The dwindling fraternity of people who respond to phone surveys

Last week I got a phone call from (according to my phone) somewhere in Ohio; that’s my home state, so I answered.  Turned out it was a woman doing a survey.  She rushed through her preamble that she wasn’t selling anything. Despair was evident. Just from the way she slogged through the intro, I got the impression most people hang up on her .

I interrupted her, said “Sure, go ahead,” and she paused. She seemed surprised. She repeated that it was a survey, and I told her, in effect, bring it on.

I participate in cold-call surveys when I have the time. And I will tell people they can call me back later if I don’t. Why do I do this? Because I used to do phone surveys myself. I feel their pain.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the only people left answering phone surveys are those who have had jobs administering them. We could be just a small group of several hundred thousand people all talking to each other. I wonder if that skews the responses.

It was 1989. I did phone surveys for the commercial radio station that happened to be owned by the university I attended; WVUD, in Dayton Ohio. (Since sold and rebranded, the internet tells me.) Three or four other students and I made cold calls to random numbers and asked about radio listening preferences.

A lot of people agreed to participate; maybe forty percent? The most common complaint was “Where did you get this number!?!” — we were just dialing random digits after local prefixes, so we would often get through to unlisted numbers.

I would call for two or three or four hours at a stretch. I’ve had many worse jobs. People were nice enough, although some would lose patience midway through in an apparent cooperation crisis and hang up. The few people I spoke to who had British accents were by far the most polite. Many people were upset, at the time, because a beloved local schmaltz station had just switched to country music.

The other students and I got along well and would try to entertain each other.  (No supervisor was present.) Debbie started identifying herself by different names, often sultry Spanish ones. Kevin would chat with people and wander off on tangents.  Whenever we got a respondent who was friendly but still shouted into the phone, we would ask him to please speak up and then hold out the phone so we could all listen as he yelled himself red.

Some years later I administered health surveys by phone at the University of Minnesota. That job was more of a chore; come to think of it, the difference was that I wasn’t working with friends. What a difference that makes. Plus there was one jerk supervisor who would march into our room and complain about “people” (i.e. me) who did not use the carpal tunnel prevention wrist pad thingy properly when typing responses. I did use it when I typed, but otherwise I was often waving it around and squishing it in my hands; just a nervous habit which a top-notch phone surveyor should not be pestered about.

I’ve read it is now getting extremely difficult for phone surveyors to get respondents; this is because of cell phones, poll weariness, voter rage, etc. The people calling me with surveys sound worn, defeated. Don’t worry, my friends; we’ll always have each other, at least, to answer surveys.




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