Executive Interviewing: How to Survey Hard-to-Reach Corporate Heads

Most surveys strive to reach decision-makers, whether they be household consumers or corporate customers. With corporate decision-makers, the dilemma is how to interview them since they often hold executive positions and are hard to reach.

Rockbridge Associates has been successful in surveying corporate decision-makers, from CEO/ CFO’s of financial institutions, to Vice Presidents of Marketing/Sales of Fortune 500 companies, to owner/CEO’s of small businesses, to high ranking officials of a federal agency. Success in executive interviewing has been achieved by following a few basic rules:

Eliciting Cooperation – One of the best ways of getting executives to participate is by identifying the organization behind the survey, assuming it and the firm being surveyed have an existing relationship. The idea of giving feedback which will potentially effect change and result in improvements directly benefiting their firm is, by itself, often enough to motivate executives to participate.

Other times, additional incentives will be required to elicit participation. The best incentives in such cases tend to be informational and non-monetary — such as a summary of the survey findings or an industry report of some kind. If a financial incentive is offered, it is advisable to offer the option of compensating the executive directly or making the compensation out to a charity of the executive’s choosing. The latter option not only adds credibility to the incentive offered but also allows concerned executives a way of getting compensated without breaking corporate rules on gift acceptance.

Exhibiting Professionalism and Knowledge of Industry – The use of trained, high-level market research analysts to conduct the executive interviews is essential. Rockbridge Associates uses senior analysts with a minimum of five years industry experience to do the interviewing. This assures that the executive feels he or she is talking to another professional who understands the industry and their unique (often complex) concerns.

In keeping with this professionalism, telephone and in-person interviews are scheduled ahead of time and re-confirmed the day before the appointment. The interview is conducted punctually, although experience has proved that, for telephone interviews, a couple minutes after the designated appointment time works best because it allows the executive time to get back from the last commitment and to collect his or her thoughts.

Picking the appropriate format for the survey – To take best advantage of an executive’s unique perspective and insights, the questionnaire should be structured with as many open-ended questions as possible. This allows for more of a dialog between executive and interviewer. This is usually feasible to do since the number of executives to be interviewed is often less than 100 (e.g., the top 50 business relationships of a firm.)

Close-ended questions should be used sparingly and only when necessary to anchor the study. Asking a battery of close-ended questions is frequently perceived as demeaning and often fails to fully capture the executive’s unique concerns. By contrast, an open-ended question with follow up questions by a skilled interviewer will yield a more complete understanding of the situation. (And, in many instances, the information can be coded later if truly required.)

Compare the two approaches from an informational prospective.


“What most influences your firm’s choice of a supplier? Would you say it is : [CHOOSE ONE]
a. Reliability b. Price c. Quality d. Convenience e. Other [PLEASE SPECIFY]:

Executive answers:e. “Contribution to productivity” “Which company would you rate highest in this area?” [CHOOSE ONE]
a. Firm A b. Firm B c. Firm C

Executive answers:c. “Firm C”


B. “What most influences your choice of a supplier? [PROBE] Which company do you trust the most to provide this?”

Executive answers:” Contribution to productivity. This industry is plagued by union problems and frequent work stoppages… Firm C has been right there for us, helping us fill in the gaps when we are short of manpower…”

The length of time that executives will agree to be surveyed should be clarified when the appointment is made. In general, executives’ agreeability to spend more than 15 minutes on a survey will depend on their reliance on and/or interest in the interviewing organization or subject matter. If the executive raises a specific problem which needs to be individually addressed by the organization paying for the survey, the interviewer can offer to have the organization call the executive. This should, however, be done at the end of the interview and the separation of the market research firm and the parent organization be stressed.

As decision-makers, executives are highly desirable subjects of surveys. While it takes skill, there are ways to elicit their cooperation using able interviewers, correct techniques and a professional approach.