C Gopinath

Feedback foibles

C Gopinath American Periscope | Updated on April 18, 2018 Published on April 18, 2018

Despite their flaws, feedbacks are vital

Everybody wants feedback. Isn’t that what applause is? You need to find out how you are performing and where you can improve. Firms who used to survey their customers occasionally nowadays want to know right away.

A provider-consumer interaction ideally lends itself to a request for that instant feedback. I ate at a restaurant and along with the bill came a feedback form, including questions on the food and service. And in the absence of an envelope that one could seal, it meant that my responses could be read by the waiter. That reduced my incentive to provide an honest feedback, so I declined to complete the form.

Risk of skew

This raises two interesting issues. If several people who have not had a good experience decline to provide feedback and only those who had a good experience do, then the feedback received is skewed, and biased, and defeats the whole purpose. If I did provide a negative feedback and the waiter, reading it on the way to the cash counter decided to make a brief stop at the trash can and report to the manager that I did not complete the form, the net effect is the same.

If the last point of contact can manipulate the result, the feedback is still skewed. On a flight, the stewardess distributed a few feedback forms towards the end of the flight. I wondered if I received one because the stewardess had taken special care to get me tea without milk and sugar as I had requested and I appreciated her efforts. Did she give a form to the passenger who was upset that his request for a seat change couldn’t be accommodated?

A website I visited politely asked me if I was willing to complete a survey at the end of my interaction. In a weak moment, I agreed. But the survey was long, I could not skip questions, and I couldn’t provide feedback on the feedback form! I had to shut the system and re-start it. Most well run universities use a course feedback form towards the end of the course. These are typically anonymous, administered by a student and the instructor has to leave the room, and the summary results withheld from the instructor till he or she submits the grades for the course. The elaborate process of administering the course evaluation is undertaken because the results are used for tenure, promotion and salary raise decisions.

There are, of course, various ways in which instructors can influence the results! Trying to be popular is one. Budding instructors are advised to give an easy mid-term exam and a tough final exam (held after the completion of review form). Many studies also question the reliability and maturity of the respondent/student to provide feedback. Individual experiences in the classroom may bias their response although with a large enough class, one can statistically claim a normal distribution. Some universities allow an instructor to drop one or two of the lowest responses to counter some vindictive responses, but then should one not also drop the top two? The idiom about throwing out the baby with the bathwater is relevant here. The few flaws in the content and process of feedback collection should not outweigh the need for one. If carefully done, the information is valuable. The restaurant will be able to take action to correct weak areas before the footfalls fall. The airline’s in-flight service, if that’s its focus area, will improve. And students need a say in how and what they are taught. By keeping the link to personnel actions weak and designing it well, the reliability of the feedback can be enhanced.

(The writer is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston.)

Published on April 18, 2018

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