| 01.06.2018

Lotta Vuoristo: ”Companies ask the wrong questions in their customer relationships”

The Best Doctoral Dissertation of the Year Award has been granted to D. Sc. (Econ.) Lotta Vuoristo, by the Finnish Service Alliance, in May 2018. CERS warmly congratulates Lotta and interviews her about her work.
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It was a long research process that eventually led me to finding this gap in understanding the consumer's perspective on customer relationships. I was of course already from the very beginning interested in discovering what motivates customers – this was the starting point for my research. Eventually, as time went on, I turned more and more towards the individual customer’s perspective, ultimately discovering this gap in our understandings of consumers’ private and subjective perspectives. In particular, I discovered that the previous research portraying the consumer’s perspective typically assumes certain preconditions for the existence of a customer relationship. My study reveals that such preconditions are representing only one perspective on customer relationships: the companies’ view of how a customer relationship should be.          Photo: Minna Pura. Therefore, the perspective that I've applied in my study is fundamentally different from how previous research has represented and how companies are approaching customer relationships because it truly begins with and concentrates on the consumer, without any presumptions of what a customer relationship is or how it should be. How did the committee motivate awarding the prize to your work? According to the jury, my work was awarded because it brings a fresh perspective to the relationships between companies and customers. The jury also noted the media attention my work has received and considered my work as a gateway for novel research and business practices in this domain. I am of course very happy about this and absolutely feel it is the direction researchers and companies should be taking. What do you consider being the most important results of your dissertation? The dissertation contains many findings that I consider interesting and important but based on the feedback I have received thus far the key contribution seems to be that my study opens a new avenue for research in the previously saturated field of customer relationships. Yet, it is not enough that we know or understand how consumers perceive and make sense of customer relationships – companies need to utilize this knowledge to build better relational strategies and services to truly create mutual benefits and contribute to consumer well-being. Therefore, in my mind, this dissertation marks only the beginning of an exciting journey ahead. Was there something unexpectable in your results or in the research process? Many unexpectable findings occurred throughout the research process – they are explained in my thesis in more detail. Overall, the process was far from linear. Unlearning and steering away from past thinking and making room for new ideas was a long process and took a lot of reflection. In the course of this process, I learned to question if ‘how things seem’ is the way things truly are, and that's how my research eventually started taking the form of this thesis. The most startling discovery perhaps was learning to see how the current theories and ways of thinking are affecting what we see as the ‘truth’ of customer relationships. My study reveals how narrow this perspective is and calls for a wider view on the truth of customer relationships. As a customer, what do you expect from sellers? What is the most important thing that makes a customer stay? 

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I began my study asking similar questions. However, as the research progressed, I learned to understand that such questions give only a partial view of the customer relationship phenomenon – one that is very much centered on the companies' viewpoint: What can we, as a company, do? How can we make customers stay longer? Of course, it is natural that companies ask such questions.But, posed from a consumer-centric perspective, the same questions could be: How should companies design their services to help consumers live better lives? What kind of interaction strategies can increase mutual benefits over time, even if there are no immediate benefits? These are, in my opinion, much more relevant questions to ask and my study provides various ideas on how companies can start moving in this direction.  Photo: Anu Bask. Tell about your trip as a PhD student: What did you enjoy? What was difficult? Now, looking back to the journey, I have mixed emotions. In many ways, it was a wonderful time of immersion to the world of research, theories, findings and discoveries. I got to travel and get to know many interesting people across the world throughout my PhD studies. I was welcomed to the houses of strangers to conduct my empirical research. I learned many things not only about how people make sense of things but also about myself and how important it is that I keep pushing my boundaries – not only in research but also in everyday life. On another hand, the process required an endless amount of resilience, endurance, and energy. Was it worth it? I would say yes, for me it was, and I learned a lot of things that have developed me not only as a researcher, but more importantly; as an individual. If I compare myself to the person I was when I began my journey as a (quantitative!) researcher, I am today much more tolerant to others’ viewpoints, more accepting to subjective truths that are in contradiction with the way I see the world, and overall more welcoming towards people and experiences that can shape my own thinking. What kind of future plans do you have for your career after the dissertation? I have a long career in business (16 years) but upon receiving my PhD last autumn, I joined KONE, where I currently am responsible for global change management. A big part of my work is centered around making visible the current practices and sense-making that are at play in the daily work of people and finding ways of ensuring that those behaviors and thinking become more customer-centric. In my free-time, I still absolutely enjoy learning and developing myself further, for example I am constantly thinking of ideas how the discoveries could be brought to everyday business practice. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to combine my career, my learning aspirations, and a family life. I do not take any of that for granted. I am extremely grateful for the support I received during the years from my friends, co-workers and family.  Annamari Huovinen