Tips & Tricks

Wow Your Clients

It’s often one of the last things you think about on a case.  It’s usually one of the things you do.  But devoting some extra time and energy to this critical part of any investigative project – in essence, adding the “Wow” factor – can pay enormous dividends in getting future assignments and building your business.  We’re talking about your written report to your client. “Reports?!” you may be screaming.  “I hate writing reports!  I love the challenge, the excitement of the actual investigative work.  I mean, I keep my reports very accurate, but I don’t like spending a lot of time on them.” Yeah, it shows.

The difference between providing a report that covers the bare necessities and a report that truly impresses your clients with its completeness, its presentation, and its ease of use is what can truly set you apart from all other investigators.  The distinction of producing a high quality product – be it automobiles, whiskey, vacation resorts, or even, yes, investigative reports – is powerful, especially in the realm of marketing.

So what makes a report “high quality?”  Two main factors:  consistency and thoroughness.

Consistency is simple.  It means that all of your reports are of a very high caliber.  One is not great and the others average; they’re all great.  Time and time and time again.  You are so consistent that your client knows, in fact he expects, that the next report you submit will be as efficient, as accessible, and as useful as all the others your agency provides.  You have set the bar high yourself.  And while your systems and experience in issuing impressive reports enables you to easily get over that bar, your competition falls short.

As for thoroughness, many things make a report thorough and complete.  First, never assume anything. You may never know who is ultimately going to read your report, and what they may or may not know about certain affairs that are critical to the report.  Maybe everyone going to see Star Wars II has actually seen Star Wars I, so you don’t have to spend too much time introducing all the lovable but wacky characters.  But never make that assumption in your report.  Spell everything out, because your report must stand on its own.

Completeness in your report also demands that you identify activities that perhaps were not productive.  Maybe in the course of your investigation you did a neighborhood canvas, going door to door in the immediate area to ask specific questions.  It’s possible that this canvassing did not produce any useful information.  However, your report should still note that you went through that process, and that it had no impact.  That way your client won’t think, “Gee I wonder if the neighbors knew anything?”  You have shown your client that you anticipated his needs and that result is reflected in your report.

An especially powerful component of a complete report, and something that most investigative reports do not include, is an executive summary.  This is a one-page (never more than one page) synopsis of your investigation. (In fact, if your executive summary is more than one page long, you are doing a disservice to your client.)  This summary presents key findings, supported by detail, and enables your client to decide for himself what else he wants to review in the report.

The executive summary goes right to the heart of the topic under investigation.  It is not subjective, nor is it interpretive.  For example, your summary should not state that so-and-so lied.  Instead, you simply point out the inconsistencies, identify the facts, and indicate where additional information can be located in the report.  It’s just the facts, Jack.

Producing an effective executive summary is really an art.  However, once you master this art form, your work will truly impress your clients, and it can result in significant repeat business for you.  Providing a carefully prepared, factual executive summary will surprise your clients when they receive it, because virtually no one else does it.  In fact, they will probably be so surprised that they will pass it around to others, which is how it becomes a powerful marketing tool.  It leaves a telltale sign of who you are, and the standards you set for your business and yourself.

Other Components of a Quality Report

Here are some other elements you can incorporate into your reports to enhance the quality and elevate your clients’ impression of you.  Adding a table of contents is a simple yet effective way to guide your client to the key facts you have presented in the executive summary.  Make it easy for people to use your report, and they will want to use more of them in the future.  Just putting the whole report on heavy bond paper also makes it more impressive.  For heavens sake, go spend $10 on an first class cover.  This shows your client that you recognize what they already know:  this is an important project, and you have given it the importance it deserves, start to finish.


Furthermore, in presenting the details, you can do much more than simply tell them the facts you uncovered.  Throw in a little “flash dash.”  That means pictures, images, charts, diagrams, still images from video you have shot, copies of documents, and more.  As you include these, be sure to clearly identify and list them in your table of contents so they can be easily located.  Remember, clarity is the key, and it lets your clients into a room with contents far beyond what they expected.

Finally, producing high quality reports is not magic.  Simply make up your mind to do it, and to do it every time.  Streamline the process by using some of the better case management software specifically structured for private investigators.  Once your systems are in place, producing fantastic reports will come automatically. Simply stated, your reports speak loudly about your business.  Devote some attention to the structure, the look, the feel, even the smell of your reports, and you will have a product that knocks out your clients and immediately places you above 95 percent of your competition.  Always remember that the opposite is also true:  if your reports look like crap, your clients will think the work is crap.  So start adopting these philosophies now.  Invest a little money in your reports (your image) and you may be able to reap great benefits and more cases in the future.  A report can be nothing more than a report, or it can be a quality report that becomes a persuasive marketing tool to draw more business to you.

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Ever go on a surveillance?

Probably a silly question.  Most investigators have at some point in time, and many do it routinely.  When you’re about to go out on a surveillance assignment, do you know exactly how much and what kind of film you are going to take, how many and which cameras you need, how you are going to approach the project, what additional resources (i.e., people, vehicles) you will use, how long the project is likely to take, etc. etc.?  If you spend time running around trying to figure this out for each case, you’re really not that unusual.  But if you go through this process for each surveillance case, you’re also really not that efficient and, in reality, you really don’t have a “process.”  Or, more precisely, the process becomes the job itself, and it controls you.

To take your career to a sustained level of high performance, you need to systematize massive areas of each assignment you take on.  Otherwise you are using your brain power, your energy and, most importantly, your time, just to accomplish relatively simple organizational tasks. I’ve heard it said that “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.”  I completely agree.  This is true in many aspects of your life, and absolutely true in every aspect of operating your investigative business.  Because as you establish your processes, your systems, and begin to regularly use them, the results will be a seamless procedure that enables you to focus on and respond to, the specifics of each case, rather than on the business of running the investigation.

The Process of Establishing Processes

Let’s stick with the surveillance example for a moment, although, as we will see, processes can and should apply to many aspects of operating an investigation business.  The first time you go on a surveillance, you are not going to know half the stuff you need.  But what you want to do is to look for patterns within the job and establish a checklist of everything you could possibly ever need:  high-speed or low-speed film; black and white or color; van or car; a variety of clothes in case you need to follow on foot in several locations and change your appearance; additional people; phones or walkie-talkies; food and beverages; etc.  Let’s say your initial list contains 20 items.  Then, on surveillance, you think of item number 21.  Immediately add it to your list.  Don’t give yourself the opportunity to forget it and not have it next time.  You can also talk to other investigators and learn from their experiences.  All the time you are creating a master list that you can go through each time you are hired for a surveillance, and it is this list, this process, which literally lays the foundation for you to do the job easier the next time.  It is an absolute necessity that your list be a printed list, not just something in your head.  It makes it both real and easier to use.  Even after you reach the point where you think you have a complete list – or process – it is important that you review it at least annually (preferably semi-annually) to make sure it is still complete and current.

Again and Again

Compounding the problem of not having a process is the reality that most investigators handle a wide variety of cases.  While this may be a necessity at the start of operating your own agency, as you are fueled by the fire of making your own way and making ends meet, and even at times throughout your business, it is not the best way to operate.  (We’ll explore the topic of specialization in a future article.) But the key point is:  develop your precise process for each type of case.  It is bad enough to be floundering about everything you need to handle one particular type of case.  You cannot afford to be swimming in a lack of processes when you handle a wide variety of cases.  You will surely drown.

Furthermore, establishing processes manifests itself in all aspects of your business.  Take billing, for example.  I know of people who spend all day on Saturday just to generate three invoices.  They spend time recalculating how many hours they spent on this, and how many minutes they spent on that, and whether or not they can bill for the time it took them to write an interim report.  Instead, they should have a system in place that they use throughout the investigation that allows them to almost instantly generate these numbers.  Then plug the numbers and details into your process, print and seal the envelopes, and go play some golf.

Your investigative career is an evolutionary process.  You will always be developing new skills, adding new technology.  And that’s as it should be.  Consider Sam Spade.  Years ago he was a successful gumshoe.  As such, the techniques, equipment and personnel handling all have to change in order for him to succeed in today’s market.  The manual typewriter – can you imagine starting a business with that?  Or the way he talked to his secretary – “Sweet Heart” –  in today’s reality that’s begging for a civil suit.

So right now is the time to make a commitment to establish processes for yourself for all key aspects of your investigative business.  You’ll be more efficient, be able to devote yourself more energetically toward the relevant details of each investigation, save time and make more money.

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Have I got a deal for you!!

You are about to hire me to do some work for you.  Furthermore,  because we both know that you are special and different from anyone else I deal with, I’m not going to charge you as much as I charge everybody else.  Yes, you are going to get a discount!  But first, give me a minute to raise my prices, because I certainly can’t afford to make any less money than I am making now.  Okay, that’s done.  Let’s get to work, and here comes your big discount.  Does this sound like the way professionals do business?  Is this how you want someone to treat you?  I doubt it.

There is not, and there should not be, anything called a discount in the investigative field.  Pure and simple.  How can you afford to make less than what you have carefully determined you need to make?  How can you put yourself on sale?

Now, in other parts of the business world, there are such things as “sales.”  They usually occur in the retail industry, and the only real sales that make sense are very selective.  You know, like two days before Christmas, after hundreds of people have bought a particular item at the “regular” price, and the store only has a few left and they want to get rid of them, so they offer a sale.  Or it’s late September, and someplace like Home Depot still has a couple new lawn mowers, or a couple display mowers that zillions of people have pawed all summer, and now they want to clear them out so they have room to set up the giant artificial Christmas trees.  That might count as a real “sale,” and qualify as a real discount.  But when something, anything, is discounted on a regular basis, you know that it is not really a bargain, because the appropriate profit margins have already been worked into the price.

Well, Mr. or Ms. Private Investigator, the same situation applies when you offer someone a discount on your investigative services.  It’s a fallacy.  A myth.  Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. My advice to you is not to give anyone a discount.  Anyone, ever, not even your biggest client.  Follow the leadership of a long-time successful company like McDonald’s:  Do you think people ever walk into a McDonald’s and ask for a discount on a cheeseburger because they are special?  Can you hear the laughter if someone ever tried that?  And you don’t think your company is more efficient and profitable than McDonald’s, do you?

Why not?

Okay, so now that I have made it crystal clear that I am against the concept of a discount, let me explain why.  For one thing, people can see through them, especially when they are contrived.  And if they are not forced or artificial, people usually think they are. But there is a bigger issue, a more serious reason why you should not offer a discount.  By offering some client a discount you are telling him, from the very start, that you are open to negotiation on your pricing, both now and forever.  So, you get a project from a new client and a few months down the line that person says, “Gee, you gave me a discount last time, and things are still real tight for me now, so I’ll hire you again if you can give me the same deal I had last time.”

Should hiring your investigative company be a “deal?”  People deal cards, or they deal in stolen horses.  Your services should not be a “deal.”  Furthermore, what happens when your client refers you to someone else?  If your current and prospective clients have talked, your new client also immediately expects to obtain your services at a discount.  Sure, they may have heard good things about your abilities, but they probably heard even better things about how much you charge.  In fact, your new referred client might even be expecting to get you to lower your prices even more.  (Just shoot me now!  I don’t want to ever deal with that situation!)   As you can see, the issue is not so much that you are giving a discount, but that you have set a policy of how you will do business.  In any business, some things you do, some you don’t, and you have very clearly defined those areas, including the issue of price.

I’ve said this before and it needs to be repeated here: you have to be willing to look your client square in the eye, tell him what your price for your services is, and hope he flinches.  (If your client doesn’t flinch, then you have left money on the table.  If he too readily agrees to pay your price with no hesitation – no flinching – then he was probably willing to pay more.)  Now if your price is fair and fine with you, I’m not suggesting that you gouge your client.  It’s not about charging as much as you possibly can.  It’s about charging a fair price without getting into the mode of immediately offering a discount.

If your client is not willing to pay your fee for services, you have to be willing to turn around and walk out the door.  Your practice of not offering a discount must also be applied down the line, evenly and in all circumstances.  What happens when it is time to raise your rates?  When you do, you need to raise them for everyone, across the board, big client as well as little client.  And if you get a client who calls you up to whine, whine, whine about it, then that’s the kind of client you want to get rid of anyway. Someone may not like your unwillingness to lower your rate, but he will respect you for being firm and honest.  He may not like you, but that’s okay, because you’re not shopping for friends, you’re trying to generate business.


Businessman, Not Hero

One of the major problems I see time and time again among investigators is that they want to be liked, they want to be the good guy (or gal), they want to be the knight in shining armor.  They get into this business for the wrong reason.  Oh, not that there is anything wrong with being a nice person.  I’m not suggesting that you go out and steal candy from children, push old people down a flight of stairs, or throw a dog in front of a moving truck.  (If you want to throw a cat in front of a truck, however, that’s different.)  And you can and should and must be an ethical business person.  But you’ve got to first be a business person, and the purpose of being in business is to make money.  Otherwise it’s just a hobby.   It’s not a hobby when you are billing your time, and billing it accurately and completely.  Not giving a discount also means billing your client for all of your time.  When you are doing anything for that client, keep detailed records of exactly what and how long it took you, and bill him for that time.  New computer case management software enables you to easily create a time management tracking system for your work on any and every case.  Because I can assure you, if you do not capture the time spent on a project when you do it, you will never go back and capture it later.

Now, having advised you against ever giving a discount, I will say that there is one situation in which you could consider offering someone a discount, and that is when you have a cold, calculated reason to do so.  If you give a discount, it needs to be the exception, not the rule.  Generally that means as part of a specific marketing tactic with a particular client, and I need to know up front how long it will be before I get that lost money back in my pocket. Maybe you have not been able to get any more work from a potentially lucrative client for some time, so you send him a one-time, limited time only discount certificate on his next case, but only within the next three weeks.  He already knows you’re good because he has used you before, and you just want a strong message for thrusting yourself back in front of his eyes.  Short-term, definite marketing purpose!  Getting back to the McDonald’s marketing system:  they may choose to offer a discount on a particular food item for a particular period of time, but it is all designed as part of a master plan to get you in the door and to buy something else.  It is not their routine way of doing business, and it should not be yours.

I have gone the discount route in my career in the past, and I can tell you that it doesn’t pay.  So save yourself some time, money, and grief, and learn from my mistake.  No discounts.

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