On the fourth floor of Ross Hall, at nearly any given time, on any given day of the week, one room buzzes with conversation, dozens of mouths moving and phones busy. This steady hum is the trademark of the UALR Survey Research Center (SRC), marking over 30 years of institutional, local, and national research projects.
Cindy Bennett, director of the SRC, has been with the center since its early days as a minor office that did only a couple projects a year. Today, the SRC constantly manages multiple surveys, serving clients that range from academic departments to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). As a public service unit, the SRC designs, conducts, and analyzes surveys for state, federal, and university organizations. This year alone, the center has facilitated seven major projects for four different clients, with anywhere from 500 to over 5,000 interviews conducted for each project.
While many may think of call centers as high-stress, high-turnover environments, the SRC breaks this stereotype with its devoted, intellectually engaged staff that functions as a professional support system for each other. One member of this team is Reveille Isgrig, call center manager, UALR graduate, and 10-year veteran of the SRC. Isgrig began working at the SRC as an undergraduate student and, with hard work, a natural knack for the field, and an investment in the subject matter, steadily rose through the ranks to become part of the Center’s leadership.
Isgrig attributes her dedication to the SRC to a variety of factors. “To begin with, it was a great opportunity for me to be able to go to school, as well as [have a fulltime job]. The work is really interesting, and more than that, it [is] a place where I can actually gain professional experience…It’s a really great resume builder and [provides] a lot of real-world experience that I can take other places as well.” This wide range of experiences results from the Center’s full-service nature—depending on the client, SRC staff might facilitate every step of the survey process, from writing questions to analyzing final data to creating reports.
One of the SRC’s main clients is the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH), who employs the SRC to conduct its yearly Adult Tobacco Survey. According to Bennett, the SRC is the ADH’s first choice for survey research and data analysis. The ADH and SRC have worked closely and continually with each other since the early nineties, when the CDC utilized the SRC to conduct the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), a national annual survey project, for the first time in Arkansas.
Annually, the SRC also conducts the Racial Attitudes Survey for the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity. Now in its thirteenth year, the survey continues to provide crucial information, perspectives, and context for Arkansas policies, research, and progress. The data it generates, each year focused on a different theme, is used not only by the university but also by scholars and leaders in various communities to define problems and strategize solutions.
The staff of the SRC, the majority of whom are students, recognize and are fueled by the importance of the work they do. Forrest Goss, data quality manager, UALR student, and an employee of the SRC for over seven years, asserts, “I took the surveys very personally. The great callers really do take a personal interest in getting it right, and if they get a bad answer, they reflect that as the [survey not being] complete. It’s just engaging work.” Bennett adds, “I feel like what we’re doing is meaningful, it’s interesting.”
As the only general academic survey research center in Arkansas, the SRC’s work is also in high demand. The staff spends extensive time and effort tailoring questions to both the callers and the survey’s audience, then tailoring the presentation of results to the client’s needs. In fact, according to Bennett, one of the greatest challenges of the survey process is the preparation work—making sure that the client’s goals are fully understood and that the survey is designed to meet them well.
While the SRC still regularly conducts telephone interviews, they also incorporate web-based and mailed surveys into many projects as well. The success of a survey method greatly depends on the audience demographics. For example, when conducting surveys of the UALR student body, web-based surveys are often more effective than phone calls. In contrast, when conducting surveys of rural Arkansas populations, calls to landlines may be the only feasible means of reaching people.
The survey interviewers’ personal characteristics also impact response rates. While every caller receives extensive training, some are predisposed to excel in the field. According to Isgrig, the best survey interviewers are “people who are in that kind of grey area—they’re not necessarily introverts, but they’re not necessarily extroverts—and people who are very, very inquisitive.” Additionally, matching callers’ accents to the respondents’ is surprisingly important—many northern respondents shut down at the slightest hint of a southern accent, while southern respondents almost always warm up to a faint drawl, Goss says.
The SRC has spent the past 30 years perfecting this conversational art, and it shows. Their response rates are around 40-50% for general public surveys, and their cooperation rate is double that, placing them significantly higher than other survey centers in the country. Some of that success is due to the polite culture of the South, but the value of the SRC’s rigorous training and loyal staff can’t be denied.
The SRC welcomes researchers on campus who think they may need survey data for an upcoming project to set up a meeting with them. Bennett encourages faculty to contact the SRC early in their projects to discuss the potential benefits and cost of doing a survey. Reaching out to the SRC at the beginning of a project can even strengthen applications for funding. If a researcher has met with the SRC and established a potential survey plan with them, “we’ll give a letter of support for their grant proposals, and tell [the funding agency] how we’d like to partner with them,” Bennett says.
Faculty interested in working with the SRC should call 501.569.8559 to discuss their projects with Bennett. To find out more about the SRC’s current and past surveys, you can visit ualr.edu/iog/surveyresearch.