When To Use Telephone Surveys

Today I received a phone call from a research agency inviting me to participate in a customer satisfaction survey for a financial institution. Since I’ve been on the other end of those calls, I tend to be very cooperative; after all, they usually only take a couple of minutes. After the telephone survey was completed, I went back to work developing an online survey for one of our clients. I started wondering if companies actively chose to use telephone surveys or if it was the default option because it was the most popular method in Barbados. Just in case it was the latter, I decided to write this short post outlining the circumstances under which we advise clients to use telephone surveys. Just for clarity, when we speak of telephone surveys, we are not including polls via SMS or participants accessing an online survey using their smartphone. We are speaking only of surveys completed using phone calls.

Telephone surveys are best used under the following circumstances:

  • Your target market is available by telephone and willing to talk to you during the hours that you intend to conduct the survey;
  • Your questionnaire is very short and does not have any visuals; and,
  • You have a reasonable length of time and the budget to conduct the survey.

Your target market is available by telephone and willing to talk to you during the hours that you intend to conduct the survey

Let’s face it; most people are not home during normal working hours. They’re at work; so unless you intend to call them at work, you will probably struggle to meet your response rate. The obvious workaround would be to call after they reach home. But who has time to talk to you when they’re making dinner, overseeing their kids’ homework or trying to de-stress from a long day at work? And that’s assuming that they actually go straight home after work. These days it is very common for people go to the gym or run errands after work. Or, maybe your research team is not in a position to work outside of regular working hours, what happens then?

The other challenge comes when you do reach people during typical working hours: figuring out if the results you get actually reflect the views of your target market. In Barbados, most of the people that are home during regular working hours are either retired, unemployed, don’t work or are on vacation/sick leave. Only a very small percentage is likely to be in the last category. Those in the first three categories will probably exhibit certain characteristics that do not represent the majority. As a simple example, there are studies that show that the older we get, the less likely we are to be willing to change. So, if you ask these people if they are considering moving their business to a competitor, they will probably say no, even if they are not satisfied with your product or service. This could lead to the assumption when you get the survey report that your customers are more loyal than they really are. We could also consider the example of asking an unemployed person about the likelihood of them purchasing a particular good in the near future, or asking someone that does not work about traffic congestion in the morning. Odds are the results you get would not necessarily reflect the true opinions of your target market.

Your questionnaire is very short and does not have any visuals

I always advise that clients limit the number of questions in a survey and try to make them as easy to complete as possible, regardless of survey method. When conducting telephone interviews, this becomes even more critical. Whichever distribution method you choose, you are asking respondents to take a few minutes out of their busy schedule to complete your survey. But for some reason, over the telephone, people appear to be even busier, and it becomes even more critical that you respect their time. If they start to get impatient with the length of the survey they will start to mentally tune out and not give each question the attention it deserves, with obvious implications for the quality of the insights you gather.

Telephone surveys also tend to limit the researcher to questions that require the respondent to only listen. We therefore lose the ability to test their responses to visuals, sounds, scents or the way something feels. This probably works fine for your basic customer satisfaction or brand loyalty survey, but is obviously very limiting if your survey is designed to support product development, a marketing campaign or the development of a brand.

You have a reasonable length of time and the necessary budget to conduct the survey

This point is related to survey administration. When conducting surveys via telephone, it can take a long time to reach your target number of respondents. This is mainly because many of your calls will go unanswered. We always suggest when doing telephone surveys to expect it to take double to triple the amount of time it would have if you actually reached respondents on the first try. Or, if you really have a long research timeline, you could ask them to expect your call at a certain time on a certain day so they make themselves available.

Finally, telephone surveys are fairly expensive since you have to budget for the telecommunication costs as well as the time lost making unanswered calls. Though research firms will charge you a flat rate, rather than a fee per call, they have to budget for these elements, and they risk losing money if it takes longer than they expected to meet the required response rate.


The ease of conduct is probably the main reason why telephone surveys are one of the most popular methods in Barbados. When designing your next telephone survey, bear in mind these few suggestions to ensure that your research exercise uncovers the most revealing insights possible.