With focus on customers and personnel in an increasingly digital society
“When I finished my degree in business administration, I started working as a teaching assistant at the university; that means someone who helps with, for example, teaching or administrative work, but who is not a lecturer. It was then that I got insight ‘behind the scenes’ and I liked the academic environment and my colleagues,” said Nicklas Salomonson.
It made him want to study further and get a doctorate; soon, he was offered a doctoral position at IDA, as the Department of Computer and Business Studies present at the University of Borås was then called. His studies took place at to the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg.
“There were several doctoral students at IDA who started at the same time and we had a good connection with one another. Some of us are still around and have kept in touch ever since.”
He defended his doctoral thesis in 2005, which was about customer service staff and their significance for companies. His studies showed that they have a larger and more complex role than previously shown. Customer service personnel often act to coordinate, contribute understandings of different perspectives, and create relationships between companies and customers. He was the first of the university’s own doctoral students in business administration at the then IDA department to defend his doctoral thesis there.
“After six months as a Senior Lecturer, I received, in competition with others, a three-year Wallander scholarship from the Jan Wallander and Tom Hedelius Foundation for the best doctoral thesis in Business Administration in Sweden that year. Through that I was able to work as a postdoc; it felt very prestigious and it meant that I could do further research with full funding,” he said.
At the same time, he was involved at the department, teaching and supervising, and worked as a subject representative where he was part of the management group.
“Among other things, I was involved in writing the application for degree-granting powers at the doctoral level in the field of Business and IT in 2011. Our track record was too weak at the time, but we are in fact making a new effort again now. Now we have more qualified researchers and it is very fun to be on track towards that again.”
"Always say yes"
Nicklas Salomonson thinks about the milestones that have been part of his research career and remembers an invitation in 2007 from Karlstad University and its Service Research Center.
“They wanted me to present my doctoral thesis. And this is my tip for new researchers: Always say ‘yes’ to such invitations. That presentation led to many collaborations that have been very good for me personally and I still have research projects together with researchers from there. Right now we are focusing on customer misbehaviour, patient involvement in healthcare, and consumer vulnerability.”
He says that marketing has historically mostly described meetings between customers and staff from positive aspects.
“A lot in the principle of ‘putting the customer in the centre’ is good for both customers and companies, but there are also negative situations that can be destructive for the company, employees, and for other customers. We have studied what happens, why it happens, and how employees can handle these encounters,” he said.
Research shows that there is a great need for education in, among other things, retail and public transport. There is currently not much training on how difficult customers should be handled.
“The most common thing is that employees learn from each other and through ‘learning by doing.’ So more systematic training work is needed,” he said.
This research has received a lot of media attention with many comments left on articles.
“It is very fun to see such a response. It is important to inform people about your research, and talking about what you are researching is fun. It can also be too much at times: the media want to strike while the iron is hot. So I have learned to back off a bit and, together with the reporter, find a time that suits us both. My advice is not to say ‘no’, but ask for some time if needed.”
Four tracks in research
In addition to customer misbehaviour, Nicklas Salomonson has focused on three other areas in his research. One is interaction and value creation in meetings between personnel and customers. Another is technology and services – what role do employees have, what role does technology play, and how can they support each other?
“Some things customers want to take care of themselves; in those cases, self-service technologies, AI, and more can work well. But in some situations, a person is needed who can identify solutions. Emotions are another such area. Nowadays, robots behave more and more like humans, but we often can tell whether the help we receive is based on a human or artificial contact,” he explained.
He wants to continue researching the role of frontline employees in an increasingly digital society. Human contact can end up in the shadow of all the technology and then the focus on what is needed also disappears when something goes wrong, when the customer needs advice and support.
“People have inherent powers, such as the ability to innovate, creativity, coordination, empathy, motivation, which computers do not yet have. Even if it is possible to imitate certain things. Sometimes it is more important for the customer to feel seen and understood than to get a quick and half-okay solution; it would be interesting to study this in more detail in an increasingly digitalised existence.”
In the fourth area, sustainable consumption, he and his colleagues have a lot of material left to analyse.
“Time is the only limit; there is no lack of ideas.”
Among other things, he has studied customer encounters in public transport.
The teamwork is rewarding
Nicklas Salomonson leads the “Retail Research Group," a broad group of researchers who meet once a month and discuss everything from drafts of scientific articles to how the educational programmes can tie in to research.
“It is very stimulating and working in teams is something that has appealed to me ever since I started at the university. Another thing that is very fun is to supervise doctoral students. Some that I have supervised have reached the finish line and I have others that are on their way.”
He describes the profession as varied and with a high degree of freedom. But that can often extend into late evenings.
“The absolute most fun is everyone I have had the privilege of meeting: students, interview subjects, colleagues, and partners. I think that gives a lot back.”
His sights were set
In 2014, Nicklas Salomonson reached the level of Docent, or Associate Professor. He says that during some periods, for example as a doctoral student or when he was working hard to reach this level, he thought, "Okay, I’ve now come this far: what is the next step?"
“I have been quite goal-oriented in that way and wanted to get to the next level. But at the same time, I have wanted to do things that I think are fun. If I am to work on a project for three years, it must be something that is interesting,” he said.
But he still does not feel “done” just because he is now a professor.
“There is a lot to do. Further building the research environment, generating more research funding, attracting more doctoral students, and obtaining degree-awarding powers at the doctoral level in the field are some examples.”
In addition, he is working together with colleagues in Caring Science and Work Life Science with a research application to study what happens in healthcare appointments conducted via online medical services.
“We think it’s a good application, but there is tough competition when applying for funding. It is here that it is important that we gain full university status*; in that case, we would get more funds that allow us to develop research. I hope I can help get us there,” Nicklas Salomonson concluded.
*Editor’s note: the University of Borås is currently a “högskola” in Swedish, or a university college, with limitations to its degree-awarding powers at the doctoral level.
Age : 51
Interests: Architecture, design, garden, holiday home, cooking, travelling, and fishing Have over the years made many and long trips to the United States of America. A fantastic country in many ways but also a country with many challenges.
Favourite book: Oh, this one is hard, so I will just say the most recent one I read: "These Truths - a History of the United States" by Jill Lepore.
Film tips: Deer Hunter, an epic film about the effects of the Vietnam War.
Favourite food: My mother's meat soup.
What makes me angry: Dishonesty
What makes me happy: Honesty
Best app: SR Play
Dream guests at a fictitious dinner: Haha, 2020 was in many ways a deplorable year with nearly only fictitious dinners, so I say a real dinner with all the relatives gathered.
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