Acting the part

Market research has struggled to gain recognition as a serious career. But the industry may soon offer professional training to persuade interviewers to carve a path for the longer term.

Anyone who usually crosses the street to avoid a market research interviewer might think differently if they knew that the people asking the questions were not all they seemed.

According to those involved in the increasingly difficult task of recruiting field researchers, it is common for well-known actors and actresses to pick up a clipboard for a few days to earn some extra money between jobs – although they will usually disguise who they are and deny their real identity, should an eagle-eyed respondent mention they resemble someone on the TV.

While this interesting fact will probably make us take a closer look at who approaches us in the street or knocks on our door, it is also indicative of the image problem that the research industry blames for the difficulties it faces recruiting and retaining interviewers.

Market research is popular with actors, young mothers, the elderly and students because it can offer flexible working hours, but it is not seen as a long-term career – which means the turnover of employees is high.

Taylor Nelson Sofres Field managing director Frances Loveless says interviewers are usually recruited through advertising in local papers or job centres.

Interviewers also usually work for a number of agencies because one company cannot offer a continuous flow of work. Pay levels have traditionally been low and the field sector is losing out to other part-time options, such as working in call centres.

Loveless says: “An interviewer working every day would earn about &£11,000 a year, and considering the interpersonal, motivational and presentation skills we demand, it is little surprise we are having problems. That figure should be closer to &£15,000, but it would need an industry-wide initiative involving agencies and clients to push rates up.”

It is not just low pay which is causing problems. Consultancies are discovering that many people who apply to be interviewers do not understand what the job involves. “They see it as a cushy job they can fit in between other things. After we train them, they will work for a few months and then leave because they have got a ‘proper job’,” says Loveless.

Despite the training they may receive, researchers do not earn any recognised qualifications – an issue which the employment authorities have expressed concern about.

Linda Henshall, managing director of the New Fieldwork Company and field spokeswoman for the Market Research Society (MRS), says the shortage of market researchers is particularly apparent in London and the South-east, where a large number of surveys tend to take place. The result is that companies have to ship interviewers from other areas of the UK, such as South Wales or the North-east. This can play havoc with any research budget, as interviewers are paid about 22p per mile if they are using their own transport and must also be paid an hourly rate for their travelling time.

NOP regularly moves its field force around the country and has even flown people to England from Northern Ireland. NOP area manager for the North Doreen Cowley says it is easier to recruit in her region because the level of unemployment tends to be higher. She says it is accepted that her teams will be called on to work in the South.

“But there are problems that we all face. Many people do not realise that door-to-door work can be soul-destroying, that they must be prepared to work evenings and weekends and that they need their own car. We filter applicants by telephone before we send out application forms and offer three days’ training. This includes door-to-door work on day one, because if they cannot handle that there is no point in continuing,” says Cowley.

MRS action

The issues of market researchers’ image and qualifications has prompted the MRS to create the Accredited Interviewer Training Scheme. It is being run through the MRS’ Respondent Interviewer Interface (RII) committee, set up in 1998 to “bring a new focus to the whole area of interviewers and respondents”.

The RII has completed an industry-wide consultation to see how much backing there is for a recognised professional qualification for interviewers, which would promote best practice and raise standards. A task force, comprising leading industry figures and chaired by MRS director of professional development Ruth Martin, has been working on a six-month pilot scheme which will launch in October. The official scheme is expected to go live in October next year.

Martin says: “The task force is creating a framework to standardise training across the industry, which will focus on the skills and attitude people need to be an effective interviewer. There will be three elements to the training, which will set out to assist researchers, those who train the interviewers and research companies.”

Industry support

The Accredited Interviewer Training Scheme received industry backing at the MRS Field Conference held in Sheffield in July. It has been designed to complement the training already taking place through the Market Research Quality Standards Association (MRQSA) and the Interviewer Quality Control Scheme (IQCS).

“While other training focuses on knowledge of the subject, the objective of this scheme is to cover topics such as how interviewers can gain entry when interviewing door to door. It also addresses issues such as coping with the loneliness which the job sometimes involves,” says Martin.

“The scheme will offer training to full- and part-time interviewers. The pilot will ensure that the scheme meets our needs and that companies’ existing training structures meet the profile of the new scheme.”

Interviewers who complete the course will receive a certificate making them an accredited interviewer and, the MRS hopes, providing them with a greater stake in the profession.

Client backing

Barclays Bank head of consumer and market intelligence David Bright sits on the RII committee to provide a client perspective on its activities and he welcomes the scheme. “Barclays Bank is usually a few steps removed from the recruitment problems which agencies face because we are dealing with agencies at director and client manager level. But we do want to know that the quality of the research being carried out in the field is the best it can be. This is a big concern if Barclays is sponsoring a survey and we expect the interviewer to be an ambassador for our brand,” he says.

BMRA field committee chairman Richard Barnes, who also sits on the RII committee, says the scheme has agency backing. “Agencies see the benefits of making the job of an interviewer more professional – it will make people want to become interviewers because they will get a proper qualification. We want to attract better people to our industry, and with the growth of Internet research there are opportunities for younger people to enter the profession,” he says.

Netpoll, which recruits graduates to carry out research and analyse data, says the amount of online research it undertakes is growing. Chief executive Mike Bloxham says he sources staff differently to most traditional agencies, using recruitment consultancies and head-hunters to attract the people he needs.

“The role of our interviewers is more consultative as they do qualitative and quantitative research. They define what type of survey is most appropriate by identifying what the client wants to achieve and then finding the most cost-effective way of doing it,” says Bloxham. “Graduates join us as account executives and there is a career path leading to account manager and director positions.”

Recruiting interviewers for different disciplines – whether for field work, online or telephone surveys, or focus groups – is time-consuming and costly, which means companies must employ different methods to attract the right people.

Gallup does not carry out field research any more and operates from one out-bound call centre in Kingston. Almost all its staff are full-time and the company advertises in the local press, including the London Evening Standard. Recruitment co-ordinator Ciona Vanner says agencies must accept there will be a high turnover of staff and therefore have to make their recruitment process as efficient as possible.

“When people telephone us to find out more about the job, they are given the number of an automated telephone interviewing system, which they can complete in their own time. This asks the candidates questions which determine whether we should take their application further,” says Vanner. “The most important thing is they must be able to build a rapport with someone on the telephone – which is much harder to do than when you are face to face and can make eye contact.”

Focus group skills

When recruiting people to host focus groups, a number of additional skills are needed. Anthea Sheahan, associate director of Taylor Nelson Sofres Qualitative, says her team of moderators must be able to interpret what people say and what they don’t say by analysing their body language. “They must also be able to ask people why they feel the way they do. Trying to find people with these skills only adds to the recruitment challenge in a tight personnel market where head-hunting is rife,” she says.

The company has a three-stage recruitment process which consists of two traditional job interviews and a practical test in which the applicant analyses a transcript of a tape taken from a focus group in which the client’s identity is hidden.

Internal recruitment

“We are also keen to recruit people from within the company and have taken on in-house people who were working on the quantitative side. Having experience of both types of research puts people in an even stronger skills position when agencies are looking to recruit,” says Sheahan.

There are a number of issues that the market research industry must focus on if it is to solve its recruitment problems. The planned launch of a professional qualification will help retain interviewers but low pay will continue to deter many potentially ideal researchers, who would probably help the industry address its other major problem of declining response rates.

Until both these issues are addressed, the job will continue to appeal to those looking for short-term, part-time work – whether they have celebrity status or not.

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