Studies of Welfare Populations: Data Collection and Research Issues. Contacting Subjects

06/01/2002

When a telephone number is available for either a subject or a lead, the process of establishing contact becomes important. An ill-defined calling protocol can lead to significant nonresponse. In this section we discuss some of the issues related to contact procedures.

Documenting Call Histories and Call Scheduling

Telephone calls need to be spread over different days of the week and different times of the day in order to establish contact with the household (not necessarily the subject). If contact with the household is established, it is possible to learn if the subject can be contacted through that telephone number, and if so, the best time to attempt to call. If the subject is no longer at the number, questions can be asked to determine if anyone in the household knows the subjects location.

If the telephone is not answered on repeated attempts, an assessment must be made of the utility of further attempts against the possibility that the number is no longer appropriate for the subject. In other words, how many times should a nonanswered telephone be dialed before checking to make sure it is the correct number for the respondent? It is important to remember that this is an iterative process applicable to the initial number on the subjects record as well as to each number discovered through tracing, some of which will be better than others. The issue is assessing the tradeoffs between time and cost.

Many survey firms suggest making seven calls over a period of 2 weeks  on different days (two), evenings (three), and weekends (two)-before doing any further checking (e.g., checking with DA; calling one or more of the contacts; or searching one of the databases). Other firms suggest doubling the number of calls, theorizing that the cost of the additional calls is less than the cost of the searches. Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer because much depends on the original source of the number being dialed, the time of year, the age of the number, and other factors. Very old numbers are less likely to be good, and perhaps fewer calls (perhaps seven) should be made before moving to a tracing mode. If contact information is available, checking with the contact may be cost effective earlier in the process. In the summer or around holidays, more calls (perhaps 10 to 12) might be prudent.

Call histories, by telephone number, for the subject (and lead) should be documented thoroughly. This includes the date, time, outcome, as well as any comments that might prove useful as a lead should tracing be necessary.

Message Machines

Message machines are now present in an estimated 60 to 70 percent of U.S. households (STORES, 1995; Baumgartner et al., 1997). As more households obtain machines, there has been a growing concern that subjects will use them to screen calls and thereby become more difficult to contact. However, empirical evidence to date has not shown message machines to be a major impediment to contacting respondents. Oldendick and Link (1994) estimate that a maximum of 2 to 3 percent of respondents may be using the machine in this way.(1)

A related issue has been the proper procedure to use when an interviewer reaches an answering machine. Should a message be left? If so, when should it be left? Survey organizations differ on how they handle this situation. Some organizations leave a message only after repeated contacts fail to reach a respondent on the phone (as reported by one of the experts interviewed). Other organizations leave a message at the first contact and do not leave one thereafter. The latter procedure has been found to be effective in RDD studies relative to not leaving any message at all (Tuckel et al., 1996; Xu et al., 1993). The authors favor leaving messages more often (perhaps with every other call with a maximum of four or five) than either of these approaches. We believe, but cannot substantiate empirically, that if the goal is to locate and interview a particular person, then the number of messages left might signal the importance of the call to the person hearing the message and might induce that person to call the 800 number. Even if the caller says the subject does not live there, that is useful information. However, leaving too many messages may have a negative effect.

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