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Sarah Evans-Howe is from Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. She joined Oxford Brookes in September 2013 and her thesis title is ‘Complaining via social media: perceptions of temporality in customer complaint behaviour following exceptional experiences in luxury London hotels’.
I first came to Oxford Brookes on an open day back in 1993 when I was still taking my A Levels and deciding where to go to university for the first time. It was very exciting because I always knew I wanted to pursue a career in hotel management but went to a very academic school where they didn’t really understand vocational courses. I couldn’t wait to start studying anything and everything to do with hotels – my favourite places! Grant Clendening (who later became my personal tutor) gave a talk in the lecture theatre in the Fuller building introducing us to the University and explained the importance of choosing a university where you felt comfortable. This was the first time I had ever heard someone talking about studying hotel management and, with such passion expressed, I knew straight away this would be my first choice. Although I had visited other universities, Brookes was the most warm and welcoming.
I returned to Oxford Brookes in September 2013 for my PhD and it felt just like coming home. I’m clearly biased but I don’t think there is anywhere better for hotel and hospitality related courses. I was also eager to work with David Bowie. Of course, I attended his lectures for my undergraduate degree (although I don’t expect him to remember this as I was just a face in the crowd) but when I first came to Oxford to discuss my PhD we had an easy rapport and I thought we would be able to work well together, which has proved to be the case. My other supervisor, Dr Sarah Quinton, is also fantastic. I have been extremely lucky to have two very good supervisors because I believe this working relationship is integral to the success of any PhD.
I became interested in doing a PhD thanks to the encouragement of a mentor (Dr Deba Bardhan Correia) at my previous place of work, the University of Buckingham. I went to Buckingham to do a Master’s in Service Management in 2011 and Deba spotted my potential as a teacher and lecturer. I was lucky to be given increasing opportunity for responsibility and when I finished my master’s I was offered a permanent position lecturing in various business-related subjects including Service Management and Cross-Cultural Management, eventually becoming Programme Manager for the MSc Service Management that I had originally gone there to study. I found I loved teaching and mentoring students and so was advised that a PhD would be important.
I found it fairly easy to settle into the research environment but being part-time I am based at home. I have a husband, Stephen, two children (Charlotte, 15 and Oliver, 12) and a Labrador, Sam so this suits me very well. However, at times, researching independently can feel isolating. I have noticed that I feel more encouraged when I have attended training modules and met up with my peers, such as at 20:20 or other research/doctoral events or even just meeting up for coffee with a fellow student. Of course, hearing feedback from supervisors (the experts in my field) is the most helpful of all and is particularly motivational but even discussing my research with someone in a totally different field is beneficial because the act of having to articulate what you’re doing is helpful in clarifying your own thoughts and ideas. I have found the support and resources available to be exactly what I have needed at every stage and all members of staff I have interacted with have always been professional and helpful.
Hotels are meant to be happy places where you go in and come out feeling better. If that hasn’t happened, I am very interested to know why and what can be done to make it better next time. Throughout my career in hotels I handled many complaints and over time found that I actually quite enjoyed listening to customers explain why they were not satisfied and then helping to make them feel better. It was a kind of challenge for me. The stronger the complaint, the greater my desire to turn this into a happy customer. I think this is where my interest in complaint behaviour began.
However, today, with increasing use of social media, customers have the opportunity to be more vocal than ever. Moreover, with widespread use of smart phones and mobile technology, various behavioural changes are taking place. Many customers are increasingly linked to a much larger circle of connections at the touch of a button which impacts word-of-mouth as well as the ease with which they can reach “head-office” or the “corporate office” of the hotel company. Individuals are sharing where they’ve been, on Facebook, taking photographs of their fine-dining experience, posting these on Instagram in real-time and using Twitter to complain. Therefore, customers’ behaviour in the moment of consumption is changing as they are often pre-occupied with conspicuous consumption rather than enjoying the experience. Similarly, being constantly connected to the internet has led to a faster pace of life and a widespread belief that more can be achieved in less time which has led to higher customer expectations. People are also now able to complain while still actually in the hotel or restaurant actually consuming the experience, rather than having to speak to someone or wait to write a letter when they get home. I am conducting my research within the context of luxury hotels because this too is an emerging area as there is little literature regarding complaining in a luxury context and the use of social media in luxury hotels specifically.
My research is looking at all these different aspects of complaint behaviour with particular interest in our evolving attitudes to time; what we’re doing, “in the moment”, our beliefs about what can be achieved within what time period, customer expectations of response times and how quickly customers expect resolutions to problems in hotels.
I enjoy being a research student very much. At school, I never considered myself to be an academic. At my grammar school, this meant Oxbridge exams and people talked about “pure” subjects like English, Maths and Science, none of which I was particularly interested in. However, I now appreciate that it is simply a matter of finding the right subject or area of interest. Actually, of all the things required for a PhD, passion is the greatest one and I have that in bucket loads! If it’s about hotels, I enjoy everything a PhD comprises: reading, researching, analysing, evaluating and writing. I think one of the things that gets underestimated the most is the amount of thinking required. Very often, for me this means talking about it as well and I’m quite sure my family have heard enough already!
Research training has been good. I particularly enjoyed attending Qualitative Research Methods (a) this year with Dr Juliette Koning and Dr Karen Handley. We had a really good group and enjoyed some very interesting discussions about philosophy! I am looking forward to Quals B next term for more of the same!
As soon as I’ve finished my PhD I would love a job as a Senior Lecturer, teaching and researching more of the same at a lovely university that specialises in hospitality not far from the dreaming spires. Now, where might there be such a place I wonder?!