Guest article from Yves Van Vaerenbergh, recipient of the 2022 SERVSIG Emerging Service Scholar Award.

Receiving the 2022 AMA SERVSIG Emerging Service Scholar Award was something I could never imagine. When looking at the accomplishments of previous winners and other scholars in my cohort, I can only be humbled and grateful. Oh yes, imposter syndrome does exist! Even for seemingly more experienced scholars.

I received this award at a special time in the history of service research. There are so many changes going on: The increasing impact of AI, the ever-increasing importance of well-being, the increasing availability of data,… All these exciting trends are clearly reflected in our journals. We see an increasing number of publications around these topics.

Our field is advancing at a an excitingly rapid pace. I want to use this moment and this forum to take a bird’s eye view and discuss some challenges that remain.
Let me pick two examples.

Let’s be more open toward Open Science

Several research domains such as psychology, biology, medical sciences,… experienced a gigantic crisis in the last decade. Several research results turned out not to be reproducible. A well-known example was published in Science in 2015. A large group of researchers tried to replicate 100 experiments taken from the top 3 psychology journals. Only ⅓ of these studies could be replicated. Similar studies in other fields showed similar results.

When attempts were made to identify the causes, it was found that researchers often unknowingly followed several practices that caused non-significant results to become significant, that many published effects were actually Type I errors, and so on. Since then, standards in terms of openness and transparency, so-called “Open Science,” have greatly improved. Pre-registering studies, determining sample sizes based on statistical power, and sharing data, materials and code are just a few examples.

I am currently working on a project in which we examined the extent to which these new standards were adopted in service research. The adoption rate is extremely, extremely low. If we want to continue to be taken seriously as a domain, we need to take this step. Researchers from other domains will perceive our papers as more credible and qualitative. Funding agencies are already asking more and more about Open Science initiatives. And above all, we will be able to be more confident in the recommendations we make to organizations and policy makers. 

I myself have already taken several steps in this direction, but the road is still long. In any case, read or follow courses about Open Science. Try to implement it in your own research. You’ll notice, just like I did, that you will tremendously improve the quality of your work.

Recommendations on how our research can be implemented

Service research is a great place to be in because of its interdisciplinarity and because of its focus on relevant research. We easily pat ourselves on the back that our research can really move organizations forward. And yet… Our impact is not always as great as we want it to be. For example, a recent survey by Qualtrics (2022) found that 8 in 10 consumers think organizations need to improve their customer experience. 

How can this be? Our service journals are filled with recommendations on how organizations can improve their service (and thus customer experience). One cause is clearly that managers do not always find their way to academic studies. But this explanation alone would be too simple. 

If we look at service research, it is easy to see that most of the research was taken from customers. These studies often give some recommendations, but these are often quite prescriptive: Customers want this or that, and you as an organization should do this or that. 

Let me give you an example: Research shows that customers who are served in an empathetic way are more satisfied and loyal, from which often comes the recommendation that organizations should be more empathetic towards customers. This recommendation is entirely correct, but is often difficult to implement. 

Being empathetic to customers requires that employees can be empathetic to customers, that they do not work for managers who make them very authoritarian, that they have slept well at night, that they work with systems and for organizations that allow them to take time to be empathetic to customers, and so on. 

There is particularly little research on the effective implementation of customer experience management within organizations. There is a need for more research that takes an organizational, process, and employee perspective – preferably using a multilevel approach. We need to keep showing organizations what they should do, but also complement our recommendations with research on how they can do it. 

Reach out to practitioners and present your work. Have a discussion with them. Examine how they implement your ideas and even help them – and write a new paper about it 🙂

Is this criticism of what we’re doing? Absolutely not! Service researchers have a real impact. What I’m pointing out are ways to further improve our impact. There is still so much to learn and so much to research!

To end: Thank you to my wonderful family, my supervisors, my co-authors, my PhD students, my friends, and so many others. I would never have won this fantastic award without you. 

Yves Van Vaerenbergh
Professor of Marketing
KU Leuven, Faculty of Economics and Business, Department of Marketing

Photo credit: Chris Liverani.