Customer Success

When Do Phone Interviews Make Sense for Market Research?

May 23, 2011

No matter the type or goal of your market research, there’s one absolute necessity to make it successful: good data.

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Whether it’s market sizing, target marketing, market segmentation, product positioning, pricing, or customer satisfaction research, obtaining reliable customer or prospect insight requires – before anything else – good data collection.

Of course, that’s true for almost every area of business.

A CFO, for example, can’t make critical financial decisions with corrupt or inaccurate data. The same goes for a VP of Sales, who relies on sound metrics to prepare accurate quotas and quarterly forecasts.

It’s no different for market researchers. When we conduct surveys, it’s essential to identify the best data collection practice and choose the right method for the right research type.

As a startup or expansion stage business, for instance, you may be performing primary research and deciding between collecting data through focus groups or phone interviews. Both can be useful, but there are instances in which one is better than the other. The key is to choose the right one.

So, if you find yourself in any of the following situations, here’s some advice to help you determine when to go with a phone interview over a focus group.

If the type of research you’re doing is complex…

Phone interviews can be much more effective if you’re doing a study that requires your respondents to answer multi-step questions (e.g. implementing an enterprise application). That’s because it is far easier to walk each respondent through the set of questions over the phone. In a focus group environment, that process will get confusing and chaotic.

In-Depth Market Research president Jacob Brown makes a similar argument on his blog. He also adds a few more instances in which phone interviews are better than focus groups as a means of collecting data.

If you need the cleanest and most objective responses…

In a focus group setting, it’s very common for respondents’ thought processes to be influenced by other members of the group. Because phone interviews are one-on-one, the answers and data you collect will be less biased and far more objective.

If you’re trying to gather sensitive, in-depth information…

As Michael Mora at market research firm Relevant Insights points out, focus groups are good for exploring customers’ general feelings, perceptions, and motivations. But because of the lack of anonymity, focus groups do not usually allow for the collection of more specific, sensitive, and in-depth data.

With a phone interview, however, you can keep the respondents’ answers confidential. And, because they don’t have to give their answers in front of a large group of people, survey participants are likely to speak more freely and specifically about the research topic.

If you want to reach your target audience…

In some instances, it may not be easy to find your target customers in the location or region that you had planned to execute a focus group. Phone interviews allow you to cherry pick prospects from anywhere in the world and easily ask them the questions that you would have presented to a focus group.

If you have limited time…

Sometimes, you don’t have the luxury of waiting to assemble a focus group, which obviously involves getting all of the participants in the same room at the same time. With phone interviews, you can start the research as soon as you have your first recruit.

Focus groups, on the other hand, often require significant lag time. They involve deciding on a location, recruiting a moderator, and planning the entire event.

Professional focus group moderator Hank Hoets lists the on-demand nature of phone interviews as one big advantage over focus groups in a blog post that compares the merits of both research methods.

If you prefer higher participation from your respondents…

Because interview subjects can take phone calls from anywhere, they’ll inevitably be more flexible. That increases the chance that they’ll participate in the study and allow you to talk to new people from new markets. So, not only do you benefit from better participation, you also tend to see higher quality participation, too.

If you’re on a tighter budget…

In-depth focus groups can be very expensive. Not only do you need to pay for a moderator to lead the session, you also have to pay them to summarize the data and present it to you. Then there’s the cost of your travel to the focus group and the incentives you’ll need to pay respondents for their participation. When it all adds up, the cost can be significant.

Conversely, if your phone interviews are short enough, you can complete research without incurring any significant cost.

So, which method is right for you?

I could just as easily write a list of instances in which focus groups make more sense for your business. The bottom line is to know what you need and understand your market research goals. If any of the above situations apply to you, then I’d suggest executing phone interviews over focus groups.

But make sure to do your homework before you get started. Choosing the wrong one could lead to unreliable data. As a startup or expansion stage business, there’s nothing worse than trying to make critical decisions based on bad data. Especially when the future of the business often depends on those choices.

Faria Rahman is a market research analyst with OpenView Labs. You can check out her blog, The Focal Point, for more tips and musings on the world of market research and analytics.


Faria Rahman is the Co-Founder of <a href="">Treemarc</a> which, uses machine learning to make it easy for businesses to order custom packaging and product nesting in a few minutes. Previously, she was a Senior Associate at Northbridge Financial Corporation, a leading commercial property and casualty insurance management company offering a wide range of innovative solutions to Canadian businesses. Faria also worked at OpenView from 2010 to 2011 where she was part of the Market Research team.