A good connection

Editor's note: Len Ferman is an adjunct professor at University of North Florida and founder of Ferman Innovation LLC. He can be reached at len.ferman@unf.edu.

As a qualitative researcher for over 30 years and a fan of innovation, I’m continually searching for new ways of collecting data for customer insights. Yet over the past decade I’ve migrated to and found great success with a remarkably simple – and borderline old-fashioned – approach to conducting qualitative research: telephone in-depth interviews, which are usually referred to as phone IDIs.

Phone IDIs deliver superior value to clients while also creating a vastly improved respondent experience (RX). In this article, I will attempt to convey the myriad benefits this approach offers for qualitative research.

What are phone IDIs? Phone IDIs quite simply involve holding a phone conversation between a qualitative researcher and an individual respondent. They hearken back to the pre-internet days when the telephone was the primary tool for data collection for most market research and thus may seem antiquated in this digital age. Yet the benefits of phone IDIs are so compelling that my clients nearly always agree to this approach once I present the case for it.

Why? In one sentence: Phone IDIs can be cheaper, faster and better than other forms of qualitative research. This may sound unbelievable given that a survey of qualitative research methods recently indicated that less than 2% of all qualitative research was conducted via phone IDIs. What seems more unbelievable to me as a practitioner is that so little qualitative research is presently using this method. 

Here are the benefits:

Superior sampling. Respondents for phone IDIs can be anywhere in the world. This enables researchers to construct purely random samples, a stalwart characteristic of sound research. Traditional in-person focus groups, in stark contrast, only allow for respondents to be recruited from a close geographic proximity to one or several focus group facilities. By definition this obliterates any attempt to draw a random sample.

And while online research methods theoretically contain the built-in advantage of reaching people anywhere, there can be severe limitations due to technological comfort of respondents. Many older respondents are still intimidated by technology. And with the ever-increasing need to be conscious of cybersecurity, many younger respondents may be wary of participating in online research. 

Better respondent experience. Over the years I have become increasingly concerned about the quality of the respondent experience. RX should be considered as a critical factor to ensure quality data-gathering for all market research. In my experience, respondents are most likely to provide high-quality, honest input when they feel 100% comfortable sharing their feedback. 

Phone IDIs contribute tremendously to achieving an outstanding RX. There is nothing quite as simple and safe for the respondent as just answering their phone for a scheduled phone IDI. The respondent is relaxed and ready to engage. Other methodologies introduce an element of the unknown which can put respondents on edge. Focus group facilities, no matter how inviting, are an unfamiliar space for any first-time attendee. And online platforms can often be daunting even for technologically savvy people.

Complete respondent engagement. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” applies to customer research when we consider the engagement of respondents in a study. I am always concerned about whether I have 100% engagement of the respondent because I only trust the data when I know the respondent provided their full attention. In this age of multitasking, it is easier than ever for respondents to only give partial attention to a task. For this reason, I can’t be confident with the engagement of respondents in online research. I just don’t know how focused they are when answering questions. 

Even in-person focus groups are subject to lack of engagement because individuals in the room may tune out when the qualitative researcher is speaking to one of the other respondents.

When I’m conducting phone IDIs I have 100% respondent engagement. There is no one else participating and so it is quite clear whether the respondent is providing their full attention. Even if I can’t see the respondent, I know I have their engagement if they are responding to my questions thoughtfully.

Stronger rapport. Since phone IDIs involve a live one-on-one conversation, in a comfortable environment, it is more likely that the qualitative researcher can establish a strong rapport in comparison to in-person or online group research or any form of online text-based research, helping participants open up when sharing their feedback. This is critical to the success of qualitative research projects and paves the way for reaching respondents’ root problems or motivations.

Improved probing. As a result of a stronger rapport, phone IDIs are a great opportunity to fully probe with the respondent on a topic. Unlike in-person or online focus groups, where the qualitative researcher must always try to equally engage all respondents during a session, phone IDIs, by their nature, let the researcher get to the bottom of any topic with as many follow-up probes as it takes to fully understand the respondent’s thinking. Both the comfort level of the respondent and the one-on-one nature of the research contribute to phone IDIs’ high potential for revealing the key underlying issues. Phone IDIs also avoid the probing problems associated with online text-based sessions, where respondents either don’t reply to the probes or offer scant responses. 

Insight into the customer journey. In designing qualitative research, I always try to think in terms of understanding the customer’s journey. I want to be able to tell the clients the story of each individual respondent. I can only do this when I’m fully engaged with a customer in a one-on-one setting. Phone IDIs allow me to follow a line of questions with a single respondent so that I can reach the point where I feel I fully empathize with their experience. Focus groups don’t allow the qualitative researcher to probe enough with each person in the room to put together a holistic picture for any one of them.

Easier client listening. I always encourage clients to listen to respondents live when possible but, given their time demands, this is not always feasible. Fortunately, phone IDIs are easily recordable with high-quality audio that can usually be shared immediately following the interview. Instant transcripts are another feature that can be provided with phone IDIs. Focus group facilities, in contrast, can have audio that can be difficult to hear and transcripts and audio are not usually available right away. 

Enhanced ability for client input. I have found over the years that no matter how well prepared we are, when embarking on a qualitative research project, we cannot predict how well the topic guide will work until we have conducted the first couple of sessions. The advantage of phone IDIs is that we’re not limited to just a few sessions as is frequently the case with focus groups. If for example we have a study that has four focus groups, we may be 50% done with the fieldwork before we have a topic guide that’s optimal. In contrast, phone IDIs usually involve conducting a larger number of sessions, thus providing little concern if the guide needs to be modified after the first couple of interviews.

In fact, I always include in my process a client debriefing after two or three interviews for the express purpose of making any refinements to the topic guide. This provides an added advantage of ensuring early client engagement in the project, which further increases the likelihood of overall project success.

Lower cost. In an age where budgets are of the highest concern, there is perhaps no more prominent advantage for phone IDIs than their cost-efficiency, thanks to there being virtually no cost besides the researcher’s time to implement them. I have generally found that the cost of eight phone IDIs is equal to one in-person focus group. And eight phone IDIs are sometimes enough for a study that is limited to a single segment, whereas you would never conduct just a single focus group for any qualitative research study.

Improved value. In addition to lower cost, the larger quantity of phone IDIs provides greater opportunity to gather unique data points. A typical project might include 20 to 30 phone IDIs as opposed to six to eight focus groups. In addition, the quality of the data can be greater because it is uncluttered by the complications that come with multiple people providing input in a focus group. 

There is also superior value in terms of the overall research investment being made by the client. More sessions allows for more opportunities to modify the topic guide and explore emerging and unexpected themes that may be uncovered in the initial interviews. Phone IDIs make it easy to pivot as needed. To enable this, I purposely space out the interviews to allow for maximum client input during the course of the fieldwork. In this manner, I’m facilitating the client’s ability to have a journey with their customers and optimize the investment they’re making in the research.

Best practices in conducting phone IDIs

In conducting phone IDIs I adhere to several best practices. When possible, I try to conduct the scheduling interviews myself. This way I am establishing a rapport with the respondent prior to the interview. They know me and my phone number before the interview takes place. 

When it comes time to conduct the phone IDI, I call the respondent directly. There is nothing simpler for the RX than just having to answer your phone to participate. I don’t want the respondent to even have to dial into a bridgeline. I want them to feel comfortable and hear a familiar voice on the line.

I also use a reliable phone conferencing system that can automatically record the call with high quality and offers a machine transcript. The conferencing system allows me to put all the clients automatically on mute. Whether clients dial in early or late or leave in the middle of the interview, they will not be noticed by the respondent. This is a requirement to maintain a good RX.

In addition, when I call the respondent for the interview, I’m also bridging them directly into the conference system, thus taking that step away from the respondent in the spirit of making them feel comfortable and setting up the optimal RX.

After the call is completed, I download the recording and transcript immediately and make these available to the client. 

Finally, because I’m getting high-quality audio, I’m able to provide audio clips of key points in my reports so that the big insights are supported by the actual voice of the customer. This creates highly impactful and actionable insights presentations.

Effective across many audiences

Many people have asked me whether there are any respondent or customer segments for which phone IDIs work particularly well or simply don’t work. The quick answer is that in my practice I have found they work well with every target audience for which I have implemented the approach. 

I have conducted phone IDIs with respondents aged 18 to 80, in B2C or B2B research and across a wide array of industries. I have used this methodology in interviews ranging from senior executives to consumers of financial services to golf fans. 

From my experience with phone IDIs I feel they work in every scenario. The only reason I would hedge and say that they work with “nearly” any target audience is because in my practice I simply have not conducted any work with minors under age 18.

I believe the reasons this methodology works so well across age groups, industries and sales scenarios are that it’s simple, familiar and intimate. 

It’s simple – all respondents need to do is answer the phone.

It’s familiar – everyone understands how to answer a phone and have a conversation. 

It’s intimate – respondents are comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions with one person who demonstrates empathy throughout the discussion. 

Deliver meaningful insights 

After 10 years of conducting phone IDIs, I’m convinced that this simple methodology offers superior value for the client, the best experience for the respondent and the greatest opportunity for the researcher to deliver meaningful insights.