Your Call Center Employees Can Help You Minimize the Cost of Research Without Sacrificing Quality

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I’ve never liked using a company’s employees as market research interviewers, and for good reason, I could argue. In a perfect world, my preference would be to utilize unbiased professionals without an axe to grind. But the world is not perfect, and the fact of the matter is that many companies don’t have the resources to conduct customer and prospect research in such an optimal manner.

The cost of conducting a 15-minute telephone interview using professional interviewers and where 100 percent of those contacted qualify to be interviewed is roughly $14 per interview. That means that 300 interviews would lead to out-of-pocket expenses of $4,200. What’s worse, if only 50 percent of those contacted actually qualify to be interviewed, that cost will increase to around $7,200. And if you use a full-service market research supplier for a study of this size, you’ll need to multiply those figures about two and a half times to get your maximum cost.

I’ve seen a number of companies, in an effort to save money, use call center employees as market research interviewers. In several instances, where companies compared their results to findings using the same questionnaire, but with professional interviewers, the outcomes varied. Sometimes the results of the internal effort mirrored those of the professional approach; other times, there was a dramatic discrepancy.

Three hundred interviews would lead to out-of-pocket expenses of $4,200.

What was the secret ingredient for the companies that successfully collected data? And more importantly, what can we learn from it?

A major component was the fact that some companies were serious in their efforts, while others are best characterized as being haphazard. Rather than simply using customer service or call center employees who happened to be available, the successful companies employed a screening process that involved a number of hours of consulting time from a paid research professional. With this single expenditure, averaging $3,000 to $5,000, the professionals were able to help the companies identify employees who had a skill in conducting research interviews. The consultants also worked with the companies in developing questionnaires, as well as providing guidance for processing and interpreting the results.

Select employees

Instead of requiring all employees to become interviewers, successful companies sent out a brief questionnaire to a pool of eligible employees. Rationalizing that being on the receiving end of a customer phone call was much different than actually placing the call, it was reasoned that some employees would be uncomfortable calling people to ask them survey questions. In an effort to identify those with the right traits, the questionnaire asked each employee to rate him- or herself on a number of personality characteristics. In addition, each was questioned whether he or she would enjoy learning how to become a market research interviewer for the company and occasionally conduct surveys in addition to regular responsibilities.

Following this initial screening, the 30 percent to 40 percent of employees with a suitable profile and interest were then invited to attend an interviewer training session conducted by a research professional. During the session, each employee was given an actual questionnaire and was able to practice administering it to fellow trainees. Last, they were evaluated individually as they conducted a number of “mock” interviews with real customers. During the process, it became clear which employees were naturals at attracting customer cooperation, having a neutral tone to their voice and administering the questionnaire without fishing for a positive response.

Once the employee pool of interviewers was identified, each was assigned specific hours during the day and the evening to transition from a customer service agent to that of an interviewer.

But the process didn’t stop there. The wise executives at one women’s clothing catalog company decided that their interviewers should be used only for straightforward customer and prospect satisfaction studies, using a questionnaire that was relatively easy to administer. They correctly reasoned that complex questionnaires seeking to collect important strategic information should be farmed to a market research company that specialized in more sophisticated studies.

Another company that sold wallpaper segmented their interviewers so that they surveyed only inquirers who had made their first contact with the company and who failed to make a purchase during the call. Within 24 hours of the initial contact, and while the experience was still fresh in the prospect’s mind, a company interviewer contacted the inquirer. The company followed this process rigorously by setting up a random selection process of inquirers to call and setting quotas of 10 completed interviews per day, seven days a week. At the end of each month, when the company had completed 300 interviews, which was adequate for statistical accuracy, the questionnaires were tabulated and management read the results.

In both instances, the interviewers first identified themselves as a company representative, assured respondents that the call was not meant to sell anything and then promised a $2 incentive if the respondent completed a 10- to 15-minute interview.
The preamble and incentive succeeded in generating a satisfactory respondent cooperation rate, which is critical to generating reliable data.

The research approaches for both companies were spot-on. Only employees who proved adept at conducting interviews were used, and they were professionally trained. More importantly, interviewers had to become comfortable with only one questionnaire and one series of questions. They integrated the interviewing schedule to precise times of the day when call-in traffic was relatively slow, which allowed interviewers to turn their complete attention to asking questions, instead of answering them.

All told, one company saved close to $50,000 a year over what it would have spent using a full-service research company, while the other saved more than $100,000. But the outcome was as much as about taking the process seriously as it was about saving money.

So, let’s opt for pragmatism on this issue. Using internal people as market research interviewers can succeed—and is certainly better than failing to understand how you’re serving your customers and prospects by not conducting any research at all. But, if you are going to opt for this approach, do it right!

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