As an intern at Policy Research Associates, Inc., my primary work has involved surveying prisons and jails around the country in order to find out about their use of the “Brief Jail Mental Health Screen”. I collect the data by calling different facilities around the country and asking to speak to someone who would be able to answer some survey questions on this topic. These facilities have been randomly selected into separate data sets and feature both large, medium, and the small facilities. It is important to note that none of these facilities have been forewarned that they would be asked to participate in this survey or had expressed any interest in being surveyed. These calls I have done can be considered prime examples of a “cold-call.”

As regular citizens, we have all dealt with the dreaded surveyor who called during dinner-time, and we have all also dealt with the telemarketer who is far too nosey. They may ask specific details about your life that make you uncomfortable or may request information that you feel unsafe revealing. In these situations, it is likely that you didn’t respond due to inconvenience, safety, or just plain “didn’t feel like it.” You likely wouldn’t be acting too uniquely in that situation. According to a multitude of research, the entire surveying profession is facing a number of challenges due to the falling response rates in sample surveys throughout the world (de Leeuw and de Heer, 2002). Things like telemarketing and news stories about scams in the form of pretend surveys have made most people cynical about participating in these “cold call” surveys.

I have faced many of these issues in the work that I’m doing. Although jails differ from the example of an individual ignoring a telemarketer at their private home, their reactions are often similar and there are often similar factors that affect the likelihood of survey participation. From when I began this project in late January 2015 until May 2015, I have noticed an increase in survey participation survey from the facilities. There is no way to say for certain, but my belief is that through my continued efforts, I have developed some techniques to improve the likelihood that the individual on the other end of the phone will participate in in the survey.

Here are some tips to getting someone to answer your survey in a “cold call” situation:

  • State who you are and what organization you are with
    • People are more likely to complete your survey if you present yourself and the organization you’re representing in a professional manner. Even with some reputable institutions, there may be some resistance if an individual is not aware of it. It may be necessary to provide some information about your organization to prove its authenticity to the respondent. This is why the Federal Government is able to achieve a high response rate in their surveys; they are reputable and well-known organization.
  • Explain specifically and clearly what you are looking for
    • People are often hesitant to give out any information due to fear of where the information is going. Certain question phrasing may put a cognitive burden on the respondent and deter them from responding. Due to the amount of work they would have to put into constructing the answer, some respondents may just give up. Sometimes by explaining what you need in another manner (more clear and concise), the respondent will feel more comfortable and willing to respond. Remember, in most cases, people like to tell their story.
  • Be non-threatening and approachable
    • Just like your parents used to say, it is not always what you say but how you say it. If you approach the respondent in a threatening or uncomfortable manner, they of course will be more hesitant to respond. If you sound nice and approachable, respondents are more likely to share information. You need to sound likable in order to get results.
  • Being “gimmicky” can be an issue
    • Sometimes offering raffles and prizes for people’s responses to your survey can work as an incentive. Yet sometimes, these incentives will lead the respondent to question the validity of the survey. Due to the rise of telemarketers who offer promises of prizes, the offer of an elaborate prize (even if it is true) may deter people from participating in your survey, as they may think your survey lacks authenticity. Small incentives, under $50.00, may encourage respondents to take your survey rather than something elaborate like “a brand-new car,” which may raise red flags for the respondents.
  • Ask for other options
    • Be sure to have different questions that measure the same factors you are looking for. In some cases, a particular question may be confusing or not related to the individual. In order to get the proper information you need, it is helpful to have multiple questions that measure the same factors.
  • Call again and re-explain yourself
    • With the rise of telemarketers and Caller ID, you are more likely to not get a response rather than be hung up on. When you are dealing with businesses, they almost always pick up and will be quick to hang up on you if they feel that the conversation is a waste of time. Don’t be afraid to reach out again and attempt to re-explain the reason you are calling and assert your purpose.
  • Understand people may really be away or really do not know the answer
    • Just as the respondents have become more cynical to the idea of “cold call” surveys, some surveyors have also become more cynical about the respondents’ answers. It is important to remember that respondents may be telling the truth when they state that they “don’t know” or that they “don’t have time to take the survey”. Don’t waste time arguing about the validity of these claims and focus on finding the right person to answer your questions.


De Leeuw, E. D., & Heer, W. D. (2002). Trends in household survey nonresponse: A longitudinal  and international comparison.