Shoot your foot

Back in the eighties when I was a student I worked part time at a company that did consumer research by phone. We phoned -obviously- random people and asked them questions about what newspapers and magazines they read, what peanut-butter they ate, what detergent they used and what they voted for. Questions varied as contracts varied, because this was a commercial company. As a result the time it took to complete an interview varied.

Sometimes we were asked how long an interview would last before people would agree to participate. Human psychology being what it is, any indication of time that seemed to exceed ten minutes would result in people declining to cooperate. So we said ‘about ten minutes’. Which was true if you never read anything, never ate anything and never washed your clothes. But if you did, it could run up to forty minutes easily, especially if you read a lot.

Naturally we were not the only company doing this. Our clients could choose between a number of competing companies that all tried to outdo each other in prices, response rates and accuracy. We could not afford too many people not participating. So we said ‘ten minutes’, kept people on the phone for twenty minutes on average and made a profit. Well, a salary at least for the ones doing the work. Us.

When several companies make it their task to phone people and ask them questions that seem hardly relevant to their lives, the number of times people are called is proportional to the number of companies needing and doing the research. The effects of that became very noticeable during the time I worked there. First, research among IT professionals suffered. There were relatively very few of them, but in IT you could make a formidable profit, so a lot of market research was done among these people. One of them once told me he was called three times a day on average for a questionnaire very much like the one I wanted to interview him with.

Naturally, response declined sharply. And then consumers followed: not as sharply as in IT, but they did. In order to counter this trend the introduction we read from our computer screens was changed. Instead of politely asking whether the consumer wanted to participate in our research, we had to simply start the questionnaire. If people didn’t want to go ahead, they had to interrupt us to say so. I never used the new introduction and always gave the person I called the opportunity to decline. My response rate declined as a result, following the national trend, whereas response for the company as a whole remained steady. After a few months I believe, I resigned and looked for another job. It was made easier by the fact that I had also finished my studies.

People needed to interrupt us when they did not want to participate, and most people were too polite to do so. Our company wanted to make use of that. Abuse really, because politeness only stays in place when it’s reciprocated. The short term effects were positive: profits. The long term effects weren’t. I think it was during the nineties that the first articles in newspapers started to appear describing the dire straits market research companies were in. The number of people who refused to answer questions on the phone had risen to such a level that the statistical integrity and accuracy of the collected data was in real danger. In my circle of friends stories about people who would simply slam the phone without even talking became commonplace. That never happened to me in three years.

These processes develop over long periods of time. More than twenty years in my case. Even if you see the problem coming -like I did halfway through the eighties- your criticism can be easily countered with more immediate arguments about profits, clients, better service, response rates and salaries. These are all short and middle-term interests. Exercising a response-retention policy not only deals with a long-term interest, it deals with an undercurrent. One that is perpetually hidden behind short and long-term interests.

Exercising a long-term response retention-policy means you have to reciprocate the politeness of the people who volunteer to answer your questions. There’s only so many calls people will be willing to answer, there’s only so much intrusion they’ll tolerate. In other words: there are restraints to the amount of work that can be done and hence to the amount of companies that can do that limited amount of work. That runs counter to our societal ideology, that subscribes to a market economy and competition. In order to function successfully, they need to be free from restraints as much as possible. The present decline in response and the resulting decrease in reliability of market information is a side-effect of our societal ideology that -with the passing of time- cannot be called ‘side’ any more. Eventually our market-centered ideology will render market research useless.

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