Student feedback surveys valuable but not always well-intentioned

March 6, 2015

This past week, I got a student survey in my inbox from Sodexo. As someone with quite a few opinions about our dining halls, I was more than excited to get started. Though I’ll admit that by the fifth page of endless bubbles I was getting frustrated, by the time I finished I was positively brimming with excitement. I felt that I had been listened to, and that my voice on campus was respected. I knew I had made a difference.

Though the more I reflected on it, the smaller that difference became. All I had done, after all, was fill out a couple of boxes online and written a paragraph about meatloaf quality. I put more work into any class assignment than into this survey, and it was only one of an untold number. It might be true that I had done some amazing thing and helped out our students by finally telling Sodexo what for, but it also seems possible that my survey would fly off into the virtual netherworld to never again see the light of day. Ultimately, there’s no way to know if my feedback will in any way impact the actions of a company like Sodexo.

There are ultimately two possible reads into the intentions of an institution when it sends out a survey like Sodexo’s, and they can tell us how the survey will be received. The first is actually rather positive. It’s entirely possible that Sodexo is sending us a dining survey because they actually want to do better. By this point in the year, I’m certain that the continuous drone of student anger and disappointment, whether expressed online, in print or among unhappy students eating some questionable meatloaf has impacted the managers. No one wants to run a company people don’t like, and it’s obvious that Sodexo has been attempting to win over students. The change in meal periods this semester has dealt with many student concerns about scheduling, and made a lot of people more happy. Of course, not all of their efforts have been as far reaching, but even a hot chocolate bar can make any day a little bit nicer.

Looking at them this way, then, the recent survey is simply the latest in a series of attempts by Sodexo to really improve their service. I would assume that they’ll use this information to target the weak areas of their customer service and invest in improving. If they do, then my input will have mattered.

However, its also possible that Sodexo has a more cynical reason for sending out a survey to its clients. It takes a lot of effort to improve an organization, be it LTS or Sodexo, and it’s often faster to get people to stop complaining than to solve the long-standing issues. By sending out a survey, I’m sure a lot of students just like me will feel like they’re being heard. They’ll be less likely to be as active in pressing for change when they feel they’ve been listened to. With groups like the satirical Sodexo Fan Club very active online, they’re obviously under a lot of pressure from above to improve their public image. Getting the public to buy in will certainly help, and a survey is effective. If that’s why Sodexo sent out their survey, its probably even worse than if they did nothing at all. Instead of making our voices heard, they’ll become stifled and ultimately ignored. Beyond that, it just decreases the number of people willing to fill in surveys in the future. If I didn’t feel my views were respected, I would never spend half an hour on a survey, but organizations need that feedback to improve. Pragmatically, then, faking interest in a survey is a terrible thing.

The fact that Sodexo is donating money for each survey filled out makes me ultimately question their motives. No profit-driven corporation donates money without focusing on the PR benefits, and clearly Sodexo wants to look good. Tying it to the survey makes the entire program appear more like a PR stunt than an actual interest in our beliefs.

Ultimately, Sodexo is only one of an increasing number of campus groups sending out surveys to students. From DCL to LTS, these types of surveys are becoming ubiquitous on our campus. Whether they serve as a meaningful way to initiate change, however, is much harder to see. Trying to make change is a good idea, and surveys can help inform those decisions, but they need to be used responsibly.

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