Interview with Steve Baron was conducted by Linda Nasr

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

It wasn’t planned. I had a mathematics and statistics university education, and had moved straight into lecturing at an institution with a focus on vocational education. A lack of ‘real world’ business experience was a problem for me, so I took advantage of a government scheme which funded a 12-month opportunity for academics to work in industry. I became the market research leader for a company that managed eight covered shopping malls in the UK. On return to my university, I was encouraged to help develop a new retail marketing degree. I worked with new colleagues, Kim Cassidy and Barry Davies, who introduced me to marketing and services marketing. Armed with a book on service encounters, and a couple of articles by Christian Grönroos, I made my way to my first Frontiers conference in 1992. From then on, I was hooked.

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

There are many, but I’ll stick to outlining only two.

I saw the fact that I had never been formally taught marketing as an obstacle initially. I kept my head down in discussions on marketing mix, marketing planning, advertising and others, so as not to reveal my ignorance. As time wore on, and I had read more, I gained confidence, and, in a strange way, felt that I could benefit from my lack of attendance at taught marketing programs. I didn’t need help to think out of the box, as I was already there. I do believe it has given me a useful perspective on conventional academic marketing wisdom, and a liking for novel research on service(s).

I’d always been aware that marketing was often not regarded highly by non-marketers. However, it did surprise me, during my real world experience, how intense the dislike could be. Each of the shopping mall managers resented the fact that part of their budget that had to be spent on marketing, which they saw as disruptive to the normal routine. For example, entertainments organized to bring in people in school holidays not only created more mess, but annoyed retailers whose shop fronts were obscured. While marketing efforts were designed to increase the number of mall users, the jobs of mall managers were often taken up with deterring undesirable visitors to their mall. A clash of cultures and objectives was always there. My first market research report to the Board was likened by the CEO to a PhD thesis, and that wasn’t a compliment! Ever since, I have never made the assumption that marketing ideas would be welcomed by others without a very careful exposition of the intended benefits, and have made a conscious effort to empathize with an audience.

What has been your most memorable publication/project?

At my age, I am probably guilty of loss of memory, but my latest publication (“Feed people first: A service ecosystem perspective on innovative food waste reduction” Journal of Service Research 21(1):135-150) has been the most memorable. Not only did I work jointly with excellent co-researchers, but the whole learning experience was invigorating. Every piece of qualitative data provided us with insights and a real belief in the value of service in a non-profit-making environment.

Is there a contribution that makes you feel exceptionally proud?

I think that being the Chair of the AMA SERVSIG Research Conference in Liverpool in 2008 will always stick in my mind as a significant contribution. It was my idea to put forward Liverpool as the destination, and I believe that it came at the right time. Hurricane Katrina had put a temporary stop to Servsig activities at the time, and it was amazing to be able to fill the void. It put the University of Liverpool on the service research academic map, and showed off the city in its year as European Capital of Culture. I was very proud of how both academic and administrative colleagues at the University of Liverpool gave their all to make the conference a success.

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

The move from mathematics and statistics to service(s) marketing was pivotal. However, I did not feel that I had truly made it until I had a publication accepted in a services journal in 1995. That the first one was accepted for the Journal of Services Marketing had a lasting effect on me. It has been an honor to be Co-Editor of that journal for the last four years, and I hope that I’ve contributed in some way to its continued importance in the field.

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

I recently checked and discovered that I have co-authored journal articles, books or book chapters with a total of 54 authors from 13 countries. I’ve never really thought about picking them, or more importantly, why they picked me. I guess that I have been fortunate in that the publications have been completed in a celebratory fashion, without any falling out or recriminations. I did have one issue when a former PhD student submitted a paper to a journal in joint names without telling me. It was done with best intentions, but caused me some problems. Looking back, I think that it is always essential to meet and talk to a potential co-author before making any commitment. Going solely on reputation is probably not a good idea.

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

There are two areas about which I would like to learn more.

First, the transformative service research theme is of great potential. I would love to see more practical applications of the ideas. Will it really have a significant effect on large societal issues?

Second, the influence of technology and robotics on service and life experiences is a very real, current fascination for me.

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

I have witnessed a great increase in service research activities in the last 25 years. The service(s) research community is extremely strong and welcoming. I would like to see, however, some more obvious recognition of service research achievements from academics and practitioners outside the community. We should aim to be regarded with the same esteem as that accorded to economists or physicists. This may involve a greater focus on demonstration of the impact of our research on society and business that is currently the case.

The geographical base of service researchers is much wider than when I started. Currently, research contributions from researchers in universities outside North America, Europe and Australasia tend to follow a similar pattern; empirical studies which emulate or replicate those already undertaken elsewhere, mostly using quantitative techniques, especially SEM. I see a future where researchers from these universities focus as much on the originality and significance of their research as they do on rigor. That will enrich the service research field with challenging real-life problems and scope for imaginative methodologies.

What do you do to relax after a challenging day or at the end of a challenging project?

Since my full-time retirement, my days are less challenging than those shown in the photos. It seems crazy, but one way of relaxing is to write. Like many others, I feel there is a novel in me, and so I’m on to Chapter 25 of my first novel. It’s so good to write a sentence without needing to cite an authority.

I follow football (soccer), but it is far from relaxing to be a supporter of Leeds United.

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

My careers advisor suggested that I might go into banking. I went for an interview for one of the top UK banks. I was turned down because my northern English accent didn’t fit with the bank’s image. I didn’t realize my good fortune at the time.

Steve Baron is
Professor of Marketing
at University of Liverpool