Who is responsible for estimating questionnaire length?

That’s not a rhetorical question. I really want to know.

Let’s say I give your field center a questionnaire that I’ve estimated at 15 minutes in length, and you’ve bid at 15 minutes. You review it, and agree with my estimate that its length is about 15 minutes.

We all seem to be in agreement. The client has her budget and since we’ve matched the bid length, I’m able to stick to it. Everything seems to be fine.

Next, you put it into the field and after a couple of days, you come back and tell me the actual length is 23 minutes and I owe you 30% more. Budget busted. Client unhappy.

Who is at fault for this? Who should bear the burden of the added expense?

The client’s response goes something like this: “We hired you because of your research expertise. After many years in the business, you should be able to know about how long a questionnaire is. I don’t have the budget for a 30% increase in costs, and my internal client is going to blow a gasket if I tell him we have to cut the sample size down. I’m really not happy.”

My message to the field center goes something like this: “You’ve been in business long enough that you should be pretty good at estimating questionnaire length. There are not a lot of skip patterns that should impact the length. This is why I gave you the questionnaire in advance and asked for your take on the length – so we could cut things out before we went into the field if this was necessary. My client can’t take on a 30% increase and I’m certainly not going to eat the difference and lose money on this project. I’m really not happy.”

Now, the field center has two options. One is, “You’re right, we messed up the estimate pretty badly. A couple minutes off is to be expected, but 50% longer than our estimate? We have enough experience with questionnaire length that something like that shouldn’t happen. The additional costs are our responsibility.”

The other is, “That’s why it’s called an estimate. We have no control over how long your questionnaire is. I’m sorry our estimate was way too short, but you need to cut sample size, cut questions (and we’ll charge you a reprogramming fee for that), or pay us the 30% more we require to complete this.”

When the field center tells me they’re comfortable that the questionnaire is 15 minutes long, and in the field it’s actually 23 minutes, who should be responsible for the inaccuracy of their estimate (or the unexpected length of the actual questionnaire)? I would love to hear your take on this, because I honestly don’t know.


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