Market Research with Telephone Surveys

Knowing When to Use Them

By: Debbie Liberty

When should I use a telephone survey is a common question posed by many researchers and clients today. As with any methodology, there are many advantages and disadvantages to conducting telephone surveys. A rule of thumb is that when you are trying to reach the general population, telephone surveys are typically the best approach.


Advantages of telephone surveys for market research

  1. Large scale accessibility - 96% of Americans have a telephone in their household. Although Internet usage is growing, one cannot argue with the superiority of coverage via telephone. This is especially true when trying to reach minorities and lower income consumers.
  2. Rapid Data Collection - With the integration of CATI (computer assisted telephone interviewing) systems, information can be collected and processed extremely rapidly today. Clients can receive real-time data, as well as see how it compares to past data.
  3. Quality Control - When interviewers are trained properly, they can elicit complete responses from respondents and gauge how a respondent truly feels about a certain subject matter. When recorded, the analyst has access to a respondent's inflection when asked about new concepts or when discussing controversial issues. This valuable type of information is lost when conducting online market research or mail-out surveys.
  4. Anonymity - In some situations the client and/or the respondent would like their opinions to be confidential. When conducting a telephone survey through a third party source, an interviewer can assure a respondent that their responses will not be associated with their name, thus yielding a more accurate picture of the topic at hand.
  5. Flexibility - When exploring a new product concept or complex issue, and interviewer can answer confusing facts about the product information. The interviewer can provide clarification about a question when needed thereby obtaining a more accurate opinion about the product or concept as well as getting the respondent to elaborate more fully when probed.

Disadvantages of telephone surveys

  1. Lack of visual materials - Telephone surveys are obviously limiting when the respondent needs to see the product to fully understand the concept. Typically, if a product really needs to be shown and quantitative data needs to be gathered, for say a new packaging concept, an online survey approach would yield better results.
  2. Call screening is common - Unlike other methodologies, certain respondents may be hard to reach due to gatekeepers or screening. For example, reaching credit-challenged individuals is difficult because they screen their calls for creditors and unknown callers. A group like this can eventually be reached, but it can be an arduous process in which extra time needs to be allowed.
  3. Limited open-end questions or time constraints - The typical calling window often times interrupts a potential respondent's personal or family time. Thus, questionnaires cannot exceed 15 minutes in length. When limiting questionnaire length, open-ended questions that prove lengthy often need to be replaced with shorter closed-ended questions.
  4. Wariness - Sales calls are often posed as "research" calls. They can make potential respondents more wary of true research callers thus lowering the call incidence rate. However, with a well trained interviewer these types of issues can be drastically minimized.
  5. Inattentiveness - Because phone calls often interrupt a respondent's routine, it may be difficult to obtain a respondent's full attention. Again, a properly written questionnaire and a well trained interviewer are the best ways to engage the respondent and quickly obtain the desired information.


Although telephone interviewing is not the newest, hippest methodology in market research today, it should not be regarded as antiquated or old fashioned. This tried and proven methodology will yield high quality, accurate results in the right situation. Experienced researchers can guide a client on when this method is the best approach for their objectives. Newer isn't always better.

Research Inc. is an Atlanta, Georgia full service market research firm offering a wide variety of research services, including focus group moderation, telephone interviewing, online surveys, and website usability studies.

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