Conducting phone interviews: Experiences and lessons from the 'In Their Hands' Project

August 18, 2020

It’s a Monday morning. I am so excited for my first qualitative interview. I have just undergone a successful training, including a review of the study tools facilitated by experienced members of our study team. Yes, I have been well trained, but I still have mixed feelings about this – the zeal to try something new and the fear in the event things don’t work. What if I end up disappointing my team?

How prepared am I?

While I was under a lot of pressure, I was certain about my preparedness. The night before, I had already laid the groundwork for the task. I ensured that I had the right materials for the interviews. I had with me a checklist: the correct version of the study guide; informed consent form; a fully charged digital recorder; a laptop; a sample list of the phone contacts of the potential participants received by the study team from the main program implementers, a notebook and of course, a phone loaded with enough airtime. 

Having the correct version of the study guide alone is not enough; you must be sure that you are familiar and comfortable with the questions. Further, familiarization with the consent form and the consenting process is vital to ensure an ethically appropriate conversation. Charged gadgets and enough airtime on your phone will minimize disruptions. 

The experiences

It is now nine in the morning. I quickly scan through the sample list of the participants’ phone contacts. The list has several potential adolescent participants. Why such a long list when we only need a minimum of 25 adolescents consenting and being successfully interviewed? I wondered. I make the first 30 calls from the contact list, but shockingly, they were unavailable. I certainly did not anticipate the setback.

I convince myself that maybe I should try calling from the bottom of the list. On my next ten calls, I have a bit of luck. One call goes through but is left unanswered. I drop them a message introducing myself just in case they were uncomfortable talking to a stranger. On another call, the lady is unwelcoming. As I try to introduce myself, she interjects, “You NGO guys like using people for your own good. You have all the time in the world while some of us are busy. I can only give you 5 minutes. Though taken aback, I am happy that she picked up and is talking. I try to explain to her the best way I could that APHRC is different and that we are not going to use her. She chips in, “Ooh, okay.” I ask if I can call at a later time when she free, but she bluntly tells me that she is never free. I decide to take it as a polite refusal. On my last call of the ten, I get through to the interviewee and hurray! The call proceeds with no hitches at all. 

It is now noon. I have at least one more interview to make the projected full day’s output. I decide to have an early lunch. Remember the call that went unanswered, but I left a message? The lady called me back. Priority quickly shifts from my lunch plate. I get her consent to interview while remembering to revisit her certification for audio recording purposes as part of the actual interview. A quarter way into the interview, she informs me that she has somewhere to go and that I should finish within the next three minutes. I politely remind her that I had indicated that the interview would take 20 minutes. Then there is a beep on the other end, an indication that the call has dropped. I try to call back, but she is no longer reachable. 

In the afternoon, I still decide to keep trying. I call respondent 11 from the bottom of my list. On picking up, she says she is not aware of the program in question. The next few calls go unanswered, or the person the other end claims to be unaware of the program. Respondent 17 picks up and as soon as I mention the program, in rage, she claims that it ‘spoiled her daughter and that God is going to pay us [the program] back.’ I try to calm her down, but she wouldn’t hear any of it and drops the call. 

It is now late in the afternoon, and I am afraid that I might not achieve my day’s target for two interviews. I decide to explore the middle section of the sample list. I randomly pick a contact from the middle of the sample list. She picks up and tells me that she is on the road and due to ethical considerations around the privacy and confidentiality of the respondent, we agree to talk in about 10 minutes when she is home. It is almost 4:30 pm. The zeal from the morning had given way to fatigue.

A respondent who was previously unreachable is back on. I call her back and we start the consenting process. She is on board until I inform her that if she consents, I will have our conversation recorded to which she objects. I try to explain why we need to record the interview and that there is no malice. She politely declined to participate. 

With an open and readily available study management team, I provided daily debriefs via WhatsApp to monitor the progress of the data collection. The debriefs included sharing my experiences to get insights from the team on how best to handle different situations. On concerns with the contact list, the study management team regularly consulted with the implementing partner and often, the sample list was reviewed and replacements provided. Furthermore, the study team agreed to compensate the participants for their time. These measures did not just improve my experiences with phone interviews but also improved the data quality, and made me a polished qualitative interviewer. 

While the highlighted experiences relate to my first day of conducting phone interviews, they kept varying each day. There were days when I would get successful interviews within a matter of an hour after calling just a handful of people and there would be others when I would go through several contacts only find one person willing to be interviewed. More frustrating were the days I would end up with no successful interview at all. 

 Is this experience fundamentally different from face-to-face interviews? Apart from the fact that you remain stationed on your seat, there is not much difference. Additionally, the source of your contacts and how they were arrived at may determine their reliability – are they from third parties (like in our case), or even fourth parties or not?

Lessons learned

The four key lessons that I learned are:

  •  Being patient and having an open mind is critical for one venturing into phone interviews; 
  • Building rapport with your respondents is even more critical with phone interviews than maybe the case with face-to-face interviews. You will encounter respondents with different personalities, and earning their trust to keep them listening almost entirely depends on you; 
  • The study team need to closely monitor the progress of the data collection, including undertaking daily debriefs with the data collection team to address any emerging challenges and; 
  • There is need to provide an incentive to the participants, particularly for respondents from low- income settings or sub-groups. Incentives such as airtime may help them call back where necessary.      

Acknowledgments: Clement Oduor for contributing to the drafting and reviewing of the blog and; Caroline Kabiru, Yohannes Dibaba Wado, Ramatou Ouedraogo, and Grace Kimemia for their reviews