It may sound crazy to convince a potential client that he doesn’t need my services.
But sometimes, that’s exactly what an ethical PI should do.
As the owner of a private investigations company, I am always interested in finding new customers and developing new business relationships. What may seem strange to some, however, is that on a weekly basis I purposely turn potential clients away, by explaining to them that they really don’t need a private investigator.
Some of my colleagues think I’m crazy when I tell them this. “Your job is to provide the service they want and can pay for,” I’ve been told several times. But I have a completely different view.
When people call me about a personal or domestic issue, they are vulnerable. Something has gone wrong in their lives. When my phone rings and I hear that vulnerable voice on the line, I ask a lot of questions, and then I listen. Apparently, I have one of those voices that makes people feel comfortable sharing their deepest, darkest secrets, so I have learned to be a good listener. As they tell me their stories, my mind starts working on how I can help them.
What, exactly, is my job?
My job, and the reason I opened my company, is to help people. Sometimes, helping people and making money don’t always go hand in hand. That is a concept with which I am extremely comfortable.
A few months back, I got a call from a woman in another state 1,000 miles away. She and an ex-fiancé had a messy break-up; he’d walked out on her while they were vacationing together. Thinking everything was wonderful, she came back from a walk on the beach to find he had packed up and left her there. She was about to quit her job, move to another country, and marry him. From that moment on, he wanted to have nothing to do with her, would not speak to her or take her calls…nothing.
Fast forward two years, and she finds us on the Web and calls. She explains the whole story to me, and then I ask her what she wants us to do. She asks me to arrange a “chance encounter” with her ex to give her an opportunity to talk with him and get closure on the relationship.
At this point, I have a desperate woman on the phone who is more than ready to pay my fee online right then. So what do I do? Close the deal? No. I already know that I will not do what she wants. So I could end the conversation right then.
Instead, I start asking her more questions. Why do you want to talk with him? Why wouldn’t he talk with you for the last two years? Why do you think he will now? After more lengthy conversation, I tell her that I will not do what she suggests, and I explain why: in short, her behavior is bordering on stalker-ish, and that I have an ethical obligation to protect her, the potential subject, and my company.
I told her that if she were my friend, I would advise her not to do this.
“Don’t PI’s do stuff like this?” she asks me. I tell her that I’m sure she can find a private investigator in my city who will take the case. But I explain why she should not go through with this, based on the information she has already given me.
In retrospect, I feel ethically comfortable with the alternative solution I suggested, even though she didn’t end up pursuing it: I told her that I could find her ex and talk with him, explain that she had hired me because she would like to talk with him one last time, and arrange for that to happen, IF he was willing. However, I would not give her the details of where he lived, or his routine, or his contact info, unless he gave the okay.
I could have easily “closed the deal” on this scenario if I had wanted to, but I didn’t really want to handle things this way, either. Based on everything she had told me, this guy was never going to agree to talk with her. I told her that if she were my friend, I would advise her not to do this. She needed to focus on her own issues, to feel good about herself, and not spend any more time focusing on a jerk who left her stranded in a hotel room on vacation.
What would you tell your best friend?
I gave her the same counsel that I would want someone to give my friends and loved ones if they ever made such a call. I spent almost an hour on the phone with her. At the end of the conversation, she thanked me for helping her think it through, and for not letting her do something rash and unproductive.
I received another call from a man who was convinced that his wife was cheating on him. Sounds like the bread and butter of a PI, right? They were newlyweds, and things already were not going well. While there were some nuances to the situation, his wife was essentially a mail-order bride, and he suspected that she was using him to get into this country and establish legal residency.
After another lengthy conversation, it was obvious that he already knew she was not in love with him. He had plenty of clues that he was a means to an end. Because of where they lived, his working arrangements, and her situation, surveillance was going to be expensive, require multiple investigators and many hours, and very likely be unproductive in producing any tangible proof that was more convincing than what he already had.
It would have been a cash cow of a gig, and he was ready to hire us right away, because he was about to leave town on business. Instead, I gave him a few ideas for things he could do on his own, and I suggested we talk again in a week or two.
He called back a couple of weeks later, again, to thank me for being so helpful, and for making suggestions instead of pushing the surveillance angle…which, as I suspected, would not have produced the result he wanted.
A Higher Bar
As I said before, when people call a private investigator for help, they are vulnerable. Nobody calls us because everything is wonderful in his or her life. Something unfortunate has happened or is going terribly wrong. They are worried, afraid, or grieving.
When people are at their most vulnerable, we have a responsibility to treat them with respect, kindness, and compassion. We are all in business to make a living, but I am just more comfortable doing it without taking advantage of someone who’s highly susceptible to being manipulated.
Don’t misunderstand: We do take surveillance and cheating spouse cases. But when we do, I want to know that we are working to help our clients resolve a specific issue and gather important information, with the goal of improving their situation in practical and measurable ways.
Saying "no" to clients who are better off not hiring a PI will make you feel like a better human being.
When I opened my business, one of my stated goals was that I wanted to help people. Sure, turning away business for reasons of ethics or personal preference may not always be a financially prudent thing to do. Some people, including some investigators, think I am crazy. But I would encourage you to think about it seriously.
While it may not improve your bottom line in the short term, saying “no” to clients who are better off not hiring a PI will make you feel like a better human being. We are licensed professionals, entrusted with access to a lot of sensitive information, and we regularly encounter people at their most vulnerable.
Our standard needs to be higher than, “How much money can I make doing this?” The standard needs to be “How can I best help this person?” Some days, it is by convincing them they should not hire us at all.
Keith Owens is founder of Owens Investigations, a family private investigations firm in Irving, TX. You can follow him on Twitter @dallaspi.