For self-employed private investigators, asking clients to sign a contract up front may save you a costly dispute in the future.
by Francis L. Hunter
Do you remember the famous 1970s FRAM commercial, where a tired mechanic pleads with his customers to change their oil filters periodically so he won’t have to overhaul their engines down the road? “The choice is yours,” he says, coated with grease and exasperation. “You can pay me now or pay me later.”
Sure, that commercial was about selling FRAM oil filters. But it was also about preventative maintenance: actions you take to help prevent future problems. Good mechanics and conscientious vehicle owners know that spending a few bucks on regular service helps prevent expensive repairs in the future.
For the self-employed private investigator, preventative maintenance is all about clear communication with clients—managing their expectations, avoiding mission creep, and preparing them for the very real possibility that you won’t find what they’re looking for.
I’ve found that contracts are one of the best strategies for avoiding a client-PI relationship overhaul down the road.
When I first became a private investigator, I didn’t like the idea of having my clients sign a contract. I worried that they might take it as an imposition and feel that I did not trust them. I thought it was a sure way to lose clients and money.
And then, The Big Burn happened.
The Paranoid Client
I had a client to whom I quoted a very fair hourly rate. We agreed on terms, and I did some additional work for him that I never billed him for. I was going on the premise that if you treat the client well, they will return the favor in kind.
That is not what happened.
Call me naïve and green, because I was.
The client was recommended to me by a law enforcement co-worker who said he didn’t know the fellow well but that he seemed a little strange. Maybe that should have been my first clue.
The case involved a bug sweep of a home, a barn that had been converted into an office, and the client’s Maserati. He was sure he was being watched and possibly followed. (Maybe that should have been the second clue.) We conducted thorough sweeps with the client present and found no listening or video recording devices on the property; but when we scanned the client’s sports car, the bug sweeper emitted a continuous beep, indicating a possible device behind the dashboard. I suggested that the client hire a qualified mechanic to dismantle the dash. I told him I could be present at the mechanic’s shop when this was done, to recover any devices that might be found.
The client was sure persons unknown were riding by his home and possibly coming onto his property, with intent to harm to him or damage his vehicle or home.
For reasons known only to the client, he did not elect to follow my suggestion. He did, however, firmly believe that there were other devices that the sweep had missed. In addition to the bug sweep, the client also wanted nighttime surveillance—he was sure persons unknown were riding by his home and possibly coming onto his property, with intent to harm to him or damage his vehicle or home. I asked him if he knew of any specific people or vehicles that might be surveilling him, and he said he did not (the third clue).
I assigned one of my senior investigators to conduct surveillance from 6:00 pm until 9:00 pm. The investigator reported a number of vehicles passing by the client’s residence and even observed one Chevy pickup truck (with two occupants) stop in front of the client’s residence momentarily; no one got out of the vehicle. The truck left after about two minutes. The investigator could not see the license plate number because the plate was not illuminated.
The investigator told our client that he hadn’t seen anyone who appeared to be casing the residence or who acted in any suspicious manner. The client replied that was not happy with our services because we had not caught anyone, and that he would contact me to discuss the matter.
The Big Burn
The client telephoned me to express his dissatisfaction. In our initial conversation, I’d cautioned to him that we could not guarantee any specific outcomes—we can’t control what people do or don’t do on our watch. During our somewhat heated phone call, I reiterated this and told him that I felt my investigator had done excellent work.
He told me he owned an advertising business, and if clients were unhappy he would give them their money back. “You advertise that you have competent, experienced agents,” he said. But as far as he was concerned, our agent was neither competent nor experienced—because he hadn’t found what the client wanted him to find.
I attempted to reason with him, but he was having none of it.
While I didn’t agree that the service performed by my agent was of an inferior nature, I offered the client half of his retainer back. He became irate and demanded I give him all of his money back. I couldn’t believe it. But I felt that it was bad for business to get into a war of words with a client who might go out and trash our agency.
Even though I’d already paid my investigator for his work, I returned the full retainer. Our agency motto is We Are Not Happy Until You Are. He was not happy, so I returned his money. While I knew we’d done nothing wrong, I’d rather not give ammunition to a disgruntled client to speak negatively about us.
The takeaway: I should have known better than to pursue a case without signing a contract first; but those horses were already long gone from the corral … as they say.
I thought things over at the ole corral and made a Big Decision.
The Big Decision
Obviously, I had to change my thinking and my actions if I wanted different outcomes. It was too late to round up “them horses” when it came to my dissatisfied client; but maybe I could shut the gate, so to speak, with regard to future client interactions.
I had some consultation with myself before my next consultation with a client. In this new vision of mine, The Contract might just be a way to lock down some things with a client in the beginning. A legal agreement up front could serve as a kind of preventative maintenance.
I vowed to be a little less naïve and green next time around.
My next decision was what the contract should include. Google “PI contracts,” and you’ll find a world of information out there. But since I’m a big believer in networking, I placed a few calls. Several PIs I’d worked with and gotten to know well offered good ideas.
After some trial and error, I put together a contract that seemed fair for clients and good for our agency. Since then I’ve made changes to improve the document and make it more client-friendly.
The Consultation with the Client
As many of you do, I offer clients a no-fee consultation. I listen to their story, which helps me determine their desired result in an investigation. We discuss all points thoroughly to make sure we have a mutual understanding.
If they decide to retain me, I go over each section of the contract to make sure they agree. If they have any questions, we continue the discussion until those questions are answered to their satisfaction.
Next, we both sign the contract, and I give them a copy.
The Forgetful Client Change-Up
Sometimes the client appears to have a lapse in memory during the course of the investigation. They get unhappy about the progress or results of the investigation at a given point and may say we are not delivering on what we promised.
I always explain to them during the initial consultation that we cannot guarantee results; we can only guarantee to give every client’s investigation our very best efforts. I assure them we will handle their case like it was our own case being investigated.
Usually, when we look at the contract again together, the problem gets resolved. We do not have to defend ourselves or our agency. The contract speaks for us and settles the matter.
We have been in business since 2011, and to date, we have not had any litigation directed at us. In the event that we do, I believe our contract with the client will be our best friend.
The Contract or No-Contract Choice
The decision to use a contract or not rests with the head of each agency. I’ve been on both sides of the contract fence, but one good costly burn by a client helped settle the decision for me.
Since making the decision to go the contract route, it’s the rare case when I do NOT require a client to sign a contract. Each time I take that approach, I know that I stand a chance of being the recipient of another burn. For that reason, those instances are few and far between.
Finally, if a client asks me why I require them to sign a contract, I tell them truthfully: It is a good business practice, one that protects both them and our agency. Most seem satisfied, and we usually end up being retained by the client.
A retainer: Now, that is a subject for another article.
About the author:
Francis L. Hunter began his career in law enforcement in 1967 as a patrol officer. He has worked as an arson investigator, major crimes detective, and a pre-employment background investigator for the Ocala Police Department in Ocala, FL. In 2010, he became a licensed private investigator and opened his own agency, Francis L. Hunter Investigations, the following year. As a sworn officer, Hunter was recognized for mentoring new recruits; as a private investigator, he has continued that work by training several PI interns.