way, but working with those two has been pivotal in my own life and career. Around that same time, I had the good fortune to meet Thorsten Hennig-Thurau at a casual dinner with mutual friends (Winter AMA 2001). I think it was fate, as we have gone on to publish a bunch of papers and a major book (Entertainment Science) that will be out in June 2018 (see Working with Thorsten opened up a whole new field of interest for me, and he is a great coauthor and one of my closest friends.Finally, one of the benefits of having been in the field for a while is getting to work with and encourage people who are at the front end of their careers. Working with Colleen Harmeling, Chris Blocker, and Larisa Ertekin gives me hope for the future of our discipline. If we had more time, I would regale you with stories about a great group of peers during my PhD program at ASU (Lance Bettencourt, Ed Bond, Dwayne Gremler, Deb Laverie, Charlie Noble, Kevin Gwinner, and John Eaton), but I’ll save that for another day.

How do you pick research partners and/or co-authors?

With coauthor and friend Thorsten Hennig-Thurau during the photo shoot for our book.

Although things like complementary skill sets and access to data are obviously important, the main thing is character. I frame it this way: is this someone that I like well enough to work with over the years that it takes to get a good paper through the review process? Are they any fun? Can I trust them to carry their weight? Life is too short to work with people who are not good colleagues. Early in my career (just like most assistant profs), things were weighted more toward pragmatism. But over time, the balance has shifted far more towards the “good colleague/fun-to-work-with” criterion. 

What current trends in marketing/service research do you find fascinating?

I am a big fan of the increased focus on solutions. As someone who ascribes very tightly to the view that customers “hire” products and services to “get jobs done,” I think focusing more on what the customer is trying to achieve really opens the marketer’s eyes to more opportunities that just selling more of or improving a current product or service. I also like the fact that some momentum is building around the importance of strategy and research that is of practical relevance – the services group has never lost sight of this, but marketing, as a whole, has flirted with a desire to become economics. The University of Missouri just hosted the first Marketing Strategy Consortium, and the strong support by scholarly leaders and PhD students should give us all hope that the tide is turning. (A big shout-out to Lisa Scheer for making that event happen).

How do you envision the future of our service research field?

I think we are going to continue to have to improve the rigor of our methodology in order for services work to continue to find its way into top-tier marketing journals. But there are so many good questions and such bright people coming into the services field, I think the future is bright.

What is your go to relax after a challenging day or at the end of a challenging project?

I love trail running, mountain biking, guitar, and movies, and I try not to overfeed my addiction to a few TV/streaming series (e.g., Walking Dead, Man in the High Castle, Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Santa Clarita Diet, A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.)

If you had not gone into marketing/academia, what would have been your alternative career?

My desired motocross, music, and NBA careers were each derailed by a lack of talent. I’m pretty social, so I probably would have done something in student services (I spent a few years as a university admissions counselor), customer service, or sales. My ambition didn’t really hit until I got a taste of passion for research.

What about you surprises new students and/or colleagues?

I have a wise-crack gene that I can’t control, so people have to figure out that about 50% of anything I say is actually a joke. Couldn’t even control it when I was an administrator, so that was fun….

Mark Houston is Professor of Marketing / Eunice and James L. West Chair in Marketing, Texas Christian University

AE of Journal of Service Research, JM, and JAMS
AMA Board of Directors