How to Give Good Phone: Investigative Interview Techniques and Tips for Private Investigators
As an in-house investigator with a New York law firm specializing in securities, antitrust, and consumer protection litigation, a lot of my cases involve identifying, locating, and interviewing potential witnesses. Because many of them live far from NYC, I can’t always interview them in person.
The process works like this: Once we identify a witness, we do an extensive pre- screening to determine whether he meets our legal and ethical guidelines, and whether his knowledge or experience is relevant to our investigation. After that, I usually make initial contact the old-fashioned way: by picking up the phone
It’s never easy (or ideal) to cold-call a potential witness. The first call may be awkward. You might reach the subject at an inopportune, time, or she may initially be hesitant to speak openly about sensitive information with a stranger, especially one who identifies him/herself as an “investigator”). But in my experience, most folks I call are intelligent, well-spoken, and (often) eager to speak freely about what they know.
Although I do occasionally encounter people who are unwilling to talk to me remotely, I’ve had plenty of successes over the last 12 years by simply picking up the phone. Given the nature of our cases, most witnesses are more comfortable speaking with me from the comfort of their home or office. Even though the people I call may never have met me (and may not be aware of our investigation), most are willing to help and share their observations or sentiments freely.
Remember, these interviews are not interrogations. Generally speaking, the witnesses we contact are not under suspicion.
With that in mind, here are a few pointers to guide my fellow sleuths through the process of cold-calling and interviewing potential witnesses:
Before you pick up the phone, know the facts of the case, the players involved, and the pertinent questions you hope to get answered. It’s also critical to properly vet a potential witness before dialing, to estimate when may be the best time to reach that person and through what channel (i.e., home, work, cell).
Of course, there’s no way to know whether the subject is tied up in unexpected meetings or visiting a sick relative out of state. The key is to be patient, sympathetic, and respectful of witnesses’ time, throughout the process. These are likely busy people with families and responsibilities, and you need to be flexible enough to work around their schedules.
2. Build rapport.
Don’t be surprised if a witness you’ve just cold-called is initially hesitant or wary. After all, you’ve just caught her off guard. You’re a stranger calling, identifying yourself as an investigator seeking information.
When you identify yourself, be as open and forthright as possible, explain why you’re calling, and share any information you may have that prompted you to call. In my experience, I’ve found that the more comfortable and informed subjects are, the more they will trust you and the more forthright their responses will most likely be.
3. Be a human.
No matter the focus of your investigation, remember that you are, quite simply, having a conversation with another person, asking for her help, and trying to learn something that you didn’t know prior to picking up the phone. Reciting a prepared script or reading from pages of direct questions will only distance you from the person you’re calling and distract you from listening to her answers.
If you sound like a robo-call, the witness may begin to feel as if she’s on the witness stand. Keep your questions brief and your delivery natural. Make this a conversation, not an interrogation. Ask open-ended questions that prompt the witness to tell you a story, rather than asking for lists of facts and figures. (e.g., “So, why don’t you tell me more about your former position with XYZ Company….how did things begin to change before you left?”)
This may seem obvious, but studies have shown that most of us don’t listen as well as we think we do. Fatigue, multi-tasking, and mental drifting can affect our cognitive ability to fully listen to responses, which means the conversation breaks down.
If an interviewer isn’t listening carefully, he’s not really digesting the information being shared, and he’s not fully participating in the conversation. He may miss a contradiction in the witness’ answers, and he’s also likely to miss those important details that might help him develop effective follow-up questions.
Even if the answers may seem off-topic, it’s important to let the person respond fully and further develop his/her rapport with you. Remember, the more time you initially spend on the phone with the subject, the more likely the person may agree to follow-up interviews down the road.
However, if time is limited on either side or the subject appears to be discussing something that’s not relevant to your case, it’s OK to gently interrupt and “nudge” the person back on track.
When it comes to careful listening, phone interviews can be more challenging than in-person conversations—you lose the advantages of visual contact and/or the possibility of watching for physical changes that might indicate deceptive responses. That’s why vigilance is doubly important during telephone interviews. You’ll have to listen carefully—to what is said, and also to what isn’t. Not only a witness’ responses, but also his pauses, and changes in the tone of his voice may lend a hand in detecting deceptive responses…and may confer important information.
Although some situations call for an in-person interview, there are many instances in which an investigator must interview witnesses by phone. In those situations, establishing rapport up front dramatically increases the probability of a successful interview.
Ultimately, the goal of any interview is to extract information that will assist our investigations. By paying attention to certain details, the telephone, Skype, or any other means of remote communication can be productive tools in the investigator’s arsenal.
About the Author:
Kevin M. Cosgrove is a New York State private investigator and Certified Fraud Examiner with 15 years of experience investigating major financial, corporate and insurance-related fraud cases in the private sector. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via LinkedIn.