It’s tempting sometimes to make big promises and lowball clients, just to get work in the door. But it’s not so great for the long-term health of your business. Here’s why:
Last week, we got a call from a major television network. They were interested in conducting an “in depth” background check on an upcoming guest on a daytime talk show.
The guest had an “interesting” story of what had happened to him more than 25 years ago, running and hiding from authorities over several states, changing names and identities, etc. The story was complicated.
A week before the guest was going to appear on the show, the producers decided to make sure that the story checked out. In part, they wanted to make sure that story was accurate, but secondarily, they wanted to have some documents to back up the story, so they could use them in the program.
The story had been covered only briefly in the media, so this was going to be a matter of digging through public documents and other sources to find the information.
I told them that there were a few challenges to this, including the short turnaround time and the amount of time that had passed since the events occurred. Some, if not all, of the documents that they wanted would be not immediately accessible.
As a ballpark estimate, at minimum, I told them it would cost several thousand dollars. Clearly dismayed, they thanked me for my time and said they would call me back later.
I still haven’t heard back.
So this got me thinking.
I could have done two things to get this case: 1) make grandiose promises or 2) lowball the budget. Neither of these two scenarios would have done me any favors.
Which leads me to the three ways a private investigator can get a bad reputation:
Overpromise and Underdeliver
Typically, investigators go through days, weeks or months of more work than you know what to do with and then periods of complete silence, followed by moments of mayhem—all without much or any warning. There really is no such thing as a “normal” day of work.
When you get a call from a major network or a promising new client, it’s hard not to get excited. But that excitement can lead to promising the world. And promising the world can lead to unhappy clients.
I always make it a point to tame clients’ expectations. In fact, I can go overboard at times. But my general philosophy is to underpromise and overdeliver.
In this particular case, I could have promised them that I would find everything they were asking for, but I knew it was going to be a challenge and I told them that. Sure, it may have lost me a case, but there was a strong possibility that they were not going to get what they wanted, and I wasn’t willing to risk my reputation for that.
It’s a fact that investigators get some crazy phone calls (especially when it’s close to a full moon). Some of these requests can seem almost impossible at times. But in conjunction with being honest about the challenges and obstacles in conducting the investigation, you need to be realistic about how much it is going to cost.
We would all love to have unlimited budgets, but in reality, it (almost) never happens. It’s tempting to lure in a new client by giving them a lowball budget, in hopes that they will be happy and give you more work. But what happens? If you get the goods, they will expect the same every time at that price. Or you lose your shirt trying to make the client happy. Or you completely fail and lose on both ends.
I could have lowballed the producers, but I knew that wouldn’t have done any of us any good. If you think something is going to cost $10,000 to do it properly, tell them that. At least give yourself a fighting chance, and make it worthwhile.
Keep It Close to the Vest
We maintain a blog on our website that provides information to potential clients. I have seen and heard from many investigators who cringe at the fact that we are giving away too many “secrets.”
I look at it in a totally different way.
I am trying to build trust with people. I give information away without any strings attached, in hopes that they have enough trust in me to call me when they have something serious to look into. Although I would never call myself an “expert,” people find a blog post and think that the author has some subject matter expertise.
I didn’t get a call from a major television network because I have some great connection that I have been wining and dining for years. It’s because we have a website and a blog, and whatever “secrets” they saw on our website, they trusted us and believed in the work we did. Not because we held the “secrets” close to the vest.
I am a big promoter of the social Web, blogging and alternative methods for attracting new clients, but in the end, your reputation is everything. Doing great work and having clients that trust you and your reputation is what will make you successful in this business.
So what do you think? What would you have done differently in the example above?
I’d love to hear from you: Are there cases that you, in the end, were happy you didn’t get? Cases where you overpromised and underdelivered? Or cases in which you quoted a lowball budget in hopes of more cases in the future? How did that turn out?
Brian Willingham, CFE is a New York private investigator and president of Diligentia Group.