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Viewpoint: Data’s Vital Role in Campus Student Satisfaction

Auxiliary services leadership needs solid information to steer their decisions and create change. Here’s a five-part checklist to put that into practice.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors or management of Food Management.

For many years prior to the pandemic, administrators at New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology relied on third-party quality assurance services to keep a pulse on their campus dining and amenities programs.

Since the start of the pandemic, the value of these services has been made even more crucial because of the constantly changing environment of how to safely continue to provide services to students.

Stevens wanted to ensure the services being delivered were meeting the needs of the students and being compliant with the most recent health and safety protocols. The university continued to rely on quantitative data to monitor, modify and improve the delivery of its campus dining programs and hospitality services.

It’s an old maxim that what’s measured gets done – and to measure, we must evaluate against standards and quantify the results. In the recent pandemic environment, college and university administrators and auxiliary services managers have become preoccupied with the dynamic nature of campus amenities, placing all their energy and attention on how to provide services in a safe and effective manner. Many have reported losing focus on assessing how services were being delivered.

In an environment such as a college campus where student perceptions change often, a quality assurance program serves as a stabilizing element and keeps the emphasis on consistency. Getting real-time data keeps your program moving in the right direction.

In my career as a food service director, I worked to put this philosophy in place at institutions such as Georgetown University, the University of Pittsburgh, and George Mason University. We couldn’t improve student satisfaction if we didn’t survey students first, make changes based on that feedback and track how our team was delivering the services.

Today, as a consultant to colleges and universities across North America, I see every day how data is essential to drive quality assurance decision-making. Although my firm specializes in food service and hospitality, we also work across the auxiliary services spectrum, helping evaluate bookstores, parking, fitness centers, markets, and other areas.

These services need grounded, trusted data to improve quality – whether you’re using a contracted operator or running a self-operated program. We’ve identified five key elements essential to gathering good data for a quality assurance program – and to put it into action.

1. Set standards. A quality assurance program rests on two principles: establishing standards and collecting data. Our team of evaluators spends a good deal of time before each visit working with campus leaders and department stakeholders to determine just what those standards are and what items will be tested. One college knows speed of service is a problem, so we can emphasize that. Another university thinks its staff needs more safety and sanitation training, so our first evaluation can help benchmark that – and assess improvements during later evaluations.

2. Look at all levels. Collecting solid data allows campus leaders to see issues at both the macro and micro level and make improvement decisions appropriately. For example, at the macro level, the four most common shortfalls that our evaluators see in campus dining facilities include food temperature issues; proper product labeling and dating; accurate pricing and signage; and cleanliness of hard-to-reach areas and glass surfaces. At the micro level, a thorough quality assurance evaluation can identify the specific lines with temperature issues or the exact kitchen areas that need attention.

3. Move with speed. Any quality assurance program also needs to be fast, delivering data in real time with rapid recommendations for immediate improvement. Any industry rooted in customer service can’t wait weeks for an evaluator to retype hand-scrawled notes, consult with a manager, and package the recommendations. Especially on a college campus, word of mouth about a negative experience can spread quickly and harm the reputation of your auxiliary services. Results of any assessment must be delivered quickly.

4. Dig into the details. We don’t always acknowledge an issue until it’s right in front of us. An evaluation report must be as granular as possible in its observations. If a deficiency is found, reports must be detailed enough that campus leaders know exactly what the problem is and how to correct it. We also know that seeing is believing – and that a picture is worth a thousand words. We attach photographs of key areas to every problem item that we evaluate. Images are data points, too, and can serve as a teaching tool for everyone from directors to line workers.

5. Do it again. Studying and executing on those action plans is only the start of the journey toward continuous quality improvement. Good leaders know they can’t just fix something and walk away. Quality assurance relies on repeat evaluations and continued data analysis. In the case of Stevens Institute of Technology, we perform twice-annual evaluations across its campus dining, retail cafes, catering, and coffee bars to ensure that changes have taken hold and are reflected in survey results. And they have: Stevens’ overall student satisfaction in dining quickly rose from the 50th to the 85th percentile, the highest in campus dining history.

If your college or university is committed to improving the quality of your auxiliary services, these five elements are critical to creating your data-gathering and action plan process. Educating and inspiring stakeholders, partners, and students is at the center of our quality assurance work – and assuredly at the heart of your college’s mission.

Matt Mundok is Managing Director and Co-Founder of Innovative Hospitality Services and CrossCheck Quality Assurance and Contract Compliance, a management consulting and quality assurance firm specializing in hospitality, campus dining, and auxiliary services.

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