Imagine the following scene: you are vacationing at a five-star resort. It is costing you a fortune, but it is what you saved money for, and hey, we only get to live once, right ?
Your stay is ending, it’s your last day. You want to use the fitness room and put yourself through a vigorous workout, before you check out, at 11 am. As you walk into the fitness room, however, you are stopped by resort personnel, and asked to step outside. Surprised and bewildered, you ask for explanations; you are politely but firmly told that you won’t get to use any of the amenities, in fact not even the TV in your room — the only thing that you will be permitted to do, from then until check-out time, is fill out a customer satisfaction form.
As you hear those words, at first think that it must be a prank. You cannot believe what they are saying, they cannot possibly be serious. When you realize that they are, you cannot help becoming angered. You demand that access be granted to what you are paying top dollars for. Filling out a customer survey is not one of the leisurely activities in which you had planned to engage during your vacation. You would be happy to fill out one of those forms once you are back home, and send it wherever appropriate — but you do not want to do it now, you really want to use the fitness room…
Those people don’t budge, though. They insist that customer feedback is of the outmost importance to the management, in order to make the experience of the resort guests always more enjoyable. Because most guests leave without bothering to fill out a form, and because the management simply cannot take that as evidence of customer satisfaction, the policy has been adopted of denying any kind of service during the last few hours, in order to motivate each customer to furnish the constructive criticism that the management values so much. So, you have no choice but sit down and fill out the form… or leave ahead of time.
That sounds crazy, doesn’t it ? No hotel, no museum, no supermarket, no business would ever operate in that way, I think. One thing is giving customers the opportunity of providing feedback, including making complaints about sub-par service; one might even consider offering incentives such as tickets to events, in order to entice patrons to express their opinions. But, to hold service for ransom, in exchange for essentially extorted comments, over aspects about which one may not feel strongly enough to express any views anyway ? That seems too much. One might also expect that, due to irritation and lack of interest, a customer pressed for feedback, required to sit down and just write something about her experience, may not be in the position to make the most useful remarks. I am no customer service expert, but I am an avid consumer and traveler, and can only recall one instance of such “forcible feedback” . My impression is that business is far more sensitive and attentive to unsolicited comments, either positive or negative.
So, why is it that universities very much insist with doing just what described above ? Why is it that, in the digital era, when few things are easier than setting up a web site where anonymous opinions can be collected about anything or anyone, twenty, thirty, forty minutes of class time must be devoted at the end of each and every course, to the administration of in-class student evaluations ?
Last week, on my last class, forty-five minutes of lecture time were utilized to have the several hundred students registered in the course that I have been teaching this Fall fill out evaluations (yes, it does take that much time when there are 400 students). During those forty-five minutes, I could have covered parts of the syllabus which I did not manage to cover in the end (I teach twice a week, each class is 75 minutes), or I could have worked on preparation for the upcoming term exam, or gone again through topics that seemed unclear to some students.
But, noooo, the pressing need of my institution for student feedback took priority over delivering to the “customers” what they actually paid for, namely instruction time. Does this make sense ?
Whenever I bring up the subject, and mention the scenario of the university setting up a web site, where students could log in anonymously, and say at their own leisure whatever they want to say about a professor (much like it is done here, with the obvious advantage that the university could set things up so that only legitimately enrolled students could express an opinion), the response that I invariably receive is “oh, but then most students would not bother to do it”. Yes, I agree, they probably would not bother, in the vast majority of cases … and the problem with that would be ?
I remember back in the long gone days of me being a student, I rarely encountered professors about whom I would have wanted to say anything particularly good or bad. Don’t get me wrong, some of them were lousy, and should have been told to work harder and do a better job, while others were really superb. For the most part, however, they were just honest, competent, serious professionals, conscientiously doing their job. I did not feel the need of going out of my way to express an opinion, I believe for the very same reason I rarely fill out customer satisfaction forms at hotels (when
I do my wife does it, it is usually because something has gone seriously wrong), or ask to speak to the manager to complain about an employee at the supermarket, or call the dealership to let them know how inspiring that last oil change was.
And all of that is a good thing. It means that most of us take our job seriously, and do whatever it takes to do it well. This is why, even though on occasion we are disappointed or upset by someone’s mediocre performance, or greatly impressed with the professionalism of a specific individual, on a normal day most of us do not spend any time congratulating or thanking anyone — not only because there is no time, but because there is no reason to congratulate workers for simply doing what they are supposed to do, and for which they receive a regular compensation. That is the reason why many businesses frame and hang on the wall letters from enthusiastically satisfied patrons — because they are rare. That is what makes them valuable. It is the same reason why exceptionally effective professionals in all walks of life (lawyers, physicians, football players, business owners) receive prizes, accolades, are held as examples, make more money — because most of us are not exceptional. But that does not mean that most of us are “bad”.
There is nothing intrinsically different, in my view, about teachers, especially if “customer satisfaction” is used as the main motivation for doing student evaluations. The notion that a good instructors must be perceived by students as “an inspiration”, her course a “life changing experience” and so on, is disingenuous and out of touch with reality. Of course, some of them are, and they should be properly rewarded and held as example for their colleagues. But the plain truth is, most of us will have a hard time even remembering all of our teachers a decade later, even though the benefit of having been taught by them will stay with us for a lifetime. If a sizeable fraction of the students do not bother to write comments on their student evaluation forms, or even walk out of the room without filling them out because they have something better to do, there is no reason to see that as an indictment of anything or anyone — they simply had nothing to say. Insisting for them to say something, when they have nothing to say, is not conducive to useful feedback. Attempting to frame their lack of interest as somehow indicative of scarce enthusiasm or appreciation for the teacher is downright dishonest. It is all too easy to suspect that there is in fact a different reason for university administration to insist with this policy of “forcible feedback”, and that is has little to do with customer satisfaction and more to do with establishing a hierarchy, building cases against teachers.
 It happened recently at a car dealership. As I was ready to drive away my new car, the salesperson with whom I had dealt came to me and asked me to fill out a customer satisfaction form, in which I would rate my experience with her (i.e., that particular salesperson). I said that it was a bit inconvenient to do it then, that I could do that at home and send the completed form to the dealership, but she (clearly a person new on the job) insisted that I do it there, and would not give me the car keys unless I would fill out the darn form. Even more irritatingly, she demanded that I do it before her very eyes, and yes, on each question she would suggest that I check “excellent” as a response. I did not want to argue with her, I wanted to drive away, and so I did as she told me. As soon as I returned home, I phoned the dealership, asked to speak to customer service, reported my experience with that salesperson, stating in no uncertain terms that I felt that such a way to obtain feedback was ridiculous, unprofessional, and disrespectful to the customer.