The survey research industry has had to bear the brunt of the general public’s concern for privacy and lack of time and interest to participate in surveys.  A steady decline in response rates and increase in refusal rates has forced researchers to examine their survey practices in order to overcome these obstacles.  Researchers are increasing the number of call attempts that are made to reach a household, in the name of good response rates.  Even CMOR established a toll-free consumer hotline for researchers to use that would provide general information about the survey process, and basic information about laws pertaining to Do-Not-Call list.

However, even this potentially helpful tool has too often been used as a cop out for interviewers who don’t know how to answer respondent questions and have given out the 800 number out indiscriminately.  Recently, the CMOR staff has had to reply to a number of irate respondents and complaints lodged against CMOR for harassment at a state’s Attorney General’s office, and a Better Business Bureau.  When interviewers leave the 800 number on an answering machine, it gives the respondent the impression that CMOR is conducting the survey. The problem is also compounded when companies begin making an inordinate number of call attempts in an effort to gain high response rates, but at what point are these multiple calls considered harassment?

Answering machines are a major obstacle to reaching potential respondents for telephone interviews.  Seventy-five percent of the telephone respondents in CMOR’s 2001 Respondent Cooperation & Industry Image Study report having an answering machine, nearly 60% use the answering machine to screen calls.  In addition, other telephone screening devices are becoming more readily available, making respondents even more inaccessible.  A third of the telephone respondents reported using caller ID.  But all these statistics are underreported if you consider nearly the 60% refusal rate for this study.

Currently there is no conclusive data stating that leaving a message on an answering machine for a respondent is effective.  In CMOR’s 2000 Survey Practices study, only 17% of the companies reported leaving a message on an answering machine, but it appears that this is becoming a common practice today.  Since many research companies’ telephone number does not display on a caller ID, this practices is seen as legitimizing the survey call and providing information that may differentiate them from a sales related call.  Of the telephone centers that left messages, 75% left an 800 number to call back, 71% left a message on the first call, and 62% left a message on subsequent calls.

However, there must be a balance between the need to gain cooperation, and leaving too many, what may be perceived as, annoying messages.  Call strategies are important to maintain productivity in a telephone center. There is no such common practice on the number of call attempts to make to reach a household.  Years back, 3 and 4 call attempts were sufficient.  The number has grown to 6 and many companies typically make 9 – 10 call attempts.  I’ve heard other companies whose clients demand high responses rates make 13 – 20 call attempts before abandoning a telephone number.  At what point are we harassing the public and frustrating our interviewers and increasing our costs unnecessarily?  This is an issue that the industry must wrestle with.

There are various harassment laws across the country that researchers should be aware of that may implicate placing callbacks to a respondent. Although there are laws and proposed legislation across the county that would implicate sales-calls exclusively (like Hawaii's law that makes it illegal for telemarketers to call consumer repeatedly or continuously with behaviors that a reasonable person would deem as annoying, abusive or harassing and legislation in Maryland and Missouri to prohibit telemarketers from allowing a telephone to ring more than 5 times), there are a number of laws that cover all communications, regardless of the content. For example, under current Utah law, it is illegal for anyone to cause a telephone to ring repeatedly or continuously (the law is not more specific). Moreover, under Missouri law, it is considered harassment for anyone to make "repeated" telephone calls (in one case brought under the law, four call attempts to an answering machine was sufficient to constitute harassment). In Hawaii, it is illegal to repeatedly make a communication anonymously or at an extremely inconvenient hour, and in Montana one cannot use a telephone to disturb, by repeated telephone calls, the peace, quiet or right of privacy of a person.  Although a matter of interpretation, multiple callback attempts to respondents runs the risk of violating any one of these state laws.

Consider the following suggestions to avoid future problems:

  • If your company is utilizing the CMOR Hotline, make certain that interviewers know exactly what information is provided on the hotline and what CMOR can and cannot do.  CMOR does not remove telephone numbers from any lists nor can they place a number on the Do-Not-Call lists.
  • If your company leaves a message for a respondent, provide them with your company information and general purpose of the call.
  • Call attempts need to be space out over day parts and days of the week with serious consideration of what the maximum number of calls are to be made in order to reach your target population.
  • Review CMOR’s Bill of Rights to ensure that respondents are always treated fairly and with respect.
  • Remain knowledgeable about your state and federal laws that may affect the type of research your company does.

As the public becomes more savvy about the laws and their rights to privacy, researchers must be even more aware of the legislative and statutory implications have on the research industry.  This is where CMOR’s Government Affairs and Respondent Cooperation areas are intricately involved in working together for the betterment of the industry.