Trudging around rundown housing estates, possibly on your own, and with a laptop computer tucked under your arm is not everyone’s idea of great working conditions. But for many market research interviewers this is life.

“The industry is having difficulty attracting the right people,” says Pat Connolly, field director at Research International (RI). “The downmarket image of research interviewing doesn’t help, but the interviewer’s job has also become more difficult.”

Twenty years ago a research field force would be largely composed of married women with children of school age. But cities are now perceived to be more dangerous places, with “no-go” areas or districts where agencies ensure interviewers are accompanied.

“Now you need to look for a tougher person, not easily intimidated, but still with a lot of personality,” says Connolly. “It’s much harder to find people with the right qualities. Young people don’t seem to have the right personality; while they may be desperate for money, they don’t appear to want to work.”

The profile of interviewers has changed over the years, with men now making up about a quarter of the RI field force at any one time. Salesmen who have taken early retirement or men made redundant from a range of backgrounds have added to this trend. Other agencies report even higher proportions of male interviewers, sometimes up to half the force.

But these new categories of applicant do not compensate for the more general problems in recruitment, says Connolly. “We don’t make enough of the fact that the job is flexible and offers relatively good rates of pay,” she admits. RI pays 6.30 an hour as a London daytime rate which, says the agency, compares favourably with, say, wages in the retail sector.

Connolly has experience of interviewing both from a managerial perspective and from having spent seven years herself as an interviewer before continuing her career as a supervisor. Like other research organisations, RI advertises through the local press in a targeted area, but up to 50 per cent of applicants hear about interviewing opportunities by word of mouth, she says.

The recruitment procedure at RI has evolved over the years. Originally, face-to-face selection was used, then the company switched to telephone appraisal.

But RI has now returned to face-to-face appraisals, at least for the area inside the M25, after discovering some people with poor English were getting friends to fill out their application forms. “You have to remember that these individuals are going to be representing companies,” she says.

Carol George is managing director of Specialist Field Resources (SFR), which is owned by Taylor Nelson AGB. Like Connolly, she believes that market research suffers from a distorted image in the eyes of many applicants. Rather than seeing it as a possible career requiring commitment and specific skills, many have a preconception of it as an undemanding, short-term option.

In London, initial contact with applicants is made through the Evening Standard, says George, which is a more costly but more effective medium than local papers. Little information is included in the ads, she says, but a lengthy telephone screening process makes up for this. The screening, which may take up to 15 minutes, is intended to provide the company with a profile of the individual, but also to provide the applicant with a clearer idea of what the work entails.

“As an interviewer, you need to be out there between 2pm and 8pm, no matter what your quotas are,” George explains. This is the only way of guaranteeing that men and women workers with different employment patterns, and management grades, are all fairly represented in research. Beyond that, she says, there are issues about family responsibilities and how the partner feels about the nature of the work. Each applicant has to take all of this into consideration.

George is in no doubt about the personal qualities needed for the job. “You are selling a product. You are selling yourself, your personality and your interest.” Successful applicants have to be self-motivated and organised, both in terms of work and home, she says.

Agencies tend to introduce new interviewers to research after about three days training. With SFR, training consists of a first day in the classroom, a second split between street interviewing and feedback, and a third spent in the classroom again reinforcing what has been learned. Interviewers will be accompanied by an area manager on their first assignment, and further assignments will be accompanied over the first weeks, says SFR, to take in the different types of project.

Further training is increasingly required for Computer Aided Personal Interviews (CAPI). Nearly 50 per cent of RI’s interviewing is carried out using laptops. With SFR, this figure is nearer 75 per cent. Clearly, this makes data handling easier. But as data can be downloaded the same day it is collected, it also allows for improved tracking of an interviewer’s quotas and results.

You would expect every market research organisation to excel in drawing as much information as possible – and the right information – from any interviewee, whether a consumer respondent or a potential member of its own field force. But Gallup takes this skill one stage further. Having its own set of selection and development systems which it sells on to clients, the company is able to apply these techniques to its own recruitment. This not only ensures that the highest standard candidates are selected, but also provides a test bed and a shop window for its systems.

According to Gallup, only one applicant in 16 successfully completes its selection procedure. Central to this is the face-to-face interview, where the success rate is about one in ten. “Although we know that a lot of people could do the job, by holding out for the best, we achieve much better retention and a much better success rate once these people are working,” says Jai James, consultant analyst at Gallup.

Other agencies report that a similar proportion of interviewers successfully complete their selection and training procedures but drop out during the first few months in the job. SFR finds that large numbers of applicants change their mind after the telephone screening process or during the three days of training.

Validation is key to Gallup’s structured technique. “We know that if you want to recruit top performers, you have to study the best and see what distinguishes them from the rest,” says James. In terms of recruiting interviewers, she says, the most significant criteria are a real interest in market research and a sense of responsibility and personal ethics. “Also important is a basic belief in people and in the fact that more people are honest than not,” she says. “You have to believe that they will talk openly to you.”

When recruiting call centre interviewers, says James, there are additional requirements of being able to create empathy between yourself and the person you are talking to. Some companies focus on certain regional accents as an aid to building this relationship, Gallup does not see this as being the central issue, and has a multicultural approach to staffing its own call centre.

While face-to-face interviewers will usually operate in isolation, and have to be self-motivated, call centres are much more dependent on a team approach. Applicants need to respond to that environment, says James, and enjoy contributing to team productivity.

Face-to-face and telephone interviewing will typically demand contrasting types of work pattern. Ad hoc research is rarely regular, but its flexibility can suit some interviewers. Call centre work can be much more regular, and agencies tend to use students for much of this.

Like SFR, Audience Selection – a TNAGB Sofres company – uses telephone screening with applicants for its call centres. This constitutes a voice test, ensuring that the candidate has those most essential attributes for call centre research – a good telephone voice and manner. “There is a direct correlation between the warmth that you generate while interviewing and the sort of success that you have with it,” says Audience Selection managing director Helen Passingham-Hughes.

The company does not keep figures of the number of people who fall at this first hurdle of the voice test, but about 80 per cent of interviewers make it through the two-day training and carry on successfully in the job.

Challenges facing the call centre interviewer include the common perception among respondents that market research is merely a cover for a sales operation.

This means that interviewers must convince respondents in the first moments of the call that they can be trusted. Interviewers are instructed to state the organisation’s adherence to the Market Research Society code of conduct and give out a freephone number to call for confirmation of their status.

Another challenge is that telephone interviews are typically much longer now than they used to be, says Passingham-Hughes. Audience Selection’s Telephone Omnibus vehicle, a weekly monitor of opinions among a sample of 1,000 consumers, can last up to 35 minutes, she says. So interviewers must be able to hold the respondent’s interest and maintain their goodwill.

Telephone interviewing is easier than acting face-to-face in one further respect: appearance. So the interviewer in the warmth of the call centre could be anyone, from a student in jeans to an old-age pensioner. It is the intrepid, smartly dressed, laptop-carrying field force which braves the outside world.

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