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Role of interviewers in the market research process

The importance of interviewers

A colleague recently posted the news story about prisoners at HMP Oakwood conducting market research surveys as part of a rehabilitation programme on our SPA Future Thinking internal hub. Soon comments started pouring in raising questions like whether interviewers were required to disclose that they were part of a prison rehabilitation programme, what quality checks were in place and most importantly, what impact this story will have on people’s perceptions of market research surveys.

The Daily Mail’s story also suggested that an element of ‘sugging’ – selling under the guise of market research might have been taking place, with interviewers asking respondents if they would like to save on insurance costs. Sugging is strictly forbidden under the MRS Code of Conduct, which all reputed market research agencies adhere to and any suggestion of such activity taking place added to the concerns.

Breach of data confidentiality clauses as listed in the MRS Code of Conduct or incidences of malpractice can take place in any call centre environment and it is probably a bit unfair to raise these concerns solely because interviewers at HMP Oakwood are prisoners. But these are still valid concerns for one reason: people are willing to take part in market research surveys because they trust us to safeguard the information they provide about their personal lives. Any breach of this trust or in this instance any doubt arising about the credibility of interviewers or the safeguarding procedures in place, can have a negative impact on people’s willingness to participate in market research CATI surveys in general. A few comments in response to the news story on News.Sky.com below tend to suggest the same:

KATH H – 7:47 PM on 22/8/2013 – “Other Call Centres are going to just love this article as they have the phone slammed down on them.”
(News.Sky.com)

J137 – 4:25 PM on 21/8/2013 – “No problem, at least we have been warned and we know what to expect!! I would say thank you.”
(News.Sky.com)

The job of market research call centre interviewers is very hard as it is. On a daily basis they have to ask the same questions over and over again, deal with the disappointment of people refusing to take part or hanging up in the middle of the interview and sometimes even tolerate rude comments. Personally I don’t think I would survive in their shoes for more than a day and for this reason I have great respect for the important role they play in the market research process.

The skills of interviewers to a large extent determine the quality of the data extracted from respondents (backed with a robust research design, sampling framework and questionnaire of course). Working on a large Brand Tracker for BskyB, where we conducted computer adapted telephonic interviews with a large sample on a quarterly basis, I had to visit the call centre regularly and listen to live interviews. An average interview lasted around 30 minutes and keeping in view our changing habits with people spending less time in making voice calls and using more texts and e-mails, this is a long time to keep a respondent engaged in a survey. This is where the interviewer factor comes into play and interviewers can use their tone of voice, professional mannerism and enthusiasm to evoke a feeling of trust and make the questionnaire feel like a conversation. The quality of responses to open ended questions also depends on the interviewers’ ability to probe fully and demonstrate an interest in respondents’ comments. Based on my observation, interviewers can encourage respondents to participate and guide them to completion by telling them that their feedback makes a real difference to the company, they are doing really well and how much longer it will take to finish the survey. Interviewers’ mannerisms and professionalism also reflects on the market research agency they work for, as well as the company for which the research is being conducted and they should be treated as brand ambassadors. Every effort should be made to make their job easier by keeping them in mind at the questionnaire design and writing stage and providing adequate training, support and channels for feedback afterwards. The research findings should also be shared with interviewers after project completion, depending on interest expressed, as a means to show our appreciation for the integral role they have played.

The HMP Oakwood CATI centre story didn’t go unnoticed by MRS Chief Executive Jane Frost who wrote to G4S, the company running the rehabilitation programme, raising concerns about whether the quality and ethics of market research as outlined by the MRS are being met. G4S has since replied to Jane Frost’s letter clarifying that any incidence of sugging has been misreported and although the data capturing company responsible for conducting research is not a member of the MRS, it is listed at Companies House and complies with the Data Protection Act. Ideally, I would have liked to see this news story published with assurances from the Market Research Society about the quality control procedures in place. But since membership to the MRS is voluntary and the research company in question is not a member, Jane Frost’s letter should help ease some of the concerns raised within the industry. Should interviewers be made to declare at the start of the interview that they are part of a prison rehabilitation programme is open to discussion.

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