Survey success – what makes a good interviewer?

New research looking at what makes a successful interviewer in surveys like the British Household Panel Survey and its successor Understanding Society, shows that personality plays a role in persuading people to take part, but that attitudes and skills are more important. The research, led by the ISER, shows that female interviewers are more successful than their male counterparts and that more extrovert interviewers are also more effective in persuading people to take part. However, the researchers were surprised to find that people who were agreeable and open to new experiences were not so effective.

Explaining the background to the report, lead researcher Annette Jäckle said:

“Interviewers vary hugely in how successful they are at persuading respondents to take part in surveys with the least successful only managing to persuade 40% or fewer of respondents they contacted compared with the most successful who were able to convince 70% or more and we wanted to look scientifically at why that might be.”

The research team examined the characteristics of 842 interviewers working for a major survey institute and analysed the co-operation or lack of co-operation of 100,000 respondents contacted by those interviewers over a 13-month period and then tried to explain why some interviewers are more successful than others at persuading respondents to participate. They looked at the sorts of characteristics that were most likely to influence the doorstep interaction between the interviewer and respondent including experience, attitudes, personality traits and inter-personal skills.

The research showed that the interviewer’s attitudes towards the legitimacy and usefulness of persuading reluctant respondents seemed to play a role, with interviewers who believe that even the most reluctant respondents can be persuaded with enough effort more likely to be successful. Similarly, interviewers who did not believe that refusals should be accepted, and who did not believe that reluctant respondents provide less reliable answers, were more successful at persuading respondents to participate.

The interviewer’s personality traits also seemed to play a role, with more extrovert interviewers more likely to gain co-operation. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, interviewers who were more agreeable or more open to new experiences were less likely to gain cooperation. Verbal communication skills were also associated with cooperation, but contrary to expectations more adaptable, assertive and deliberate interviewers were less successful at gaining cooperation. More experienced interviewers were more successful and around one quarter of this effect seems to be due to differences between the more and less experienced interviewers in their personality traits, skills and attitudes.

Female interviewers were also more successful in gaining respondents’ co-operation than their male counterparts, with one half of the difference between them being due to differences in their attitudes, personality traits and skills.

Commenting on the findings, co-researcher Peter Lynn said:

“We considered the implications of our findings for the recruitment and training of interviewers. We are not sure it is justified to explicitly take personality traits into account in recruitment. But there appears to be a case for incorporating our findings regarding skills and attitudes into training. It would seem worthwhile to train interviewers to not be too assertive, to demonstrate to them that reluctant respondents do not necessarily provide poor data, and to give them confidence that most people can be persuaded and that they should not accept a refusal lightly. These ideas are broadly consistent with current good practice.”


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