“What’s Your Problem?” misses an opportunity to explain survey research

The “What’s Your Problem?” column in the Chicago Tribune tackles the problems of consumers. Yesterday’s column involved a woman who had been called multiple times by a survey firm even after she asked to not be called again:

Over the following weeks, Scarborough representatives called Riedell repeatedly, asking her to participate in a 15-minute phone survey.

No matter how many times she refused their overtures, the calls kept coming.

Riedell said she asked each time to have her name taken off the call list but was told that representatives were not authorized to do so.

And so it continued through late summer and early fall. By the sixth call, Riedell decided she had heard enough. She emailed What’s Your Problem?

When contacted by the Tribune, the survey firm had this reponse which did not please Riedell:

Dercher said Riedell did not leave her name and phone number when she called Scarborough’s toll-free number, which are critical pieces of information so that the company can remove a respondent from the calling list.

Although her number could be randomly picked for another survey in the future, the odds are against that happening, Dercher said.

After reading Dercher’s email, Riedell said Scarborough’s response was, well, lame.

“The response says that their interviewers are not allowed to remove the name of a respondent from their calling list since the respondent’s name is confidential, but the interviewer already has the respondent’s name and phone number, otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to reach me by phone or address me by my name when I answered the phone,” Riedell said. “Sounds like gibberish to me.”

The column is clearly geared toward Riedell’s point of view and frankly, who likes to be called repeatedly by companies or survey organizations after refusing to participate? At the same time, let’s flip this around to see it from the opposite angle:

-Riedell was selected for the survey by random digit dialing. This is not unusual and telephone surveys are not covered by the Do Not Call registry.

-It doesn’t sound unusual that the survey interviewers didn’t have the power to remove her name from their lists. They were likely handed lists of numbers and told to call until they had an answer.

-Surveys often select their initial batch of respondents and then do whatever they can to get responses from them. The US Census Bureau goes to housing units repeated times in order to collect data because they want accurate data. (Of course, one Census worker who was doing his job last year was arrested for trespassing in Hawaii.) If survey companies simply gave up on people after one attempt, they would spend a lot more time and money and doing so might mess up their calibrated samples which are meant to represent larger populations.

In the end, Riedell may not like the system but in order to collect good data, survey companies may have to contact selected respondents multiple times. Since participation is voluntary, Riedell can opt out and perhaps Scarborough does need to have a more clearly delineated method by which people can opt out. Additionally, there may be some complications because Scarborough is a market survey research firm (tagline: Scarborough Research measures our shopping, media, and lifestyle behaviors) and are not academic researchers or political researchers (though push polls are very problematic). But this column could be much more informative about how survey research works and how consumers can respond to common requests for information rather than just suggesting that this woman should be able to more easily avoid telephone survey questions.

0 thoughts on ““What’s Your Problem?” misses an opportunity to explain survey research

  1. I would like to know how to opt out of these calls too. I’m really uninterested in the “marketing” aspect that the research company fills. I am bombarded with “research” surveys all of the time (most notably, “what’s your zipcode”).

    I would just like not to receive these intrusive and annoying calls, EVER.

    My only regret after reading “What’s Your Problem” is that he didn’t publish the address that he used to get Ms. Riedell’s number off Scarborough’s list.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s