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Six Steps to Conducting Effective Phone Interviews

Over many years, I’ve conducted thousands of phone interviews with physicians, patients, caregivers, payers, etc. Recently, I’ve been reading a book called Never Split the Difference written by Chris Voss, an FBI hostage negotiator. Those insights, combined with the fact that we’re all going to be using our phones more to conduct meetings and interviews, and a comment recently made by a Medical Director at a large payer “when I speak with you, it’s not an interview, it’s a conversation” is why I decided to write this article.

Here are some key lessons I’ve learned:

Prepare but be prepared for possible surprises

The point of the interview is to understand the world or reaction to something through the lens of the interviewee. Discussion guides are points of discussion; they’re not structured questionnaires. A great interviewer knows when to go off the guide and uses his/her skills to uncover and follow up on the surprises that are the insights the process is supposed to yield.

Really test hypotheses in the interview

Clients have hypotheses about the product, the market, the competition, etc. Those need to be tested, pushing back on respondents when they disagree or even when they agree too readily. When a respondent agrees, they may just be trying to shorten the interview. Don’t be afraid to push back. It actually engages the respondent. It lets them know you’re really listening to them.

An interview is never a battle

It’s a process of discovery, even if you don’t agree with the person you’re interviewing. Pharma marketers may dislike payer pharmacy directors and device marketers may dislike value analysis committee members, but that’s not the point. The goal of an interview is to better understand who they are, what values they hold, and uncover as much information as possible about them and how they think. Not to do battle with them.

Be dumb like a fox

Clients often choose interviewers based on their therapeutic category or specific product knowledge. That’s useful but not always helpful. If the interviewer comes across as too knowledgeable, it can shut a respondent down who may fear being perceived as “dumb” by the interviewer. For example, I frequently tell those I’m interviewing that I have no science background so please forgive me in advance if I ask a simplistic or dumb question. Or if it’s a first interview in a project, I’ll tell the respondent that. Even KOL’s become extremely comfortable thinking they won’t be challenged. That’s when the fox appears. The fox is smart enough to challenge or question their thinking. But by then, it doesn’t matter. They’re enjoying the conversation.

Slow it down

Going too fast can make a respondent feel they’re not being listened to. It’s why I hate long discussion guides. To get through them, there’s not enough time build understanding, rapport, and trust. The interview basically becomes a questionnaire delivered in person or on the phone. An in-depth interview needs to allow time and flexibility to hear what the respondent is saying and dialogue with them.

Put a smile on your face

Even on the phone, when interviewers are positive, respondents are more likely to engage, collaborate, and even problem solve with you. And, believe me, I’ve always felt that physicians do a better job of positioning products than the companies that market them and payers and patients have given me insights about products or programs that have proven invaluable to clients. Always remember, the product revolves around the customer, not the other way around.



Harris Kaplan is Managing Partner of Red Team Associates, a boutique life sciences consultancy, and CEO of Healogix, a life sciences marketing research company. His resume includes work on the introduction of more than 100 new products including drug, biotech, device, and diagnostics. He is a commercial strategist who frequently presents and authors pieces on how the shift from a provider to a payer and patient centric world impacts new product innovation. Harris’ understanding of these seismic shifts in the life sciences landscape has made him a leader in the space and much sought after by clients ranging from startups to large multinationals. Harris excels at helping companies develop their commercial and go-to-market plans in support of new products. He has also been an advisor to multiple venture capital and private equity groups relative to assist their portfolio companies.

Harris’ articles have appeared in In Vivo, Medical Marketing and Media, and Product Management. He has presented at Intellus Worldwide Institute, Windhover’s Therapeutic Area Partnerships, IN3 Device Conference, World Orphan Disease Conference, Life Science Alley, the Biotech Conference at UC Berkley, Pharmaceutical Strategy Conference, and the Drug Information Association. He was also nominated as one of Pharma Voice’s most inspiring people in 2011.

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Harris Kaplan, Managing Partner

Red Team Associates