PI's: Managing Difficult Clients
At one time or another, all private investigators have encountered a client that is difficult to manage. Notice the word "manage". Clients that call constantly for updates, their expectations exceed their fiscal resources, or those that do not accept the factual results of an investigation can be challenging to deal with. Disclaimer: We have learned there is no one technique or method that will always work.
As a private investigator you must manage your clients to ensure you are providing the best investigative services. Managing a clients expectations is a two phase process: 1. Prior to the investigation; and 2. During the investigation. (We've found that phase 1 is often the most important)
1. Prior to the investigation - Prevention is the best management technique for any private investigator. Taking preventative steps, prior to the investigation, will help reduce the chances of conflict with the most difficult of clients.
First, gain a clear understanding of the investigation to use in developing a clear investigative estimate. Investing the time to gather the information during the intake phase of an investigation will allow you to identify any potential areas where the client may have unrealistic expectations. Listen for verbal clues for example when the client says; "It's obvious they are cheating", "It's a simple case that shouldn't take long". Warning - if it is "obvious" or "it's a simple case..." then they don't really need your services. This is often they attempt to reduce the costs of the investigation.
Second, write a clear investigative scope statement for the contract. Review it with the client and of course have them sign acknowledging the statement. This will assist you in the event they refuse to pay. When discussing the investigative scope be careful what you say. Stick to the content of the statement. Making comments like, "Of course we will take extra steps where needed", Or, "This is just a formality." Will only add to the client's expectations. If you have investigators working for you, make sure they understand to stick to the scope of the investigation.
Third, develop a communications plan. Identify a schedule for providing the client with updates as to your progress. It may be once a week, once a month, whatever the schedule make it reasonable for both you and the client.
2. During the investigation - One guiding principle we always encourage investigators to consider during an investigation is to, "Under promise and over deliver." Using this principle, your client should be happier with your response to their investigation, for example if you promise to update them weekly, but call them twice a week you are exceeding their expectations. Another example of this principle is identifying the time line for your investigation. Most client complaints are it took too long to complete. So if you feel it should only take a week to complete, consider setting a goal of two weeks. This allows for those unexpected occurrences such as illness, or being unable to schedule interviews.
With these ideas in mind, following are some specific ideas from private investigators in dealing with a few types of difficult client's:
- Client that calls a-lot - One investigator explains their approach - "When I start receiving multiple calls from a client, outside of the communication plan, I'm always professional and always take their calls. You never know when they may have information that can assist with the investigation. If they are only calling for updates, then I politely refer them to the communications plan. Like, "I don't have any additional information at this time. I will update you on such-and-such date as we agreed. That will allow me time to further develop information."
- The "add-ons" client - An investigator has a great way for handling the client, that once the scope has been agreed upon, they call and want the investigator to do more. This investigator, when talking to the client, offers to revise the investigative scope statement then provide them with an estimate for the additional cost. She shared, "Some clients sign the contract then either they think of things later they want done, or think of how the investigation should be conducted either by talking with friends or colleagues. I had one client that got ideas on what I should be doing by watching crime shows. When I explain it would increase their costs and require a revision to the contract they often decline."
- "You're not doing anything!" - The most difficult client to deal with is the one that is almost never happy with your investigation. They feel you are not fast enough, or you are not completing the investigation appropriately. (This can include the "add-on" type client as well) One private investigator shares the harsh realities of managing this type of client - "If early in the investigation I realize that I am dealing with a client that will never be happy I consider terminating the contract. It's hard to give up the opportunity to make money, some returns are not worth the challenges. If I decide to terminate the contract I explain to the client that I may not be able to meet their needs or expectations then offer suggestions of other investigators that might be able to help them. Sometimes they calm down and listen to me, others will take me up on the offer to release them from the contract. I always bill them for the time and offer to share the information I have gathered with the new investigator. This helps protect my firms reputation, and avoid spending an inordinate amount of time fighting with the client."
One investigator offers the best advice for dealing with any difficult client - "I always practice empathy with my client's. I mostly deal with divorce types of investigations and receiving numerous calls, or having upset clients about the progress in an investigation is routine. I try to put myself in their place - realizing they are emotionally involved, totally wrapped up in the investigation. I often find I am as much a sounding board for them, like a counselor, as much as an investigator."
As a private investigator you can never completely avoid the difficult client. In some cases you may even stop the investigation when the difficulties outweigh the potential risks to your firms reputation. Thinking proactively, in a preventative fashion during the intake phase and carefully responding to a difficult client during the investigation can help you lessen the impacts of challenging clients. And, yes, sometimes you just have to listen.
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