“Opportunities in the field of services marketing are endless!” Interview of the Grönroos Award 2017 Winners Mary Jo Bitner and Stephen Brown

The winners are two distinguished pioneers of service research branch, Professors Mary Jo Bitner and Stephen Brown from Arizona State University. We wanted to know more about their thoughts of services marketing and academic life!

CERS: What was your original inspiration to services marketing and management?

Mary Jo Bitner

Mary Jo: In my MBA program at the University of Washington I learned about non-profit marketing and found it very interesting – more interesting than packaged goods or durable goods marketing! Then, I learned there was actually an area of research around non-profit marketing – and even more broadly around services marketing! This research was in its infancy at the time. My interest in research grew, and I decided to pursue a PhD degree – already knowing that I wanted to focus on service marketing and management. At the time I was inspired by the work and mentorship of the late Dr. Bernard Booms and our joint discovery of the writings of Dr. Christian Grönroos! We met Christian soon after that and both of these individuals continued to inspire my early work. I owe them both much gratitude. This was in the early 1980s!

Stephen: Professor Leonard Berry was my original inspiration. Len preceded me by a few years in the doctoral program at Arizona State University, and as ASU alumni, we’ve always had a close relationship. Yet, it wasn’t until we shared leadership positions with the American Marketing Association that I grasped Len’s fervor for why both academic and business marketers needed to recognize and adjust to the fact that services marketing is different than goods marketing. Through our leadership we were able to convince the AMA to sponsor the first services conferences in North America in the late 1970s/early 1980s. At these conferences I met and became friends with Christian Grönroos and Evert Gummesson. They introduced me to the special contributions of the Nordic School of Services, and we continued to be close colleagues and friends for decades. Christian was a distinguished visiting professor with our Center for Services Leadership several times. With Evert, I co-founded and co-chaired the QUIS conferences for two decades (Bo Edvardsson joined us in co-chairing subsequent QUIS conferences).


CERS: What areas are specifically your expertise? How did you find them?

Mary Jo: My specific areas of expertise center around customer interactions with companies and organizations and understanding customer satisfaction and adoption of services in these contexts. Early on, my focus was on interpersonal service encounters, or the interactions between customers and employees. Later my interest grew logically to focus on customer-technology interactions, specifically SSTs, or self-service technologies. Along the way, I also focused for a while on physical environments or “servicescapes” where these customer-company interactions occur, seeking to understand how the physical space affects customers and employees. These topics grew logically from my dissertation where the focus was on customer satisfaction with service encounters. Now, I find myself focusing on newer forms of technology-customer interfaces and ideas related to the Internet of Things and services that actually occur with no human involvement at all – no employee actions AND no customer actions! All of these topics are captured within a newly-defined domain called “organizational frontlines” where I spend considerable time. I have worked on a number of other topics and extensions, but the service encounter has remained central to my research for my entire career.


Stephen: One of my challenges as a scholar has been having an interest in many things, yet always linked in some way to services. I’ve studied and published in areas of service culture, service encounters, employee engagement, service loyalty and service management. Yet, the area I may be most known for is service recovery. Later in my career, through years of work with GE and my own research, I became very interested in phenomena of traditional manufacturing and product-dominant firms moving into offering profitable services.


CERS: What kind of collaboration have you had with CERS researchers over time? Would you like to share some memories?

Mary Jo: My primary collaboration has been with Christian Grönroos, beginning in the early 1980s and continuing until today. He is an inspiration and a friend. He has also introduced me to many other CERS researchers over the years and I have thoroughly enjoyed and respected the work flowing from CERS. You have all lead the way on so many topics and been a role-model for others around the world.

Stephen: Like Professor Bitner, my primary collaboration has been with Christian Grönroos. He has long been a thought leader and friend. Two of my career highlights are associated with CERS. First, in 1996, I lived in Helsinki for six weeks at the invitation of the Center primarily to teach a doctoral seminar for eleven students from HANKEN and other Finnish and Swedish universities. I also visited the Vaasa campus and gave research seminars there and to several Helsinki businesses. Through this experience, I learned much about the Finnish culture, the importance of the employee, and I made several friendships. Second, in 1999 I had the privilege to return to Helsinki and receive an honorary doctoral degree from HANKEN. It was wonderful for me to see several of my students awarded their doctorates in the same ceremony. At the dinner celebration following, I was asked to offer a toast for all the honorees. I cannot recall anything I said, yet I doubt if anyone else can recall the content of the toast either! 


CERS: You two have been working together as well. With which projects?

Mary Jo: Steve and I worked together for 25 years at Arizona State University. The projects we worked on together spanned everything from papers, book chapters, presentations, executive workshops and, probably most importantly, the leadership of the Center for Services Leadership! It was one of my greatest professional rewards to have the opportunity to work with Steve – he was a mentor early on, an inspiration, role-model, and always a trusted colleague and good friend.

Stephen: Professor Bitner captured our relationship well above. I can only add that Mary Jo has enriched my career in many, many ways. She’s an eminent scholar that I’m proud to have as a good friend.


CERS: What advice would you give to younger scholars in the field of marketing?

Mary Jo: Specifically I would advise younger scholars in the field of marketing (specifically services marketing) to focus their research on important problems and issues that will have an impact on businesses or society. “Life is too short” to work on research problems that are too small or hold little promise of impact. Given the relentless growth of the services across the world and the dramatic changes resulting from digitization of every industry, the opportunities are endless!

Stephen: Follow your passion and work on topics important to you and to society.


CERS: What themes are you working with right now?

Mary Jo: Right now I am working on research related to branded service, frameworks for understanding service impact on quality of life and well-being, and extensions of my earlier work on technology and services. All of this work is done in collaboration with wonderful colleagues and doctoral students (former and current)!

Stephen: I have been an emeritus professor for six years. In the last year, I have changed my focus to memoirs. I was introduced to this form of writing through a class offered at ASU’s Emeritus College. Memoirs are not autobiographies. Instead, they are stories an author writes about interesting experiences they’ve had in their lives. In the months and years ahead, I expect to craft one or more memoir pieces about fascinating experiences I had with HANKEN, CERS, and Helsinki.


CERS: What else is important in your life?


Mary Jo: I have a very full and “big life” outside of ASU and academics. I have been married for 45 years to my husband, Rich. We have two “millennial” daughters and six wonderful grandchildren – ages 6-13! All of these wonderful people live near to us so

we are able to enjoy their lives and support them in all their various activities! Personally I enjoy reading (just about anything), movies that deal with historical events and times, and swimming. My one complaint in life – not enough time! But, I think that is a good complaint to have.

Stephen: My family is my top priorities. My rock is my marital partner of 50 years, Joanne. We have two married daughters and four grandchildren aged 8-17. Currently, I’m counseling our oldest and very bright grandson in his college selection process. Friends are a second priority, and I’m appreciating having more of an opportunity in recent years to deepen these relationships. I am a life-long learner, and two of my current learning passions are memoir writing and faith-based scholarship. I try to exercise six days a week doing extended walks, Tai Chi, and classes at a health club. We have a second home high in the mountains where we treasure being in more of a retreat setting. I currently work as a strategic advisor and board member with three companies and one non-profit organization. Like Professor Bitner, my one complaint is not having enough time. Yet, being an emeritus professor, I can only fault myself for this situation.


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