Private investigators have an image problem. Executive editor Hal Humphreys suggests a few simple ways investigators can project a more professional demeanor…for ourselves, and for the industry.
Brian Willingham of Diligentia Group, a New-York-based firm specializing in due diligence, did a survey several months back in which he asked upwards of a thousand people how they felt about private investigators. Check out the survey results here — they’re disheartening, but not shocking.
Clearly, private investigators have an image problem. With an eye to correcting that, here are three simple steps you can take to increase your credibility and, perhaps over time, the ways people perceive private investigators.
1. Look the part.
Seriously, dress like an adult. There was a time when men and women dressed like grownups whenever they left the house. Search for 1920s style, and you’ll see. Watch an episode of Mad Men, and you’ll see. Stream an episode of Rockford on NetFlix…you’ll see. Heck, even criminals dressed well in the Jazz Age — as you can see in these dapper gangster mugshots.
People used to dress for work. They had style.
The old-school gumshoe trope, a creation of Dashiell Hammett and his contemporaries, dressed like gentlemen and ladies — though it seems that everyone in that era dressed to impress. Let’s be clear: Clothes do not make a man a gentleman. We’ll just accept as a given that being a gentleperson is the foundation upon which we’ll build our wardrobe.
I spend a lot of time with federal agents, detectives, and other private investigators. The feds understand — they apparently have a dress code. Police detectives sometimes get it. (exhibit A: This awesome video/debate about who is Miami’s best dressed detective.)
Never go to a client meeting, deposition, or court without dressing for the occasion.
PIs are, quite possibly, the worst offenders. We can fix that. Appearance is key, first impressions paramount. Never go to a client meeting, deposition, or court without dressing for the occasion. Clients expect a certain professional look. I wear denim often and am completely comfortable going to meet a long-term client sporting a pair of jeans, mid-tan shoes and belt, pressed oxford cloth shirt, and a suit jacket, maybe even a bow tie.
That’s as casual as I get. For depositions, a pair of gabardine slacks, likely grey, nice sport coat, and definitely a tie. Court demands a suit, sometimes three-piece, but always a suit.
These are fairly easy ideas to grasp: Dress like a grown up. Also, the minutia can make a difference. Ties should be classic and colorful. They should never have products or cartoons patterned across them, never. If you attend a professional investigators’ group meeting wearing cut-off sweatpants, you’re not doing the profession any favors. If you go to a CLE seminar for attorneys, and you’re wearing a hoodie, you’re hurting the profession. Dress like an adult.
2. Get credentialed.
A professional designation can go a long way toward building credibility — IF it’s a real designation and not just a phone-it-in post-nominal. A proper designation should include barriers to entry and rather onerous requirements. There should be a course of study required, a test to pass, and an ongoing continuing education requirement. Without these qualities, a professional designation is just a string of meaningless letters intended to convey gravitas, but in reality, advertising, “I don’t care.”
A professional designation can go a long way toward building credibility — IF it’s a real designation and not just a phone-it-in post-nominal.
I’ll not suggest specific organizations as good or bad. That choice is yours to make. Instead, I’ll simply offer my own history: I’m a member of The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. They offer one designation, the CFE designation, to qualified investigators. It’s not easy to get. It’s expensive to maintain. They require continuing education every year to the tune of 22 hours.
The ACFE demands a lot, but it provides credibility, peer review, and resources. For me, this credential is well worth the time and effort — not just for initials on a business card, but for the skills I learned and the people I met along the way.
Many professional organizations require a college degree. Please, make sure you have an actual college degree from an accredited university. If you apply to be a designated member of a professional organization and you’re sporting a bachelor’s degree granted for “life experience,” it’s probably not going to meet the requirements.
A college degree is not required to be competent and professional, but it sure doesn’t hurt. My point is this: If you’ve got a degree, that’s great. If not, it’s not the end of the world. Do not, however, boast of a degree from phone-it-in-U. That’ll hurt you more than it helps. Again, we’re trying to foster a sense of professionalism. Honesty matters.
3. Write. Teach. Speak. Give.
Professionals make opportunities to get their brand out into the world and share wisdom with their peers. Find an industry magazine to write for. Example: Write an article for the Texas Investigator (where this story first appeared). Pitch a story to Pursuit Magazine, the magazine of professional investigators. You have experience and expertise. Share it.
I have long held the belief, probably based on my early exposure to Dale Carnegie and Zig Ziglar, that the way to get what I want is to help other people get what they want.
I watch PIs hoard secrets all the time. Find a new method, a new gimmick, buy a hot new gadget, and then try to keep everybody else from learning about it. I see established PIs try to discourage others from learning their particular skill.
“I am the one who does surveillance the best. How dare you try and do what I do?”
“How can you consider yourself an expert? You haven’t done as many murder cases as I have.” (Actual quote from an older investigator to one of the best criminal investigators I know.)
“I’ve spent years learning how to research, why would I dream of helping someone take my business?”
These attitudes are shortsighted. I like the idea of giving freely and openly, without any specific agenda. A gift of time, information, or friendship-sweat-equity, throwing in a few extra hours to help make a friend or colleague’s life easier.
True professionals...know that helping other amazing people reach their goals is the easiest way to maintain their position of influence.
Seth Godin says, “Sending someone a gift over the transom isn’t a gift, it’s marketing. Gifts have to be truly given, not given in anticipation of a repayment.”
The winner, the gal who is seen as the leader in her industry, is often the one who freely trains and advises. The winner, the guy who owns the most successful company, is often the one who has time to grab a coffee. The winner, the boss who is a true leader, is often the one who encourages you to create your own business.
Winners, and true professionals, are not afraid of losing. They know that helping other amazing people reach their goals is the easiest way to maintain their position of influence. And they honestly enjoy lending a hand.
Pay attention to the leaders in your community. Church, industry, rotary, chamber of commerce, whatever — the leaders, the ones who stand out, are always giving. And in this case, giving is taking the time to share your expertise. Publish an article, teach a course, and speak to the defense lawyer’s association. Get yourself out there in front of clients and peers, and tell your story.
These three easy steps are things you can start doing today to increase your professional profile.
Dress the part of a professional. I know we chose this industry for its freedom, out of our need to operate independently, our mutual mistrust of “bosses.” But the fact is, if you want to be professional, someone to be taken seriously, you need to look like a serious professional.
Get credentialed. Take some time and effort and research a few professional organizations. Get designated. Finish up that college degree. Educate yourself.
Share what you know. Speak to the local chamber of commerce. Give a lunchtime presentation to the local lawyer’s association. Teach a class about your expertise. Give, freely and openly.
The bottom line: We’re all part of a strong group of professionals who genuinely care about the industry, and we encourage you to get involved. Join the discussion about what it means to be a professional investigator — in the comments thread, as a PursuitMag contributor, on your business blog or Facebook page, wherever…just help us keep the conversation going.