True success – – in a relationship, in life, in business – – comes from sustained efforts which evenly provide benefits to both parties. Even a handful of these relationships can spell the enormous difference between survival and failure, growth and stagnation, success and poverty. Give and take. Win-win situations. Developing a core of long-term clients. You get the idea. But private investigators often fall into a panic mode. Business is good, so they spend no time on marketing. Business is suddenly bad, and they decide to go after everyone. In my eyes, that’s not necessarily the road to success. You must control the process, and that means creating a playbook and sticking to a plan. Than plan must include a core of long-term clients who can provide stability to your business.
So, how do you decide who is a good fit to become a long-term client?
Basically, there are three criteria to consider. Let’s look at each.
First, each party needs to understands the benefit supplied by the other. In fact, you can use the old term of a mutual admiration society. It needs to be that strong. Your client must realize that the information/services you provide are something that he cannot get anywhere else. You must know that you can meet the needs of your client, thoroughly and consistently. You both must recognize the factors in this equation. If there is not respect on both sides of the coin, one of you will fall on your face (or your tail). Either way, it won’t be a pleasant sight.
Secondly, beyond the scope of services provided, there needs to be a personality fit. You have to look beyond the mechanics of the task and see if you are actually ready to work together. Do you actually enjoy each other’s company? Do you feed off each other, find each other mentally stimulating? Or do you find that simply being around this person makes the hair on the back of your scalp stand up? If that happens, then head for the hills. It’s best that you recognize this right away. Recently in my business, I found a client who had the kind of high visibility I wanted to benefit from. Making it even better, we got along. So I presented an agreement to him for a longer term relationship, and he made some corrections to it and sent it back to me. What he actually did was tighten the contract, making it better for both of us. That’s respect, and that’s the kind of situation you want with a long-term client.
The third criteria that needs to be met for a truly successful long-term client relationship may seem harsh and mercenary, but what it really is is honest and sensible. Namely, you need to know if your client has the money to make the relationship work. If the bill for your services is $4,000, how long does it take them to pay the bill? If they pay it quickly, within your established norms, then they value you and your work. If they stall and offer excuses, then they may have failed your third criteria, and you may want to be careful about trying to build this person into a long-term client.
Having said that, you should give the client a chance to address the payment issue the first time. For example, maybe your relationship with the client is superb, but your client has an occasional problem with his billing department. And if your client is the government, slow payment of invoices may be the norm. (Not good, mind you, but reflective of how they do business with everyone.) So, give them a chance, but don’t give them the farm.
How do you develop a long-term client? With key, unbreakable principles. The simplest and most powerful is: if they have a problem, you fix it. If they need you, you respond. If you can’t fix the problem, if you can’t handle the case, you tell them right from the start. You have to be very open and honest, and both of you need to recognize that your word is your bond.
Another key – – and this is the ultimate key – – is never give a long-term client a price break. Through your mutual respect and positive relationship, your potential long-term client must understand that you already charge fairly, and they are willing to pay it because they know that you will deliver the goods. And get this: extras are extra. If you have a rush project for them, you charge an appropriate extra fee, and they expect that. A man is worth his wages.This concept often flies in the face of how most investigators think business should be done. They think you should always be offering a discount to steady clients, and throw in extra work for free. But that is not the right state of mind. The bottom line is that it is incredibly honest and fair and just to treat people the way you need to in order to make your business survive.
The natural tendency is to be everybody’s friend, but you can’t be afraid to say, “Show me the money.” And if the money is not there, you literally must be able to be bold enough to walk out the door.None of this is to suggest that you should be arrogant. But you have to go for the kill, go for the next client, and work to grow your business. I believe in what I do, and I don’t do it just for the money. Slow, prodding and calculated wins the race. You need to think three years from now, not just how you are going to get through the next month.
The issue is to be openly honest – – say what you mean and mean what you say – – and establish that healthy rapport. By establishing firm guidelines about how you do business, and then delivering the goods when called upon, you become a proven entity, the go-to guy. You realize that you’ve got the client because of you. Your attention to detail, your work to always prove yourself, shows your knowledge of your client, which only serves to deepen that essential relationship. Be a resource, not an employee, so you can acquire other clients, and so that they want to work with you.
Finally, I suggest that having 40% of your business from long-term clients is a healthy percentage. This gives you a solid base of work and a steady income, but also gives you room to expand and grow your business. And you have to do that, because you can’t have all of your eggs in one basket. You can’t get all of your work from one client, because then if you lose that client, and have not been doing anything to attract new ones and build your business, you are stuck big time.
So be honest, fair, service-oriented and attentive to your long-term clients. The mutual positive relationship will help your business grow, and you will be happier because of it.
Good, competent investigators who put themselves through the wringer month after month, jeopardizing their business, even their family’s well-being. And all because they don’t understand this one key area of the entire investigative process. They don’t know how to get paid. Fairly, completely and on-time. Yet, it’s a very simple process. Notice I didn’t say easy: it takes a certain amount of … guts… to make it happen, and some investigators don’t find that easy. Many private investigators I know are humanitarians; they need to be businessmen. Because when they are businessmen, the process of getting paid is both simple and easy.
Identify the Scope
The first thing you need to do before starting any investigation is to clearly define the scope of the work, and this can best be accomplished within some form of written document or contract. Here’s what typically happens. An investigator takes a case for $500 to go interview John Smith to find out what he knows about incident “A.” When he does, John Smith tells him he needs to talk to Bill Jones, because he knows about incidents A2 and A3. Eventually the P.I. files his report and submits a bill for $750 due to the extra interviewing he needed to accomplish. The client says, “Whoa, you said $500. I’m not paying for this!” Discussions (sometimes known as arguments) follow, somebody gives a little, some money changes hands and the P.I. never works for this client again. At least not happily. It would have been better if the P.I. and the client agreed, in writing and up front, that, at a rate of $50 an hour, he would uncover as much information as possible about incident A, talking to all the people involved. This way it is not a surprise when you have to go talk to Bill Jones and charge for that interview. Additionally, agree on the terms of payment: do you invoice after the work; do you work off a retainer; how are incurred expenses to be handled. Otherwise, when the job is complete, there is no assurance that you will actually get paid. Perhaps you are among those P.I.s who believe that if you demand this type of agreement you will lose the project and that client. That isn’t likely. Demanding a written agreement actually elevates the professionalism of what you do. How many attorneys do you know who would enter into work for a client without some type of written contract? And, admit it, don’t attorneys present themselves as more professional for doing this, for knowing their way around the block, so to speak? Why then shouldn’t you be allowed to do the same? Your stock actually rises when you pursue this thoroughly proper course of action.
Other Parts of the Agreement
There are other elements which will also affect the investigation and impact the amount of money you will be paid. Each of these should also be included in the agreement. They include:
– What is the completion date for the assignment? Is this something the client needs (or, more likely, simply wants) to have completed right away? If so, are you accepting this assignment at the possible delay of existing work, in which case you can institute your higher “accelerated rate.”
– What resources are required for this assignment? If you need to use multiple automobiles, additional or contracted staffing, special cameras, etc., this will also have an impact on your costs and thus on your invoice. Be sure that all of this is spelled out in advance.
Keep in mind that a clear definition of the desired goals of the investigation can help you produce a clear definition of the hourly rates.
The Flinch Factor
You already have the talent and skill, the investigative tools, to conduct the investigation. There are tons of books on how to handle specific types of investigations. But you also need to have the moxy to strike a proper business deal if you are going to make a business, rather than a charity, of your work. It’s all a state of mind, and you literally need to be willing to walk out the door of a deal (case, assignment, client) that is not right for you. You must decide for yourself that you will no longer have cash flow problems, and that you are in the investigative business.
Here’s one other tip to watch for in the negotiations process with a client. It’s what I call the “Flinch Factor.” If I describe the business, the payment arrangements of a case to a client, quote my fees and explain the terms of my getting paid, and the potential client doesn’t even flinch at all, then I know I have left money on the table. If the client hesitates or seems to be concerned about the cost of the investigation, then it is likely that I am pushing the limits he has already set in his mind. But if he accepts my terms too quickly, then it is likely that he was expecting to pay more for my services.
This can be a fine line that you need to define, recognize and approach carefully for yourself. But when you do, you are well on your way to making even more money in your investigative business. And, quite frankly, making and collecting the money due you is what being in business is about!
A budget is the sum of money allocated for a particular purpose or case, while a retainer is an upfront payment from your client for a particular purpose or case.
To Establish a Budget
~ Click on Case button (You will find on the right hand of your screen under your Actions Tab)
~ Click on Budget button (Which you will find on the left hand side of your screen) Your Budget window will open which this is where you can have multiple budgets.
~ Click on New Budget button (You will find towards the top of your screen) You will be taken to your new budget which is where you will input date, amount & any notes you may have. When you are finished hit save.
To Record a Retainer
~ Click on Retainer button (You will find towards the left hand side bottom) Your Retainer window will open which is where you can enter multiple retainers.
~ Click on New Retainer button (You will find towards the top of your screen) You will be taken to your new retainer which is where you will input date, payment method, amount & any notes you may have. When you are finished hit save.
One you have saved your retainer you will see CaseWorks automatically creates a budget for you.
On the upper left hand of the screen you will see your Budget Tracker for this case.
~ Green Light means you have 80 or more of your budget left
~Yellow Light means you have 20% or less of your budget left
Many investigators assume that the real way to make money in this business is to specialize in handling one particular type of case, become well known within the industry, and have everyone else refer that type of case exclusively to them. Well, with some caveats and backup plans, they’re absolutely right.
At the same time, many P.I.s also believe that this won’t and can’t happen to them because they have to take on every kind of case that ever comes their way just to pay the bills. There are many problems with that line of thought, the first being that becoming a specialist isn’t something that “happens” to you; you go out and make it happen. So if that is the way you think, get a mindset adjustment right now.
The second major problem: it is not a switch that you throw on one day and, viola, you’re a specialist. This takes some time to develop, but it neither happens overnight nor does it take forever. But why not be a generalist? Or maybe you are puzzled by this whole concept. After all, what is wrong with being a generalist. “Hey, $50 an hour for conducting an interview sounds like a great deal to me,” you might say. “Not a bad living. Why should I want to specialize.”
Well, for one thing, as a generalist you will charge less for your services than you can as a specialist. That translates to the only way you can make more money is through a quantity of cases rather than select quality. Furthermore, as a generalist you are much more likely to be ever busier doing the actual elements of various investigations. As a specialist, however, you will be honing your skills in one or a small number of areas, which makes it easier to continually streamline your work and control the process of an investigation. And remember, you can pick more than one area of specialization. In fact you should pick two or three, in case the economy rises or falls and intensely affects one of your chosen areas. You will thus not be so negatively affected if there is a downturn, or you can reap the benefits of a surge when it occurs. So, after recognizing the value of being a investigative specialist, how do you get there.
Three Steps to Picking a Specialty
There are three distinct steps in selecting the areas of investigation in which you will specialize. They are: Examine what you want to do; decide how to get there; and decide what is realistic.
Maybe you like pursuing corporate fraud, tracking down the one missing document, uncovering the smoking gun that puts come CFO creep behind bars. Maybe you prefer action, blood and guts, the thrill of the chase. Your personality and your own long-standing interests will play a major part in deciding which areas you will personally pursue. Remember, you are trying to select three fields within the realm of investigations that you actually want to spend most of your time doing.
Or try this approach: To figure out which area you want to specialize in, go to a mirror, stare yourself squarely in the eye, and say, “When it comes to (type of investigation) I know exactly what is going on. I can always figure out how to solve this type of case. I’m good at it, and I enjoy it. Therefore, since I’m good at (type of investigation), and I actually like doing this kind of work, I think I will intentionally work at trying to get more of these cases, and make this my area of specialization.” Step one complete.
Now, once you’ve decided what your area of specialization should be and will be, you need to address if you are thoroughly and completely prepared to truly be the expert in this field. That means being ready to handle any nuance of this type of work that comes your way. Or, if you know what you like to do but don’t feel you are absolutely prepared for all aspects of this work, you need to invest in the knowledge and equipment you will need. Acquire books on the topic. Seek out and talk to other experts in this field. Watch for and attend seminars, both locally and nationally, that include speakers on this topic. Study to be the best expert on your chosen topic.
Finally, as you go through this selection process, you need to carry with you a heavy dose of realism. Make sure that either the area you are in will be able to supply you with enough of the kind of work you want, or be prepared to relocate to a place that can do so. For example, if you only want to work on homicide investigations for the defense, and you live in a lightly populated area in which there are very few homicides, your interests do not match the reality of your situation.
When you arm yourself with the proper motivation, enthusiasm and knowledge, you can successfully pursue the wonderful world of investigative specialization, a serious step on the road to a more lucrative agency.
Most private investigators I know are really wonderful people. (And those who aren’t know who they are!) P.I.s are kind, intelligent, resourceful, and truly concerned about others. Having been around the block a few times, investigators know how to be hard-nosed and persistent when they need to be, particularly when tracking down information. Nobody can take advantage of today’s professional private investigator…. except for their own clients.
The sad truth is that P.I.s are suckers for a sob story. I don’t mean a lie, but a genuine, honest, real sad situation. Your client is in real dire straights, so you decide to take it easy on him and not charge your usual fee. Your second cousin Charley’s cat is accused of breaking Charley’s boss’ Ming Dynasty Vase, but with your help Charley can prove otherwise. Your neighbor’s grandmother from Baton Rouge just had her new boyfriend abscond with $4,000 of her savings that she was planning to use for her snorkeling lessons, and she sure wants to complete that before she has another stroke that paralyzes her other arm.
You know, the everyday crises of life that, because of your profession, you are in a unique position to help solve. And because of the special circumstances around the case, you decide to take it for free or for a fraction of what you would normally charge. That makes you a wonderfully compassionate human being, but an absolutely miserable businessman. But that is all about to change, because beginning this month you are adopting a new philosophy: No dough, no show. It’s relatively easy to do, and you can still be a nice guy throughout the process. But the focus has to shift from helping people with a problem, no matter what, to operating a profitable business. After all, you are in business to make money (right?!), and that is a good thing. The problem is most P.I.s focus on the investigation aspect of a case, the part they are always good at. But what they need to focus on is the business of investigation, which translates to the financial end of things.
If you really, really, really want the case, you can’t just listen to your heart; you also must listen with your mind. There must be a marriage of the heart and mind. You can’t just be the knight in shining armor. And I’ll try to say this even plainer: If you don’t address the issue of who is paying the bill, you are driving yourself to bankruptcy. Changing this self-destructive behavior is basically an attitude adjustment, and requires no special skills or magic potions. You simply need to recognize that you are worth what you are worth, and that you will accept no less.
And if you want nitty-gritty advice, I always suggest that you get paid for an assignment in advance. Get that retainer, clearly identifying what you want and what you need to earn from a case. It says you will do A, B, and C, and get paid X, Y, and Z. And as you complete the assignment and use up the money, then the reservoir of retainer money should be replenished. In this way, you are always working off your client’s money and not yours, which is absolutely the best way to be conducting any investigation. I can hear that some of you are not yet convinced. “There are good reasons to reduce my rate or to take a case for free,” I can hear someone saying. “For example, I can get my foot in the door in places where I wouldn’t normally get hired. And attorneys, who hire investigators, they do ‘pro-bono’ work all the time, and they expect me to do it, too.”
Well, let’s straighten some things out. A better term for pro-bono work is “Pro-Bozo” work. It makes very little sense to do work and not get properly compensated for it. Keep in mind that attorneys are also charging $75, $150 or even $250 per hour; they can afford to do this kind of pro-bono work. And I assure you on a stack of Bibles that they are not doing it all the time. Furthermore, I always advise against reducing your rates as a marketing ploy. If you want to go see a movie, you either pay your money or you don’t. You don’t stand there and negotiate a lower ticket price from the attendant. Or there is the “Big Mac Theory” of doing business. You don’t walk into McDonald’s and tell the bright, energetic, happy counter person that you would like to try a Big Mac for free, and, if you like it, then you fully intend to return to this McDonald’s in the future to purchase a Big Mac. No, you buy a Big Mac and if you like it, then you buy it again from time to time. If you do not like it, then you never buy one again. McDonald’s knows this, and they are okay with this, and they are still in business. Isn’t it likely that McDonald’s knows a thing or two about marketing? Don’t they test these concepts time and time again and continually do only what works best? So why do you have to give away your services or greatly reduce your price just to land one job?
You have to put first things first, even if it seems foreign to you. In fact, the more it seems foreign to you, the harder you have to work at getting your ducks in order. And those ducks are:
get the money
be clear what you will be doing for the money
don’t waver from this stance.
If you do this, everything else will take care of itself. If you do not do this, then you have no business being in business.