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.