The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

In Depth: An interview with Vera Kerr

Vera Kerr is the archetype recruiter. Indeed, ask most of the industry stalwarts to name their favourite and she is likely to head the list

She came into the industry, though, virtually by accident. A neighbour in Sheffield was carrying out market research on a big government job, and wanted help with interviewing. Vera went along and never looked back.

Some four years later, she was asked to help out with her first qual project. "I remember it well," she says. "It was to recruit people for a group discussion, eight people who had bought Tyne Brand minced meat, back in 1970."

Her involvement in market research caused a stir with friends and relatives..

"I was just a housewife with three kids and you didn't work in those days," she says. "You were a loose woman if you did. My husband used to be horrified. But it got my brain going and I thought it was marvellous. Living in a semi-detached in Sheffield, I had all these people from London turning up in long fur coats and Doctor Who scarves."

Times have changed, however, and not just on the fashion front. Her first priority, in days of yore, was to make people feel relaxed when recruiting. She was taught, she says, that the most important thing was to make them feel good.

Nowadays the wheel has turned full circle. The group has to fit much more with the client rather than vice versa. One example, she says, is that clients can ring up wanting mothers with kids at three in the afternoon. "Well, anybody knows that the most important thing for a mum is to be outside the school gates at that time," she says, "not contributing to a group discussion. Clients are being unrealistic. And nowadays it is very hard to get groups of women during the day because most of them work."

As for the recruiters, there are rumours that they represent a dying breed. The problem, says Vera, is that many newcomers lack staying power. "Young ones come in, but they don¹t stick it," she says. "It is not so much a matter of pay, but of antisocial hours."

It could be that the industry is creating a problem for itself in years to come. The warning lights have already gone on at certain ad agencies, whose Christmas recruiter lunches attract few under fifty, and probably none under forty.

Panels are often put forward as a viable alternative, but she gives them short thrift, relating horror stories of the US where they are commonplace. In her view, the recruitment of a group is virtually an art form. She prides herself on knowing the inhabitants of her home town, of mentally filing any new acquaintance she makes, either while working or down at the local supermarket.

Some briefs are trickier than others, though. She recalls work on the AIDS campaign, when she needed to recruit drug addicts. Visiting a likely pub, drinkers avoided her, fearing that she was the police.

Then she remembered a friend's brother. "I knew that if I could find him, he'd be into anything like that," she says. Trouble was, she had no idea where he lived and resorted to driving around the streets on the off chance.. On the third day she struck lucky.

She pulled in and asked: "Do you remember me?" "Yes" came the reply. "And my mum¹s told me what you do." A short explanation of her requirements elicited an offer of his house, on a downmarket estate, for the group.

"Well, as soon as it got round the estate that we were interviewing and could offer £20, we couldn¹t get enough," she says. "One little thing like that and you¹re in."

It is a job she is passionate about and has no intention of retiring. Indeed, she often finds herself training the new breed of researchers. She may even advise on quotas. "People are usually all right if you point out something that won¹t work," she says. "The only way forward is to work as a team."

Whichever way the industry goes, Vera is sure to be an integral part. Her only proviso, she says, is that she wouldn't work with a recruitment company that kept her from querying problems with clients or was setting out to impress them. "Then you can't do your job properly," she says. "I might have fallen for that in my early days, but not now."

 

Louella Miles
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2002