Reflecting on days gone by, it seems that society in the past was so different.  Trust and respect were highly regarded virtues.  Yet today, governments, businesses, athletes, entertainers, and many other prominent individuals and groups are being caught in lies and deceit. Perhaps it's only the media that now heightens our awareness to these signs of the times. Our society still does run on the notion that we are trustworthy until proven guilty. Socialization and fear of a bad reputation keep us from telling too many white lies; and the threat of fines and prison deters more serious breaches of trust.

Modern democracies depend on honesty in government and in business.  They also rely on public trust.  To lose that trust would be to shake the very rock on which our societies depend.  In CMOR's 2001 Respondent Cooperation & Industry Image Study, most respondents expressed some concern about personal privacy, and specifically a lack of trust with organizations that conduct surveys and polls to protect their rights to privacy.  The Telemarketing industry has also blurred the lines between legitimate research and sales, leaving the general public skeptical about answering questions.  Many still see polls and surveys as terms to disguise a sales pitch, and thus resulting in increasing refusal rates.

But what does this have to do with respondent cooperation?  Everything.  Honesty must underlie the entire survey process, starting at ground level with the survey introduction.  Honesty will breed confidence among interviewers if they can provide truthful information including their name and company they represent, about the survey topic (without being biasing), and most of all about the length of the survey.  In a recent study conducted among Australian interviewers, they reported that one way to gain trust and respect of the respondent is by being honest about the survey length.  It is easier to conduct a 10-minute survey if it is REALLY 10 minutes long.  Making this a common practice could possibly deter clients from writing overly long surveys.  Telling the respondent that the survey is only going to take a few minutes is only angering respondents, especially midway through a survey that is longer than expected.

Shorter surveys enhance the likelihood for future participation.  However survey lengths appear to be increasing rather than decreasing, and surely interviewers feel uneasy to tell a respondent that the survey will take 15 or 20 minutes, or even longer.  Time is a precious commodity today, and the general public is not willing to give up their time when they feel distrust and disrespect.   In CMOR's 2001 Respondent Cooperation & Industry Image Study, when asked the length of their last interview, the average (mean) reported length is trending upward.  The average length across all methodologies is inching upwards; 15 minutes in 2001, compared to 8, 10, 12, and 13, and 14 minutes in prior waves.

This information is not new.  Consider our findings in some focus groups conducted in 1995 among both interviewers and respondents.  These recommendations are still applicable today.

Mentioning the length of the interview is a judgement call, depending on the interview, per se, and the feeling the interviewer has about the respondent.  Some interviewers say how long it is immediately, others do so only if asked.  Interviewers take this tack because they have typically not been provided with any standard approach on this issue.  Consumers do want to know at the outset how long an interview will take.

The key to a “persuasive” introduction is to be honest and to answer any up-front questions that will put the respondents at ease.  Importantly, interviewers should not sound like they are reading from a script.

On long questionnaires, the interviewer may also interject a comment letting the respondent know that there are only a few more minutes to go or that they are almost finished.  Respondents said that they appreciate such a gesture.  Heading off irritation in this way is probably better than having the respondent ask “how much longer is this going to take?”

These may be trying times and many things are beyond our control.  Privacy is a core business and research issue, and distrust that confidentiality will be maintained continues.  However, with a little common sense and some old fashion "honesty is the best policy", the industry may go a long way with gaining trust and cooperation with respondents.  We must all take the attitude that "the buck starts here" when designing and implementing surveys.  Our industry depends on it.  Let's show the general public that honesty and respect are part of the survey process.