Valarie Zeithaml brought a fierce curiosity to her doctoral studies. When she identified gaps in the field of marketing, she proceeded to fill them – researching, teaching and consulting in the areas of services quality, services management and customer equity.
Today Zeithaml, the David S. Van Pelt Family Distinguished Professor of Marketing at UNC Kenan-Flagler, is recognized around the world as a pioneer in both services marketing and service quality.
She has researched customer expectations in more than 50 industries and consulted with service and product companies that include IBM, Kaiser Permanente, General Electric, John Hancock, Aetna, AT&T, MetLife, Bank of America, Chase, Allstate and Procter & Gamble.
Her textbook “Services Marketing” continues to set the standard in that field of study. Now in its sixth edition, it’s used in classrooms around the world after being translated into Chinese, Italian, Spanish and other languages.
She also developed a groundbreaking model to measure service quality, which she wrote about in the best-selling business book “Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations,” now in its 20th printing.
Next, she developed a seminal measurement instrument called SERVQUAL that is used by firms in a variety of industries – including healthcare, banking, fast food, telecommunications, retail chains and information systems – in such countries as Australia, China, Germany, Korea, South Africa, the U.K. and the U.S.
Zeithaml has advanced the theory and practice of marketing through her research – she wrote five more books and numerous scholarly papers – and teaching both students and executives.
Thomson Reuters named her among “the world’s most influential scientific minds” – one of just four business and economics professors named to the list. Her work has over 130,000 citations in research journals – a stunning measure of the visibility and influence of her research.
Yet services marketing did not exist as a field when Zeithaml launched her career. In fact, the PhD committee at the University of Maryland – where she earned her MBA and PhD – rejected her idea to write a dissertation on the topic because committee members said it wouldn’t get published. She wrote her dissertation on consumer response to price information – and won an award for it. Then, rather than continuing work on that topic, she followed her passion.
She notes that she had been thinking about services marketing for years – dating back to her first jobs as a lifeguard and babysitter. She wondered, “How are the parents and the kids judging me? What should I be doing to keep the customers satisfied?”
So, rather than being deterred, Zeithaml went on to define the field of services marketing, working with a small group of colleagues to put it on the map in both the academic and business worlds.
The emphasis of services marketing is the intersection between the quality of service companies provide and customer perceptions about them. Basically, says Zeithaml, companies are golden when they are reliable, empathetic and offer tangibles, assurance and responsiveness to consumers.
“Reliability is the most important factor in services marketing, which is the most interesting thing I’ve learned,” she adds, “because reliability is the one thing that no services companies can provide.”
That’s because reliability means making no errors, says Zeithaml. Of course, since humans run companies, they all make mistakes sometimes. Still, there are a few companies that come close to being reliable. Disney and Singapore Airlines are among them, she says.
A successful woman in a field dominated by men, Zeithaml never was deterred by her gender. “My father told me to ‘never think I couldn’t do something because I am a woman,’” she says.
And she didn’t. She is the first female scholar to receive the American Marketing Association (AMA) Irwin/McGraw-Hill Distinguished Marketing Educator Award, the highest award bestowed by the organization. She received the award in 2009 for lifetime leadership in marketing education and extensive contributions to marketing.
The list of other awards she has received is lengthy and includes:
As the last two awards suggest, Zeithaml is more than a top researcher. She also excels at teaching. She joined UNC Kenan-Flagler about 20 years ago and found an academic home that changed her life.
“The first moment I stepped in a classroom at UNC, I felt like singing, ‘I’m home’– except I can’t sing,” deadpans Zeithaml. And her students have kept her humming a happy tune.
Now she is teaching a marketing theory class to PhD students, training the next generation of marketing scholars. The class gives her the opportunity to read research in journals that she hasn’t read before and help students get a grasp on writing for academics, which is both an art and science.
In addition, Zeithaml is having lots of fun teaching the undergraduate services marketing course. She takes her students on field trips to Nordstrom, Trader Joe’s and Kipos Greek Taverna. The local restaurant was memorable because the owner prepared appetizers while answering their questions.
“I like communicating with students and discovering what they already know about services marketing,” says Zeithaml. “They know a lot about the topic because they consume services.”
Zeithaml also has an amazing track record of service at the School – having served as MBA associate dean, senior associate dean for academic affairs and marketing area chair – that continues today.
While her work ethic is legendary, Zeithaml loves to travel with her husband, dote on her grandchildren, spend time with her golden doodle dogs and swing dance.
But don’t think she’s slowing down. Marketing services is an increasingly important part of the global economy, and Zeithaml continues to explore the industry. She’s juggling a number of research projects, including work with a German colleague – a specialist in operations – to examine how companies can provide excellent service and be profitable, which often don’t go hand in hand.
She also is working with a Viennese professor to figure out a way to measure an employee’s authenticity and see how it relates to customer perceptions of the company. And with a former doctoral student, she is looking at the internal marketing strategies of companies. For example, if opportunities for employees to socialize are provided but they are paid less, will morale and job satisfaction be the same?
And while the AMA honored her as Lifetime Fellow for her significant contributions to the research, theory and practice of marketing in 2015, her work for the group isn’t over. She’s taking the reins as AMA chairman of the board in 2016.
“Valarie’s scholarly contributions to the marketing field are outstanding,” says Jennifer Conrad, senior associate for academic affairs and the Dalton L. McMichael Sr. Distinguished Professor of Finance. “She is the most highly cited faculty member in the School. She has raised the profile of our marketing area and, with her mentoring and recruiting, she has helped to build that area, as well.”