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Magazines > Searcher > October 2008
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Vol. 16 No. 9 — October 2008
Phone Research — The Prequel
Before You Even Pick Up the Phone

by Risa Sacks, Risa Sacks Information Services

Every year or so, bq lets me hop on my soapbox and remind you all to consider phone research as part of your research arsenal. In 2005, it was “Anatomy of a Phone Search: Primary Research Using the Original ‘Online’” [vol. 13, no. 3, March, pp. 42+]. In 2006, the sequel appeared: “Phone Search — The Search Goes On” [vol. 14, no. 7, July/August, pp. 24+]. Since we don’t think Star Wars should have anything on us, obviously this year we must return to “The Prequel.”

Most articles dealing with telephone research focus on what happens once you start calling. However, many, if not most, issues need to be considered and resolved earlier in the process. So let’s look behind the curtain at what you need to do before you ever pick up the phone. You have to know in advance what you can say (and can’t), who you can call (and shouldn’t), what you can offer (and mustn’t), and who might be able to help.

Leaving a Footprint

First, we must recognize one of the unique characteristics of phone research that seems obvious but that has major implications. Phone research is “public.” It leaves a trail. You can search online databases from here to eternity, and no one will ever know — well, except for the bills you may have to pay. Once you hand the results on to clients, they may distribute them however they wish, and they control the “disclosure” that the questions were ever asked and the subject ever researched. Of course, we would always indicate any applicable copyright restrictions and expedite copyright payment when possible. In phone research, because you are developing the information yourself, you have no formal copyright issues to deal with, but you do have “footprint issues,” as you’ll see below, so I guess there really is no free lunch!

With phone research, on the other hand, the very fact that someone is calling about a topic may expose guarded information or fuel speculation. In every phone call, by definition, you give as well as receive some information. That someone is interested in Product A, Service B, or Executive C can raise red flags and alert people that something is stirring in a particular arena. Because of this, it’s critical to understand both how sensitive a topic is and what safeguards you may need to employ when researching it.

In some cases, you actually want to publicize the research as you go along. For example, when looking for senior telecom execs to hire for placement in Romania, you may want the word to go out throughout the Romanian American community, so the “public” factor of phone research becomes a benefit. Or, if you seek ways to help improve disaster relief techniques for the Red Cross, again, if the word going out results in your learning about additional techniques or having unexpected experts contact you — all the better.

On the other hand, if one major airline is considering a new program for its agents, this fact may constitute very competitive information about which it wants to minimize attention. In much of the rest of this article, we’ll consider how levels of sensitivity and confidentiality can affect phone research. These issues need to be at the back of your mind throughout any phone project. With that caveat in mind, let’s look at specific questions you need to consider.

One more point: Hard-core competitive intelligence research may involve different approaches. While many concerns remain the same, this article doesn’t specifically address that area of research.

What Can I Say?

Sometimes when you call people, they give you loads of information without so much as knowing your name or any information about you and your reason for asking. But other (and sadly, much more frequent) times, the person on the other end of the phone line wants to know: “Who are you? Where are you calling from? Who’s funding this project? What do you want to know? What will it be used for?” And you need to be ready to answer!

What information you provide may vary from call to call, depending on what’s demanded and what will serve your purposes the best, but you need to know the bottom line of what’s acceptable for you to disclose in each of those areas.

Who Are You? And Where Are You From?

These are not the deep philosophical questions from Kant or Hegel (or even 6-year olds asking mom the big questions), but the very practical questions of how to describe yourself during phone research.

My standard opening is, “My name is Risa Sacks, and I’m a researcher up in Massachusetts.” A vast majority of the time, that’s as much identifying as I do. With the advent of ubiquitous websites and Google-mania, I can often hear the person clicking away at his or her keyboard in the background. Fine with me. In fact, if someone is a bit skittish or reluctant to talk, I offer my website and say, “Would you feel better if you look me up?” since, of course, we all know that if it’s online, it must be true. I’ve consciously designed my website to help people feel comfortable talking to me, as opposed to competitive intelligence websites that often have the opposite effect.

How you describe yourself may vary — are you perhaps a market researcher, an industry analyst, a business consultant, or a librarian? While you can’t lie or misrepresent yourself (aka pretext), you can still present yourself in the most favorable light. Which of your possible designations are the people you’re calling most likely to speak with? Being a librarian seems to be a great introduction. Who wouldn’t be willing to talk to an innocuous, helpful librarian? Hah! Little do they know the modern breed of barracuda librarians that ferret out information with laser focus.

“Where are you from?” can also have a number of possibilities. As in my standard opening, you can really say nothing at all — or something so general as to amount to the same thing. Sometimes, when I’m working as a subcontractor for a research or marketing or law firm, for example, I may choose, or be directed, to use that company’s name. “I’m a researcher doing a project for XYZ Information Services” or “for ABC Marketing.” Or, if it’s for a publication project, even “for Searcher magazine.”

Sometimes I’ll use the name of the ultimate client, if my client gives me permission and if it will serve me well — “a project for the Red Cross,” or Microsoft, or the postal service. In some cases, while talking with the more savvy and/or suspicious people, when I’ve used the contracting firm’s name, they will still want to know “Yes, but who’s funding the project? Who’s ultimately using or sponsoring it?”

Again, it depends on what I actually know, what will serve me best, and what I am allowed to say. In some cases I honestly don’t know who the ultimate client is, which is not always a bad position to be in. “If ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise.” I can explain that this helps keep the study results “company” or “product” neutral, so that I can’t bias the results even unconsciously. If I do know, but am not allowed to say, I tell them that, and explain that this is to keep everyone’s responses unbiased.

Sometimes I can’t use the company name, but can use some level of description that I’ve cleared with the client. If I can’t say Coke, I may be able to say:

A soft drink manufacturer

A player in the beverage industry

A large user of sugar and sugar substitutes

While each designation goes up a level in abstraction, each might provide a sufficient level of comfort to let the person on the phone speak with me. The more you can disclose, in general, the better chance you will have that someone will speak with you.

If you can’t use any level of description, sometimes just confirming a negative can still help — “I can assure you that it’s not a company that competes with yours in any way,” or “The company doesn’t work in North America at all.”

If you don’t know or generally can’t disclose, and the person won’t talk under those circumstances, you may just need to move on. As a last option, you might offer to request the information or permission to disclose and re-contact the person if and when you get it.

I had one memorable instance where I was talking to a very senior VP at an auto rental company. He was extremely knowledgeable, but would only talk briefly without knowing the ultimate client. I honestly didn’t know the ultimate client’s name, but offered to see if I could get it and permission to disclose. Lucky move on my part! It turned out that he was the ultimate client. When I went back and said “I can tell you who the ultimate client is — you are,” he was so pleased with our professionalism, the level of questions asked, and the information already gathered, that it turned out to be a winning move. It was one case where not only was “honesty its own reward” but also contributed to great customer relations. I shudder to think what the opposite outcome could have been!

What Do You Want to Know?

As with the other areas, frequently all you have to say is “I’d like to ask you a few questions about …,” or “I’m hoping you can help me understand a bit more about …,” whatever the general area is. If someone wants more specific parameters, again, consider what will serve you best with that person and what you are allowed to say. Your answer to this question might be quite varied:

“General market trends in the use of stainless steel”

“Your personal experience over the years”

“Your recommendations for someone who’s an expert in this area”

“Specific figures for last month’s prices”

“Confirmation or clarification of data published in your recent article.”

Let the sensitivity of the topic help to shape your response. In a very straightforward or public information situation, you might say, “I’d like the numbers for each kind of Girl Scout cookies you sold in the last drive.” If the goal, however, is to find out how the market will respond to red widgets, and red widgets are a not-yet-released, secret, revolutionary technological advance, you might couch your request more obliquely. “We’d like to explore your views on widget aesthetics” and slip red widgets somewhere in the middle of your questions.

How much latitude is there in what information will meet the client’s needs? If people won’t provide specific numbers, will answers relating to trends or percentages still help? If a person won’t talk about his or her own specific company, will comments about the industry in general be acceptable? And, of course, we all know that in talking about generalities, people often tend to really talk about their own situations. Is there information that you can give them and just ask for them to confirm, deny, or correct? Can you give them a number of choices to select from? Or do you need totally unsolicited, open-ended information?

These are all issues you need to clarify with the client, so that once you’re on the phone, you can move seamlessly through the call, turning on a dime when necessary to encourage the flow of information.

What Will the Information Be Used For?

In this area, there are often two things people want to know — the purpose of the study or interview and where the information will appear or how it will be disseminated. Under the “purpose” part of the query, you might say something along these lines:

General: “To help understand America’s sugar craze”

More specific to the client: “To help market planning going forward”

Very specific to the interviewee: “This is part of due diligence for a possible partnership offer.”

For the second part of the query, relating to where it will appear or be disseminated, for some people wide recognition is a lure, while others require or prefer anonymity. You need to anticipate to know what possibilities you can offer.

How will the report or information be used?

For an internal write-up seen by a few senior executives?

Published in a scholarly journal?

Released for broader circulation as in a white paper?

Can you offer interviewees any of these prospects:

Being publicly thanked and acknowledged

Being kept totally anonymous with their responses aggregated into those of other respondents

Identified only by some description they find acceptable, e.g., a senior VP at a transportation company or an experienced consultant in the field (although consultants often want to be identified since it benefits their own marketing)

As with other areas, sometimes you only need a negative:

“I don’t know exactly what the use will be, but I do know that it won’t be for general publication.”

Be prepared to follow through on whatever you do promise. If your client requires each person’s identity and some people will only speak anonymously, you may have to decline their input. If you promise that their identity won’t leave your office, then you can only provide the agreed upon identifiers to your client. If something changes suddenly in the ultimate use, you may need to get back to the people you interviewed and tell them, “This wasn’t for publication when we spoke, but there has been so much interest in the findings, that there will be a published article — would it be all right to identify you?” Or, “What level of identification would be acceptable to you?”

The broader your ability to offer what each respondent wants, the better chance you will have of gathering useful information.

Whom Can You Call?

Since phone research leaves a trail and may deal with sensitive information, knowing who you can and, equally importantly, who you can’t call is a prime prerequisite.

Clarify with the client the source for the target list:

If the client provides a list, ideally see specific names, titles, and (oh joy, when available) phone numbers can be included.

If you generate the targets, are there existing “pools” to start with, e.g., trade associations or attendees at a particular conference?

Are there categories of people to consider? Do you only want to talk with decision makers at five major companies? Or might industry experts or editors of trade publications provide good overview information and/or good referrals? How about end users? Producers? Distributors? Are headquarter personnel the only ones to approach or could regional and local offices provide better prospects?

As with many other areas we’ve considered, the broader your world of targets, the better your chances of getting useful information. You may also help educate your client as you suggest possible sources that may not have been considered. This broader view is something you bring to the table.

Also consider the level(s) of people from whom it is acceptable to gather information. Is it top executives or more people on the ground? How far up or down the corporate or organizational ladder can you go? For example, in the travel industry, do you want to talk with the owners, the operations managers, or the reservationists? Each level of person can provide unique information and different perspectives — all of which may prove helpful. You don’t, however, want to talk with reservationists if what you need involves major decision makers at each agency. Conversely, if you are looking for the ease of use of a particular program, particularly at peak work times, the reservationists may well know the facts about which the owner is totally clueless.

Who do you need to avoid calling? Is there a specific do not call list for this project of people/companies to specifically refrain from contacting in any way? Or a specific category of people to avoid, such as industry analysts? For example, when you subcontract, the do-not-call types may include the client company, individual competitors, or people who would immediately “guess” the ultimate client. You want to avoid bringing unwanted publicity to the fact that queries are being made.

What Can You Offer?

In some happy situations, people may be required to talk with you, e.g., when interviewing employees to evaluate a coaching and compensation package. At those times, exploit whatever “clout” you have. Will the company send out emails for you? Call their managers? Even set up the appointments for your interviews? Great! Milk it for all it’s worth. All you have to offer is the chance to meet their responsibilities.

Of course everyone else should be happy to talk to you, since you’re so charming/interesting/compelling and/or they’re so bored/lonely/generally talkative. However, since we’re still in the real world here, the truth is that you frequently have to entice someone to speak with you.

Sometimes you can appeal to people’s better natures. They will be contributing to the wealth of information about a topic or helping a good cause. Other times you can appeal to their egos — their widely acknowledged expert status in the world or their unique knowledge or position. “I’m calling you because you are the world expert in blah blah blah” or “because I read your excellent article …” or “Dr. Jones recommended you as the best source for this kind of information.” As we mentioned earlier, both recognition and anonymity may entice people to talk with you, depending on which one is seen as a benefit.

However, if possible, you should try to have other enticements in your back pocket to pull out when needed:

Executive summary. Can you offer to send them an edited, sanitized version of the study results? This particularly appeals to high-level executives/professionals who like to get information back in return for giving information out.

“Trading beads” of information. As you go through your research, are you finding nuggets of information you could share with interviewees? Even, “Yes, we’ve heard that comment frequently before” or, “I just read a report that showed the average up by 70%. Would you like me to send you the URL?” Anything that helps the conversation feel like an exchange of information, rather than a one-way street, can improve the interview. Don’t forget to check that it’s all right to share this type of general information. Does the client even have any trading beads it can provide you?

Compensation/honoraria. Treats or plain old money are nice options, if the client agrees to them.

Honoraria. I’ve found these particularly useful in medical fields and, in some cases, in the travel and hospitality industries. It tends to have less appeal or effectiveness in corporate executive situations.

Contributions to a favorite charity. In some cases when offering money directly is inappropriate or ineffective, offering to make a contribution to a favorite charity is a great way to both get information and do some good in the world. This has worked well with different levels of corporate executives, as well as some levels of the health fields.

“Treats.” Sometimes something as simple as an Amazon book coupon or a Starbuck’s coffee card can be enough to lure people to participate, or at least to show your appreciation when they do. Whatever you select, make sure it’s something that’s easy to implement and doesn’t add much administrative overhead to the project.

Who Might Be Able to Help?

Good research, like charity, often begins at home. That’s true especially with phone research in a subject area that’s not one of your specialties. While you don’t have to be a subject matter expert in a specific area in order to conduct phone research, it helps to “talk the talk,” at least a little bit. Is there someone at the client’s who is an expert in the area or at least has experience working in that field/topic? Can you spend a bit of time speaking that person before you hit the phones? By talking with a friendly expert first, you might learn that you say “I-triple-E” as opposed to “I-E-E-E,” “A-I-I-P” rather than “A-double-I-P,” or “Norad” not “N-O-R-A-D.” Knowledge of pronunciation, acronyms, basic “insider” jargon can increase both your comfort zone and your professional edge. While it’s not necessary to have this experience, it never hurts to ask.

In addition, the friendly expert may be able to suggest names of the publications this target group reads, meetings they attend, associations they belong to, and even provide specific names for you to contact.

Ready, Set, Phone

To close with a bunch of mixed metaphors: Armed with the answers you need and possible inducements in your pocket — maybe even a bit of “friendly” experience under your belt — you’re ready to successfully dive into your next phone research project.

Risa Sacks's e-mail address is

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