Imagine being on the other side of a domestic surveillance—something I’d never considered before my wife suspected me of infidelity.
That experience made me rethink how we PIs sell our services.
I cheated on my wife…or so she thought. And I learned more about the PI industry in one day than I had in my last eight years as an investigator. Honestly, I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Really. But looking at it from my wife’s perspective, I had to admit—all the signs of infidelity were there: late-night phone calls, out of town stays, private conversations, strange bills and purchases.
The only thing missing was an actual affair.
D-Day in the Roel House
My wife and I are going strong in our fourth year of marriage. She’s seen it all, from fraudulent claims and insurance scams to deadbeat parents and cheating spouses. Throughout my marriage, I’ve taught her the red flags in workers’ compensation claims, top hints at deception, and the key signs of extramarital affairs.
What I didn’t teach her were the exceptions to every rule. I didn’t teach her the methods to identifying these exceptions through proper consultation practices. Looking back today, I’m glad I didn’t. Even though my nightmare started on a Thursday morning and ended 10 hours later with a bruised ego, I learned more about the investigations industry than I’d ever learned in the past eight years of my career.
It started a few weeks before, when I scheduled a meeting with a female client…and accidentally double-booked it with a date with my wife. In case you didn’t already know, having to tell your wife that you can’t see her because another woman is on your agenda does not make for a great dinner conversation.
Going out of town for several days at a time and leaving the house at midnight to make it to a surveillance the next morning didn’t add supporting evidence of loyalty to my case, either. Add a few private conversations behind closed doors, strange receipts, a 10:00 pm talk with this same client for a little over two hours, and you have yourself the recipe for disaster.
I’m sure you’ve seen the signs that I’m talking about. You may even have a page dedicated to “top signs of a cheating spouse” on your own website. From a marketing perspective, this is great. From a moral perspective, these signs are misleading in more ways than one. (It’s like reading a list of DSM symptoms and diagnosing yourself with schizophrenia.)
But honestly, you don’t really need that page when you have a distressed person on the phone looking for your services. I can guarantee you that on D-Day (the night you can safely say s*** hit the fan in the Roel residence), if my wife had contacted a private investigator, she wouldn’t have needed to review the signs She was ready for business.
That day, I was my own client—proving my innocence to the person I loved the most.
Seeing my wife’s reaction to the red flags was scary. But what scared me the most is that she is not a jealous person…so obviously, I’d done something to push that boundary line a little too far. Sometimes, as private investigators, we don’t have to prove a person is guilty; we have to prove a person is innocent. That day, I was my own client—proving my innocence to the person I loved the most.
What If My Wife Had Called a PI?
After the storm passed and everything returned to normal, I started thinking about the different scenarios that could have taken place that night:
1. If my wife called a private investigator, how would that conversation have gone?
2. How much would he really have to say to convince her that surveillance was not only advisable, but necessary for her peace of mind?
3. Would he advise her about the hidden costs of surveillance and give advice about how to protect her marriage in case her inklings were misunderstandings?
4. What if she had mentioned that I was a private investigator? Would they have pieced the puzzle together? Would they have taken on the classic “PI v/s PI” challenge?
As a private investigator, I felt extremely uncomfortable with the idea of my wife calling a fellow investigator. I didn’t trust his “free consultation,” primarily because I thought about what I, or anyone, might have said to her in order to make a quick dollar.
Most consultations are 30-minute sales calls in which you find out what kind of client (and situation) you’re dealing with. On D-Day, my wife was a perfect client: She had the money, she was in distress, and all the signs were there.
On D-Day, my wife was a perfect client: She had the money, she was in distress, and all the signs were there.
Eventually, I wanted to find the answer to my What Ifs. I called several investigative agencies and presented them with my D-Day scenario. Every one of them rushed through my consultation and were ready to get down to business within 15 minutes. The consultation periods all started with the same question: “Why do you think she’s cheating?” And immediately after hearing my scenario, the consultation moved straight to: “When is she going out again? Let’s take a basic retainer and follow her over the next couple of days.”
Perhaps the most shocking consultations came from three separate agencies that actually suggested less than reputable investigative tactics such as: “If she goes to a bar, we’ll send in one of our agents to try and make a move on her;” “We can install cameras in your home;” and “Let’s install a GPS tracker to see where she goes.”
After I dropped the PI bomb—“She’s a private investigator”—four of the agencies changed their tactics and increased their rate. (“She’s not our typical target, but we can work around it.”) And the other agencies either backed away altogether without an explanation or suggested I contact an attorney prior to conducting surveillance on her.
They didn’t want my wife finding out who they were.
Rethinking Our Sales Tactics
Not only were these tactics wrong, but not one of the agencies pieced the puzzle together. Not a single one of them offered a legitimate consultation, or tried to work out possible scenarios in which my signs could be wrong. To quote Sherlock Holmes: “When I’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how mad it might seem, must be the truth.”
During a consultation, our goal is not to sell a service to clients using classic gimmicks. Our goal is to deduct all the possible scenarios and identify whether our clients need the service to begin with…and then help them find a solution that best fits their needs.
Brian Willingham wrote a great piece about how the public perceives private investigators. Shady was among the top descriptions of a PI, and honest was dead smack at the bottom of the page. That night, I could not have agreed more with Willingham’s survey results.
Is this really what the private investigations industry is all about? Private investigators trying to profit from a person at his most vulnerable, no matter the fallout in a client’s life? That fine print at the bottom of the contract “We can’t guarantee the results of an investigation” can mean a lot of things—including “Haha, sucker!”
Apparently, it can also sometimes mean “We can’t guarantee the integrity with which we undertake an investigation.”
Is this really what the private investigations industry is all about? Private investigators trying to profit from a person at his most vulnerable, no matter the fallout in a client's life?
You can very easily scam clients out of $2,500, especially when they’re in a moment of weakness. They’ll never come back, but you’ll have $2,500 in the bank. OR you can offer a legitimate consultation to screen prospective clients, help build long-lasting relationships, and establish trust. They may not use you for the investigation today, but they will keep your number on speed-dial for other people.
If you’re good at what you do, your name will get around. Sure, you may have to turn down a couple of cases a month, but at the end of it all, you’ll be taking true and legitimate cases that have merit. These are the cases that help you build a reputation as an investigator that can get results.
Sure. It’s tempting to take a distraught client’s check without asking too many questions. But if you do so without a thorough and honest consultation, you may just be wasting his money, and investigating a dark suspicion that’s most likely a misunderstanding (perhaps, due to a boneheaded scheduling mistake, as in my case).
Ask yourself this: If you were in the same position that I was, and your marriage depended on it, would you trust your spouse calling your company? If the answer is “no,” then why should anyone else?