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Customer Interview Projects with In-House Staff: Rewards & Risks

If you have been planning a research project involving customer interviews lately, you may have found yourself debating: should I hire an outside market research agency, or use in-house resources?

It’s a debate I hear a lot lately. Even clients who have hired research agencies to do interviews in the past are now considering the in-house option.

And the reasons aren’t just money-related (though that is a factor).  Two additional reasons for choosing the in-house approach include:

1.    The desire for near-real-time feedback.
2.    The need to create direct learning opportunities.

When handling customer interview projects (or IDI projects, if you prefer) in-house, you do get the benefit of fast feedback. The folks making the calls may be right down the hall from you, and it’s easy to pop in and ask for updates.  As issues come up, you and the interviewers can choose to modify screening criteria, update the interview guide, or escalate discoveries—and do so very quickly.

And the learning opportunity for those folks actually conducting interviews? It is fantastic. And that’s true whether the interviews will be conducted by executives, middle managers or other staff. There is nothing like talking to even just 5 or 10 actual customers one-on-one to create deep, impactful insights.  More often than not, after people conduct their first customer interviews, I hear them say things like, “I never knew our customers thought that!”

Risks Ahead

Yes, the benefits of doing interview projects in-house are huge. But so are the risks.

The biggest risk: alienating clients. Folks who have not been trained to do customer interviews may have trouble asking questions—and listening to responses—in a purely objective way. Clients get annoyed if they feel they have been nice enough to cooperate with the research request only to feel manipulated or misunderstood by a company representative.

Another big risk: underestimating the amount of work involved. If you have never done in-house interviews before, you may not realize how much time it takes. You may need to write a screener. And then there’s an interview guide itself to create. Then recruiting and scheduling the interviews. Don’t forget arranging for recording and possibly transcribing. And how about reading and synthesizing the results in a way that can be shared? It really does take a lot of time and skill.  I have seen clients embark on these projects, confident that they can do them, only to have the project turn into a never-ending-nightmare because the staff involved simply could not take enough time away for their primary responsibilities to make it happen in a time-efficient manner.

So just be sure to consider the alternatives. There are market research agencies and freelancers that can handle customer interview projects very well—and have the skills and resources to do them professionally.

Be Honest with Yourself

So if you’re thinking about having non-researchers help out with customer interviews, it is certainly viable. And has some real benefits. But watch out for those common roadblocks, or the money you save on an outside agency could end up being more than risked with customer fallout and excessive staff time.

[Interested in learning more tips to manage in-house interviewers? Interested in training non-researchers to conduct research interviews? Check out Research Rockstar’s latest online tutorials:   Training Volunteer Interviewers (Free!) and  Conducting Research Interviews: 12 Tips for Stress-Free Interviewing ]

Kathryn Korostoff

Kathryn Korostoff is founder and lead instructor at Research Rockstar. Over the past 25 years, she has personally directed more than 600 primary market research projects and published over 100 bylined articles in magazines. She is also a professor at Boston University, where she teaches grad students how to analyze and report quantitative data.

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