Interview with Tom Baker was conducted by Linda Nasr

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

My grandmother was a first-grade teacher so I think the idea of being an educator was always in the back of my mind, but I knew I wanted to teach people who at least knew to sit in their seat and not eat the Play-doh. As an undergraduate at Kentucky I began to think about teaching at a university but had no idea how to do that. I eventually switched from being an Accounting major to Marketing and in my first semester had a class with Joe Cronin who became a friend and mentor. It was through him that I came to understand and appreciate the research side of things. I eventually had a class that I really loved with Jim Donnelly, one of the pioneers in Services Marketing.  It was in talking with him, along with Joe and other faculties at UK that convinced me that a career as a marketing academician was the path for me.  But while I maybe came at this from a teaching perspective, I very quickly fell in love with the research side and even this many years later that remains my primary motivator.

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

One obstacle was that since I wasn’t a very serious undergraduate student. As I moved into graduate school (I did a Master of Public Administration at UK prior to my Ph.D. at Florida State) I found that in addition to learning the material I needed to know at any point in time, I also had to go back and pick up things I didn’t learn earlier.  Fortunately, I had the ability to do that but more importantly, I had, and still have, a strong passion for learning.  In fact, that is what I believe is the best part of this job – we get paid to learn!!  But any of us who do this understand that we are often playing catch-up since things change so quickly.  So in some respect, I think we all have to overcome this same obstacle – we never learn enough to get us through more than the next couple of years.  Students need to learn this very quickly.  We don’t just talk about lifelong learning, we have to truly be committed to that.

What has been your most memorable publication/project?

Of course, my first, and hopefully not last, Journal of Marketing article was very memorable but beyond that, one that is very memorable is a paper that was published in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science in 2008 with my good friend Tracy Meyer.  Tracy was a new hire at UNCW and we were talking about a project that had to do with attributions in service failure/recovery.  Through a somewhat chance encounter she had with a faculty member in the Psychology department the project became something quite different. We eventually investigated how Caucasian and African Americans viewed service failures and recovery efforts differently and how that was impacted by the makeup of others in the service environment.  What was particularly memorable about this project was that it was totally out of my comfort zone.  I had never been a CB person so to suddenly be reading articles about discriminatory attributions and how minority groups use attributions to cope with covert acts of discrimination was very new for me, but very exciting.  It was also probably the first project I worked on that was based on experiments, something I have come to use quite a bit more than I ever imagined earlier in my career. Again, the importance of lifelong learning!!

Is there a contribution that makes you feel exceptionally proud?

I’m not sure this is a contribution, per se, but maybe the thing I am most proud of is the opportunity I’ve had to work with Kris Lindsey Hall, my first PhD student at Alabama. I had always wanted to work with PhD students and cannot begin to imagine a better situation than I had with Kris.  She very quickly moved from being a student to being a colleague and I am so looking forward to see where her career ends up over the next few years now that she has moved to her first position at LSU. I want to be very clear – I take very little of the credit for her performance, she was going to do great no matter whom she worked with. But to have the opportunity to play a small role in someone else’s success the way others did for me has made me very proud.

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

Without a doubt one such moment would be going to 803 South, a great pub in Lexington, on Thursday, August 18, 1983. That was the first day of classes at UK the semester I switched to Marketing and it was at 803 on that day that I met Joe Cronin.  From that meeting we became friends, eventually, as is usually the case with Joe, and it was at 803 a few months later that Joe and I had our first serious conversation about my doing graduate work. Joe was very supportive of my pursuing a PhD, in the way only Joe can be!  But I think this is important because it points out how often our careers, and lives, are less within our control than we think.  However, if I think about it, there was another moment, around the time I was promoted to Full Professor at UNCW, when I began to question the trajectory of my career. This led me to really re-think the way I was approaching things and has impacted how my career has moved since then.

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

Pretty much based on who will put up with me!  I tell our students all the time that finding people that you work with well is very difficult.  I have convinced myself, and sometimes others, that I am good at conceptualizing issues and writing so I try to look for people who complement that skillset.  For example, while I was at Clemson we hired Adam Rapp and in addition to very quickly becoming a great friend, I found that we worked well together.  Adam and I would talk through a project and I would make some suggestions about models and he would estimate them and we would continue that process until we hit on something that fit within the theoretical perspective we were taking and provided reasonable results.  Adam was great at putting the methods/results together, passing them along, then giving me time to write around that.  But I have taken a somewhat eclectic approach to research and generally like to work with people who are fun to work with!

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

One area is definitely what we are seeing with collaborative consumption, something that was the focus of Kris Lindsey Hall’s dissertation. I believe this is not only going to have a disruptive impact on how markets operate, but also will drive and be driven by significant changes in consumer behavior.  For example, on the one hand you can argue that service (and here I will use that in an inclusive SDL perspective) is becoming less about how consumers communicate something about themselves due to the decreasing importance of ownership.  But on the other hand, because collaborative consumption provides access to services that consumers may not otherwise have been able to access, it could be that collaborative consumption makes service more important to a consumer’s self-image.  For example, a platform like “Bag Borrow or Steal” allows consumers to gain short-term access to very expensive handbags that many would unlikely be able to purchase.  But there is little doubt in my mind that the entire collaborative consumption space is one that is very fertile for some interesting research.

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

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been very good at peering around the corner and determining what comes next.  I would love to someday get out in front of the curve but am not sure it will happen. So I sometimes come off as a Luddite as it relates to where things are going and how we will get there.  One thing I believe will be interesting is the extent to which we can maintain our identity as an area of research.  No doubt changes (e.g., use of technology) will require that what constitutes “service” research will need to change.  But as we become more inclusive, do we begin to lose the essence of what our discipline is? Maybe this distinction is unimportant.  Perhaps the solution is that we begin to couch what we do and who we are as being less about service research and more explicitly about customer experience management, which would allow us to expand what fits under the tent and to keep the interactions between the firm and the customer as the focus of what we do.

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

Nothing works better than a nice tumbler of delicious Kentucky bourbon!  I also have been an avid reader since I was a child (thanks, mom!!) so I love nothing better than opening up a new book by Daniel Silva or Michael Connelly. During my seven years at Clemson I lived on a golf course and loved throwing the clubs on my back in the early evening, walking up to the sixth tee, and playing a few holes in a loop back to the house.   Although now that I think about it, given the state of my game that was not very relaxing!

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

Like many of us I can’t imagine doing anything else, but owing to my doing a Masters in Public Administration my backup plan of sorts would probably have been to start with the Kentucky Legislative Research Committee, which is an agency that provides bipartisan policy analyses to the Kentucky State Legislature. Where that would have led I have no idea, but even now I believe it would have been very interesting.

What about you surprises new students and/or colleagues?

That I am from Kentucky since I never mention it! I honestly am not sure. I tend to wear my emotions and opinions not so much on my sleeve as much as on a giant banner so there is usually not a lot that surprises people about me, or at least I don’t think there is!

Tom Baker is Associate Professor of Marketing at Culverhouse College of Business at the University of Alabama