Phone Screening

Once someone has booked an appointment for phone screening, it is important to stick to the principles of respecting the times during which they’ve asked to be called. It’s also equally important to make sure you understand what your volunteers’ expectations are regarding your study, as this will help you tailor your study to every person’s individual needs, which will result in more people passing phone screening and agreeing to move forward to participate.

Below, we’ve enumerated the 5 stages of phone screening you should go through in order to ensure the best possible outcome for your recruitment.

1. “Have We Caught You at the Right Time?”

It’s important to make sure your process is always convenient for your volunteers. By accommodating your volunteers, they will feel as though you’re providing a service to them, which helps them feel valued and respected. So, if a volunteer has specified a time during which to be called, make sure to respect their schedule and call during the specified time.

Always start your phone conversation by asking whether your volunteer is still available for a phone call now. Usually, saying something like “Have we caught you at the right time?” or “Is now still a good time to talk?” shows that you’re respectful and accommodating.

Always be willing to reschedule if it is not a good time for your volunteer to take your call—it will increase your credibility and start to develop the volunteer-researcher relationship, and thereby increasing their interest in your study.

2. “What Is Your Interest in This Study?”

Ask about the volunteer’s interest in the study—why are they interested in participating? This sets up the phone call on their grounds and helps you find out what their motivations for participating in the study. Questions like “What is your interest in this study?” or “Tell us more about your experience with this condition” should be asked right away.

You can then tailor how you talk about the study by addressing what people want to get out of it. You can tailor your study to every volunteer with minimal effort by simply understanding each volunteers’ situation and motivations. By taking the time to understand their needs, and pointing out how your study can help, you are increasing your volunteers’ interest and motivation in taking the next step required to participate in your study.

3. Eligibility Criteria and Screening Questions

After you’ve identified your volunteer’s reasons for participating in the study, it is time to go through the screening questions to determine their eligibility.

Avoid Sounding Robotic

Even though going through screening questions can sometimes be a monotonous process, try not to be too robotic. Remain optimistic and engaging—you don’t have to crack jokes or entertain your volunteers, but it certainly helps to stay positive and make sure your volunteers aren’t falling asleep.

Remember that phone screening is your volunteer’s first major interaction with your study and study staff. The tone of the phone call will always have a big (positive or negative) impact on the volunteer’s interest. Which means that this first call is an invaluable opportunity to start building the volunteer-researcher relationship by getting the volunteer to know, like, and trust you.


If your volunteers are feeling frustrated or confused, it is important to acknowledge their feelings. Do not ignore vocal cues or signals they’re giving you (e.g. sighing, long pauses, comments). If any signs of frustration or confusion go unaddressed, you are damaging the volunteer-researcher relationship, which means that your volunteers might lose interest and change their mind about participating.

If you hear your volunteer sighing, address their reaction by saying something like “Yes, there are a lot of questions! Thank you for taking the time to answer them. The reason we do this is because…”

Don’t treat your phone screening as a call that you want to finish as quick as possible—educate your volunteers at the same time. It’s easy to take for granted what needs to be done, but remember that volunteers don’t have a background in clinical research and don’t know why you’re asking specific questions and why the process is taking so long.

Explain Why

If you hear your volunteer sighing or complaining that the call is taking too long, stop and explain why you are doing whatever you’re doing. If you hear that they’re starting to get frustrated, explain to your volunteers why there are strict eligibility criteria for studies. For example, you can say something like: “I know this is taking a long while, but the reason why we’re doing this is…”

By explaining what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you are being personal and understanding, which builds your credibility. Your volunteer’s interest in your study will increase when they realize you are making an effort to address their frustrations, which means they will feel appreciated and be more likely to participate.

4. Ask If They Have Questions

After your volunteers have answered all your questions, let them know that they’ve passed the screening and ask them if they have any questions. It’s important to keep asking whether they have any questions until they’ve verbally confirmed that they no longer have any questions. Keep asking “Are there any other questions you have that I can answer for you?” until they say no.

Always Answer All Questions on the Call

It is extremely important to always answer your volunteers’ questions right away on the phone call. Never send your volunteers additional material to answer their questions—when you tell people you will send them additional information, the chances of them forgetting or losing interest are very high. By not answering your volunteers’ questions, you are also telling them that it is not worth your time to answer the question for them right then and there—this damages the volunteer-researcher relationship, as you’re signaling that your time is more important than theirs.

If you can’t answer a volunteer’s question, get someone who can answer the question to speak to them or tell them you will find out the answer and call them back. By being willing to research the answer to their question and get back to them, you’re showing your volunteers that you appreciate their time and willingness to participate in your study, which builds the volunteer-researcher relationship.

5. Be Clear on Next Steps

The final step of the phone screen call is to ensure both parties are clear on the next steps. If the next step for your volunteer is to schedule an appointment but they’re not ready to schedule it then on the call, then schedule another call at a time that suits them to schedule the appointment. Never end a phone call without clear next steps, and never leave next steps solely in the volunteer’s hands.

Who Is Making the Next Steps?

It is crucial to give your volunteers the understanding of who is responsible for making the next contact steps. For example, ask them questions like “Do you want us to call you tomorrow night, or are you going to get in touch with us?”

If you decide the next step for your volunteer is to contact you (the researcher), then make sure to make an appointment with them if you haven’t heard back from them. For example:

“Okay, so you’re going to get back to my Tuesday, but if I haven’t heard from you by then I will call you on Wednesday after 4pm—does that work for you?”

Never Keep Steps More Than Two Days Away

Always make sure the next steps are never more than a few days away. If your volunteers can’t come in for an appointment for 2 weeks’ time, then schedule a meet and greet in a week’s time to keep interest. You can read more about meet & greets in the Enrollment and Avoiding No-Shows section of this guide.

Send a Confirmation

Send volunteers a confirmation of their next appointment, like a text or an email acknowledging the time they just spent on the call with you. This way, you are creating accountability, and confirmations help people stick to their commitments. A confirmation is also just a handy reference for your volunteers to have—it demonstrates that you stick to your commitments, which establishes credibility and strengthens the volunteer-researcher relationship.

Don’t Forget to Keep it Personal

Remember to keep your confirmations personal. If you send an email or a text confirmation, it is important that it comes from the person that spoke to the volunteer on the phone.


“Hi Tom! This is Mandy from the Breathe study. Thank you for taking the time to go through our screening questions. I’ll leave you my mobile number in case you have any questions leading up to your appointment on Wednesday at 4pm. Looking forward to meeting you and have a great day!”

Still No Response?

If your volunteers pass the phone screening process but are either non-committal, seem interested but then change their mind, don’t get back to you or ignore you, it is because you haven’t developed the volunteer-researcher relationship enough through credibility, being personal, and appreciation.

It is often easier for people to say they’ll think about it or they have to discuss it with someone rather than say outright that you haven’t convinced them your study is worth their time, they don’t feel you’ll appreciate their participation, or they’re not sure about your credibility. So, in order to get your volunteer to commit to the next steps, you need to follow the above steps to develop your relationship with your volunteers.

However even when you’ve followed the guidelines above and in our previous guides, sometimes a volunteer will be non-committal about scheduling an appointment to enroll into your study, in which case you’ll need to follow the steps in our Enrollment and Avoiding No-Shows guide.

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